Monday, June 29, 2009

The Omaha World-Herald takes its revenge

JULY 6: There is now an update to this post available here:

Two stories. Same subject. Same reporter. One is a finely-nuanced portrait. The other is an act of vengeance. It's more evidence that, to paraphrase one the best media critics I know, Hell hath no fury like a newspaper that thinks it's been suckered.

It's all fallout from the safe-haven law in Nebraska. A recap: Every state has a law allowing parents to surrender their newborns to authorities, no questions asked. The limits on how old the infant can be vary from state to state. But in Nebraska, the original law allowed parents to surrender children up to age 18. And that's exactly what more than two dozen desperate parents and guardians did, until the Nebraska legislature closed the loophole late last year.

One of the most compelling stories to emerge from the safe haven debacle was that of the Staton family; Gary, his wife RebelJane and their ten children.

Much about this case is undisputed. The oldest child, now 19, was from RebelJane's first marriage. Gary adopted her and raised her as his own.

Gary worked, apparently whenever he could get a job, given his limited skills. When the tragedy that led him to use the safe haven law struck, he was earning $10.75 an hour as a machinist.

RebelJane wanted a lot of children, but apparently, she raised them well. They're polite and well-mannered. While some are a little behind in school, most excel.

Story #1

According to a 2,200-word in-depth profile of the family that originally ran in the Omaha World-Herald on March 29 (not June 28, as the World-Herald website says):

RebelJane Staton ruled her home as strongly as her name implies.
While Gary Staton brought home a paycheck, Rebel paid the bills, arranged for food stamps and sometimes found temporary jobs.
She grounded the kids when they brought home bad grades and assigned book work to help them improve. For three years, she home-schooled a few.

Nevertheless, in 2004, they fell behind on the bills, the gas was shut off, the home became filthy – and, of course, the children were taken away. This is, after all, Nebraska, which, year after year, takes away children at one of the highest rates in the nation. Ultimately, the state did chip in a little for rent and utilities, and nine months later the children were returned to their intact, married, two-parent family, in which all of the children were born in wedlock.

Then, suddenly, after 17 years of marriage, and shortly after giving birth to the tenth child, RebelJane died. Gary was left desperate, distraught and overwhelmed. He was too proud to turn to his own family for help, and either too proud or too afraid to turn to the government – especially given what the government had done to the family a few years before.

Not that there had been no government assistance over the years. According to the March 29 World-Herald story:

With an income tax refund sitting in the bank, Gary received permission from his employer in June to leave work to get his life together.

Come September, money was dwindling. Bills were due. The family received $900 a month in food stamps and $250 a month in Social Security benefits for seven of the nine children, but it wasn't enough and the family was close to getting evicted.

Gary filled out job applications at his old workplace, but he never heard back. He was too proud to ask Rebel's large extended family for help.
Though state officials calculated that the family had received almost $800,000 in different forms of government aid, including more than $600,000 in food stamps, Gary didn't check into subsidized housing or other aid once he was out of work.

"I could have gone and asked the state for help, but I didn't," he said. "There was no place for me and the kids to go and we were just too many. It would have been crazy just trying to fit all of us in."

About that time, he heard news reports that people were dropping off kids at area hospitals, invoking the safe haven law and facing no criminal penalty.

This comes about half-way into a story that paints a picture of the family in all its complexity. The story talks about how the oldest child became a surrogate mother to the family, how Gary found a new girlfriend a year after RebelJane died, how this pleased the oldest child but upset some of the others but how, nevertheless, all the members of the family still loved and cared about each other. The story describes how, after Gary invoked the safe haven law, seven of the children were placed with RebelJane's aunt and the oldest two with foster parents, and how Gary ultimately gave up parental rights but still kept in touch with the children. The story talked about how he did not regret his decision because he was sure "It's the best thing I could do for them." Toward the very end, the story noted that Staton decided having more children was out of the question.

For the World-Herald it was a return to the kind of excellent journalism that characterized its coverage of the safe haven problem – (the coverage collapsed when the time came to look at solutions.)

The story was no puff piece. If you want to draw much harsher conclusions about Gary Station than I did, the material is there – and, indeed, the headline on a follow up story characterizes the response as ranging from "approval" to "contempt." The story gives readers the context they need to render a judgment without making the judgment for them.

Story #2

But three months later, things had changed.

If the first story suggested that, perhaps, Gary should have sought more help from the government, a story that ran yesterday took a very different tack.

Now, Gary Staton, overwhelmed, hapless father who had, perhaps made some bad judgments, becomes Gary Staton, welfare king. This time, the dollar figures were the principal focus of the front-page "World-Herald exclusive" that led the Sunday paper. They were the subject of the headline, they were at the top of the story, they took up more than one-fourth of the story – and they were taken out of context:

Since the Staton children were young, the family has received $995,468 in different forms of government aid, including more than $600,000 in food stamps and $109,774 in Medicaid, according to Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services records.

Only much, much farther down in the story do we learn the ages of the children. Then a reader who was so inclined could pull out a calculator, do the math himself and find out that this huge total dollar figure probably comes down to about $169 per child per week. And little or none of it was for "welfare as we knew it." It went to give the children health care and put more food on the table than Staton could afford on his machinist's pay. A lot of the rest probably was Social Security survivor benefits a fact mentioned in the first story, but not the second.

Or, to put it another way, all of the public money spent to help this married man and his wife raise their in-wedlock children over 18 years is less than one bonus paid to one of the financial industry parasites who helped plunge our entire economy into chaos. (And we really can't say "yes, but that's not government money" anymore, now can we?)

But the reporter isn't done yet. Now there's a new issue of government money that the same reporter saw no need to mention before:

The children were placed in foster care after their father left them. Under the latest figures available, the state paid an average $725 a month per child to foster parents in similar situations.
Staton has given up custody of his seven youngest children. They remain in foster care with their mother's aunt, who hopes to adopt them. The two oldest boys were in foster care until last month, when a 75-year-old Omaha woman was approved to be their guardian.

Both women are eligible for adoption and guardianship subsidies. Parents who adopt state wards may apply to receive Medicaid health insurance and a monthly maximum subsidy of $1,490 per child until the child turns 18.

Why, suddenly, the righteous wrath about foster care and adoption subsidies for the great aunt? Strangers would get the same amounts. (In fact if RebelJane's aunt is not a licensed foster parent, she may not even be getting what the World-Herald thinks she's getting.) And why, all of a sudden, are subsidized adoptions a problem? Would the World-Herald be happier if Madonna had adopted the children and gotten the same subsidy (they are paid without regard to income, and odds are, RebelJane's aunt needs the money more.)

An extra dose of humiliation

To what can we attribute this outpouring of journalistic indignation? Apparently it all goes back to that line at the end of the first story where Staton says he's not going to have any more children.

He changed his mind.

As noted above, the story was the lead on page one of the Sunday paper, under the heading "World- Herald Exclusive." The headline itself said: "Man who dropped off 9 kids now dad-to-be; While Gary Staton's girlfriend is pregnant, the safe haven wards are with caregivers eligible for state aid." They also threw in an unflattering photo.

How dare he????? The nerve! The gall! Conceiving another child while still poor. And after he said he wouldn't. Everybody knows only middle-class people should be allowed to procreate, right?

Indeed, that may explain this line which turns up in the story right after the detailed enumeration of taxpayer costs:

After Staton's newest child is born, the state cannot remove it from his custody unless there is evidence that the child is in danger, said Brenda Beadle, Douglas County chief deputy county attorney.

And the problem with that is?

It also explains a final bit of humiliation for Gary Staton at the very end of the story. The story returns to his earlier promise to have no more children, but this time the reporter uses a quote from her original interview with Staton in March that she did not feel was needed in her first story. Story #2 ends this way:

"If I had a thousand dollars," [Staton] said "I'd get fixed."
Staton declined to be interviewed for this newer story – wisely, from the look of it. But he did make this point in an e-mail to the newspaper: "Do you think I'm going to raise this one alone?"

The fact is, there probably are thousands of other families across America with similar arrangements. Dad becomes depressed after the first wife dies; he can't cope. Then, a year later, another woman enters his life. That causes stress in the household. So a caring relative moves in to help – or the children go live with the relative while dad stays in touch. But it's all done informally, out of the public eye. Even if the relative ultimately becomes a kinship foster parent, it's still likely to stay private.

So yes, Gary Staton blundered by invoking the safe haven law. But that's no excuse for what the World-Herald just did to him – and to his children.

Was there cause for a story? Yes. The first story prompted some sympathy for Staton, along with some contempt. You can draw all sorts of conclusions about Gary Staton's decision to have another child, including conclusions far harsher than mine. Having opened the door with the story in March, there is an obligation to tell people the rest and let them draw their own conclusions.

But a story somewhere in the metro section that reported the fact that Staton had conceived another child, reaction from family and friends and Staton's comment in the e-mail - in short, the story the World-Herald published, but without the hysterical headline and the huge section high up about tax money which read like they added by Fox News – would have been fine. It would have been enough to inform anyone who wanted to withdraw sympathy from Gary Staton; while reducing the chances that Staton and his new girlfriend will be deluged with hate mail – and that the children will be ridiculed at school this week. (The children are not named, but it's hard to believe their neighbors and classmates don't know who they are.)

That also makes this story a setback for all of us who have crusaded for opening court hearings and records in these cases. Most of the time, the press shows admirable restraint in these situations while advancing the public good; the World Herald's own coverage of the safe haven families – until now - being a fine example. But every exception, however rare, is more fodder for those who want to use secrecy to cover up their own far more common, far more egregious failings.

The journalist's worst fear

So what in the world is this really all about? It's not really about Gary Staton or his children. Based on my 19 years of experience as a reporter, I'd say it's really about a newspaper that feels suckered – and, specifically, a reporter who feels betrayed, a reporter who thinks she was made to look naïve in front of her colleagues. Or maybe it wasn't a reporter, but some editor who demanded this kind of story. Either way, nothing – nothing – is more mortifying to journalists than believing they have been made to look naive.

Ever wonder why so much political coverage is about strategy and tactics and so little about issues? Because covering issues is considered naïve (after all, they're politicians, they won't keep their word anyway, right?) Knowing the strategy, understanding who's up, who's down and who's likely to win this or that state – that's how you score points among your peers.

Why are there reporters who won't write a story about an initiative or program that seems successful – in any field, not just child welfare? Because if it turns out the program isn't what it's cracked up to be, the reporters are afraid they'll look naïve.

Of course the build 'em up, tear 'em down cycle also is a part of political reporting. But politicians crave the limelight and know what they're getting into. Newspapers ought to think twice before bringing down the full weight of their righteous wrath on a man who is maybe desperate, maybe hapless, maybe irresponsible, but definitely an awfully small target for so much front-page fury, especially when some of that fury may harm the children.

And, in the age of the internet, there is an extra reason to be extra careful about any story involving poor people having children. This is a particularly hot button for the virtual lynch mob – the despicable haters who fill the comment sections of newspaper websites under any story about poor people with vulgar demands for compulsory sterilization. The World-Herald does not post comments with its stories yet, but it's already started elsewhere, with one website calling Staton a "slimeball" and a "dirtbag." But then, that's essentially what the Omaha World-Herald did, with just a bit more subtlety.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Some children win protection from stripsearches – now if we could just take the next logical step…

By a vote of 8 to 1, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an unverified tip is not sufficient justification for school officials to stripsearch a student looking for drugs. The justices zeroed in on the fact that a stripsearch is a particularly traumatic experience for a child, so you really need to have something solid to go on before you inflict it on that child.

I'm sure my fellow liberals will be pleased, just as I am. But I'll bet some of them will be the same liberals who backed SB 1440, the Texas bill that would have run roughshod over children's Fourth Amendment rights in cases where the allegation was child abuse.

Though it didn't get much attention in the debate over SB 1440, all over the country, stripsearches just like the one that prompted the Supreme Court decision are a common part of child abuse investigations (CPS agencies prefer euphemisms like "visual inspection.") If the allegation is sexual abuse, the examination is likely to be a whole lot worse. And sadly, despite Gov. Rick Perry's veto of SB 1440, for families too poor to fight back, in Texas and everywhere else, their children can be stripsearched based on little more than a CPS worker's whim. Indeed, the issue arose in a Texas case just last month.

Defenders of unlimited CPS power will say child abuse investigations are different. They'll argue that in those cases, the people doing the searching are looking for bruises, not drugs, so they're doing it for the child's own good. (Of course, that's also what they say whenever they haul a child off to foster care.) But when school officials are stripsearching a student looking for drugs they're presumably doing it for the good of an entire school full of children, yet the Supreme Court still said no. And, of course, if the child has not been bruised – as is likely when there is no more than, say, an anonymous phone call alleging abuse -- then the only people who have hurt the child are the people who stripsearched her or him.

But the Supreme Court decision also showed, once again, that my fellow liberals don't have a monopoly on inconsistency. The only dissenter in the school stripsearching case was Justice Clarence Thomas.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Another reporter suckered by the myths of Mary Ellen (and an amazing number of other myths as well)

It's been nearly 20 years since my book about child welfare, Wounded Innocents was published (Prometheus Books, 1990, 1995). I began the chapter about the history of American child welfare with an attempt to debunk one of the most enduring, and pernicious, myths in the field. In fact, one might call it the creation myth of the entire modern child welfare establishment.

The mountain of myth is built upon a molehill of truth about Mary Ellen Wilson, a little girl who lived in New York City in the 1870s, who was repeatedly and brutally beaten. In court she testified to beatings by her "Mamma."

The first myth propounded by America's "child savers," as they proudly called themselves in the 19th Century, is that it required the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to intervene and seek protection of Mary Ellen as an animal.

To this day, I wrote in Wounded Innocents,

Child savers point to the case of Mary Ellen as a prime example of what life for children would be like without them. The case teaches us, they say, that parents cannot be allowed to control their children like property and that massive intervention is essential to protect "children's rights."

But if you know the real story of Mary Ellen, using it to justify the current system of massive coercive intervention into families becomes impossible.

For starters, though the head of the local SPCA did indeed call the case to the attention of the court, he did so as a prominent private citizen, not in his official capacity – and not by suggesting that Mary Ellen be protected as an animal.

But even more important, there's one vital part of the story the child savers, and the credulous reporters who love the Mary Ellen myth, almost always leave out:

Mary Ellen was a foster child.

The "mamma" who did her so much harm was her foster mother. Mary Ellen had been taken from her real mamma and placed with her abuser by the New York Board of Charities – which then failed to monitor her care.

As I wrote in the book:

The real lessons of Mary Ellen concern the inability of the state to be an effective parent, the risks of abuse in foster care, and the need to help parents – like Mary Ellen's real "mamma" – take care of their children. In short, the lesson of Mary Ellen is the lesson every doctor is taught in medical school: First, do no harm.

But a few inconvenient facts aren't going to quash a myth with such powerful visceral appeal – one that panders to all our middle-class rescue fantasies at once. So every generation of young, journalists seems to embrace it all over again. (And they're not alone, even one of the best reporters ever to cover these issues fell for this one, long ago.)

The latest example turned up earlier this year. I'm not going to name the reporter or the paper since there's no reason to pick on one, earnest, well-meaning reporter when so many have been fooled. But it was a classic. For her one and only identified source, the reporter relied on a local real estate agent and fiction writer who'd co-authored a book that accepted all the Mary Ellen mythology at face value. Based on this, the reporter declared that

Indeed, the head of an animal protection group helped rescue a child in the 1874 case that ignited the child protection movement. Advocates argued she deserved at least the rights of an animal. [The real estate agent/author] … said children were viewed as property and "it was about not interfering between a parent and a child." Uneasiness about government interference in families endured.

The reporter then turns to the local judge, whose comments over the years to not suggest overwhelming insight, but someone regarded by the local paper as wiser than Solomon himself. The judge tells the reporter that, in the reporter's words,

"liberty interests led to parents being allowed to raise children largely how they saw fit until as recently as the early 1970s."

Absolutely none of this is true. Mary Ellen's foster mother was convicted of felonious assault, not animal cruelty. New York City's first statute against child abuse dates to 1833. By 1874 thousands of New York City children, whose parents' primary crimes had been being poor and being immigrants, already had been taken from those parents and shipped out to the south and Midwest on so-called "orphan trains" - even though many of them were not orphans. And by the early 1970s, there were hundreds of thousands of children trapped in foster care on any given day.

Most important, of course, that little detail about Mary Ellen being a foster child is nowhere to be found in the reporter's account.

But it's how the reporter defended her account that would, I am sure, make at least one of my former journalism professors roll over in his grave. It's true, she wrote on the newspaper's website, because the American Humane Association says so. You know – American Humane, the animal rights group with a child saving arm – the close cousin of the SPCA. This is, of course, like saying "I know what the candidate said about his economic plan is true because his campaign office vouched for every word!" or "I know the drug is safe because the drug company flack told me so!"

But the mythology and hype didn't end with Mary Ellen. In fact, when it comes to misinformation-per-column-inch, this story is hard to top.

For instance, in keeping with the "we-treat-animals-better-than-children" theme, there's the return of this old chestnut: "Foster care board rates … are less than what it often costs to board a dog…" I dealt with that one in this previous post to the Blog.

And there are two big errors right in the lead, which reads: "More than 300 abused and neglected children lack voices in … County court. There are not enough volunteers."

Error number one: Just because a child has been brought to court – and even just because a child is in foster care does not mean that child is abused and neglected. It may mean only that a caseworker thinks the child may be abused and neglected and a judge is allowing the government to hold that child in foster care while everyone tries to find out. Saying that every child in foster care is "abused and neglected" is like saying everyone sitting in a jail is a criminal. Some are. But others are awaiting trial because they can't make bail.

The second error is the claim that those volunteer advocates are a voice for the child. They are not. In this state, as in most, the advocates advocate for whatever they think is best. If the child happens to agree, then the child has a voice. But if the child wants to go home and the advocate thinks it is in that child's "best interests" to remain in foster care (or if the child wants to stay in foster care and the advocate wants the child to go home) the child has no voice. Whether or not one believes this is as it should be (and I certainly don't) this is simply a blatant error of fact – one of many in a story riddled with misinformation and mythology.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A “child size” Bill of Rights

During the four days of non-stop television coverage after 9/11, there are many moments I will never forget. But the moment I remember most – and the moment when I was proudest to be an American - has no vivid images. It has not been replayed over and over on television.

It happened about two days in: Police in Boston had surrounded a hotel and were waiting to move in on rooms they thought might have been used by the terrorists. They waited and they waited. For awhile, no one could figure out why they weren't moving in. Then a reporter found out: They were waiting for a search warrant.

That was the moment I was proudest to be an American because that was the moment when we showed that, just days after the worst attack on American civilians in our history, we were determined to live our values, to use President Obama's phrase.

Of course that determination waned a lot in the years since. But at least my fellow liberals could be counted on to fight each new infringement on civil liberties. Of course, that's because those whose liberties were being infringed upon were accused merely of plotting to blow up buildings and airplanes and kill thousands of people. The big tactical blunder of Bush and Cheney was failing to whisper in liberals' ears the two magic words that get so many of them to abandon everything they claim to believe in. They failed to accuse all the people rounded up in the wake of 9/11 of – child abuse.

The most recent example of this liberal myopia: The desperate attempt by, mostly, liberals in Texas to gut two court rulings that modestly bolstered children's protection against needlessly being interrogated, stripsearched, and taken from everyone they know and love. They were defeated in their effort to undermine these rulings when a coalition of conservatives and other liberals persuaded Gov. Rick Perry to veto SB 1440, a bill that would have allowed Texas CPS to pretty much enter any house any time it wanted for any reason.

After the bill was vetoed, the Austin American Statesman turned a large chunk of its story into a de facto op ed column by one if the state's leading "liberal" groups, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, to fulminate against the veto. According to the story:

One of the opposition's concerns is that under the bill, they said, the parent would not have gotten a hearing before CPS interviews their child. But [CPPP's Jane] Burstain said that family courts aren't currently required to give parents such hearings for the same reason that criminal courts don't give suspected drug dealers a hearing before their house is searched.

"You don't want to be tipping off abusers," Burstain said. "If you tell the abuser, 'Hey, we're coming to your house,' the abuser has the opportunity to coach the child, to coerce the child into lying." Elsewhere, CPPP has suggested that allowing a hearing first, in any situation, would allow parents to destroy evidence.

Where to begin?

First of all, just as Burstain admits, current Texas law already allows CPS to get court permission to enter homes without giving families a chance to object. But precisely because that is such a drastic infringement on people's rights, and can inflict so much trauma on children, there is supposed to be a reasonably high standard of evidence offered to the judge before she or he gives that permission. As a practical matter, in child abuse cases, the standard is pathetically low – but SB 1440 would have lowered it still further.

Even had the bill passed, apparently it wouldn't have been enough for CPPP. Comments by Burstain and the group's director, Scott McCown, suggest they want there to be no circumstance under which families could get a hearing first, because then CPS would lose that element of surprise – which they say is just like criminal cases. In fact, in some criminal cases there is a requirement for such hearings. And the difference between child abuse cases and drug cases is explained in a detailed letter, in effect almost a legal brief, from the Texas Home School Coalition urging the veto. THSC notes that this analogy

unwisely assumes that the child is "evidence". The child will not be destroyed, and if a judge, after a contested hearing, decides that the child should be interviewed, expert techniques can be employed to elicit evidence. Also, medical examinations can determine whether the child has been subjected to long term abuse even after time is taken for a fair and contested hearing. Second, parents have no access to original medical records held by medical practitioners and cannot destroy them. Furthermore, because medical professionals have a duty to report abuse, [CPS] already has access to the actual medical professionals. A process which disregards the rights of parents and the emotional impact upon children is not needed in order to get medical information.

Finally, if the [issue is] … tangible evidence in the home-- other than the child— … a criminal investigation should ensue which includes all of the protections to the accused which criminal law provides and this bill does not. In that vein, there are already procedures in place to obtain a legitimate ex parte search warrant, via the criminal justice system.

But there is an even more fundamental problem with this analogy.

If the police mistake your neighbor for a drug dealer, the neighbor no doubt will be traumatized, but at least he's an adult. If CPS, based on no more than an anonymous call, bursts through the door of your neighbor's house because they think he's a child abuser, it's innocent children who suffer.

It is children who will face traumatic questioning. It is children at risk of being stripsearched by strangers looking for bruises. And it is children who risk being torn from everyone they know and love and thrown into the chaos of foster care – where at least one in four is likely to be abused. The younger the child the greater the harm.

One need only recall the hideous conditions the FLDS children endured during the first days after the raid, and the searing statements from the state's own therapists concerning the harm this internment was doing to the children to understand why it is so urgent that children be protected from this unchecked power.

There are conservatives who have a lot to answer for, too, of course, particularly those, like Newt Gingrich, who want to throw poor people's children into orphanages – suggesting that he feels "family values" are strictly a middle-class entitlement.

But for the left, what it all boils down to is this: When it comes to child abuse, too many of my fellow liberals refuse to heed President Obama's call for us to live our values. Indeed, CPPP and too many other liberals apparently believe in a "child size" Bill of Rights. They shrink it by leaving out Amendment #4.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A smidgen of victory for Texas Children

Very good news for Texas children: Texas Governor Rick Perry vetoed SB 1440, the bill discussed in several previous posts to this blog. The governor says the bill "overreaches and may not give due consideration to the Fourth Amendment rights of a parent or guardian." There's no maybe about it. But the problem with the bill is what it would have done to the Fourth Amendment rights of children. The full veto message is here.

Among those probably most disappointed: Some of the reporters covering the bill, particularly, it would seem, the one for the Dallas Morning News, who now is parroting the party line suggesting the opposition is a vast right-wing conspiracy. He even wrongly labels one of the groups leading the opposition, the Parent Guidance Center, a "conservative group." And, of course, if you're for the bill, according to this reporter, you get the coveted label "child advocate" while if you oppose it you're a "parents' rights" group.

The Austin American Statesman was worse, refusing to acknowledge that anyone besides "conservative, libertarian and family-rights organizations" opposed the bill, (at least the reporter said "family"). Then, after a brief quote from the Parent Guidance Center, a huge portion of the story is devoted to comments from the bill's strongest backer, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which offered up a series of misleading statements (about which more tomorrow). Both of these reporters love to refer to CPPP as a group "which advocates for low- and middle-income Texans" as though the one thing impoverished Texans want most is for their poverty to be confused with neglect and their children to be taken away. (In contrast, the San Antonio Express News didn't sink to cheap stereotyping in its story about several bills vetoed by the governor.)

In fact, this veto shows what can be accomplished when left and right put aside their differences – not forever, just long enough to find common ground and stop a bill that would have hurt children.

But there are limits to this victory. I said in a previous post that the bill effectively reduced the amount of evidence needed for CPS to enter a home from a smidgen to a tenth of a smidgen.

Now, if we can just increase the standard to, say, two or three smidgens.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

No English, no child?

People who complain about the tone of NCCPR's advocacy – usually because they can't touch us on the substance – may get upset when I say that child welfare systems sometimes become the ultimate middle-class entitlement – step right up and take a poor person's child for your very own.

Those folks might want to take a look at what's going on right now in a case in Mississippi.

Cirila Baltazar Cruz is from Mexico. She gave birth to a baby girl, Ruby, at Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula last November. Ms. Cruz speaks no English. The hospital apparently thought: Hispanic name, doesn't speak English – she must speak Spanish. So they got an interpreter who speaks Spanish.

But Cruz doesn't speak Spanish either. She speaks Chatino, an indigenous language spoken by only about 50,000 people. According to The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, by the time the "conversation" was over, the hospital claimed to be under the impression that Ms. Cruz was "'exchanging living arrangements for sex' and planned to adopt out the child before returning to Mexico."

Ms. Cruz and the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), which has come to her aid, deny that. But even were it true, I don't think child welfare authorities are taking the children of women who work in the legal brothels of Nevada. And placing the child for adoption may well be exactly what authorities in Mississippi are planning to do right now.

Because the hospital called CPS, which promptly confiscated the child. She's been in foster care ever since. MIRA says the infant was placed with "an affluent attorney couple in posh Ocean Springs…" Of course, there is no way to know if the couple knew the circumstances under which Ruby came into their care.

But it gets worse:

According to MIRA, the hospital also turned in Ms. Cruz because

The "baby was born to an illegal immigrant;" The "mother had not purchased a crib, clothes, food or formula." (Most Latina mothers breast feed their babies). And "She does not speak English which puts the baby in danger."
And by the time the case reached court, the more lurid allegations morphed into something even less justified. According to the Clarion-Ledger:

Court records obtained by The Clarion-Ledger indicate Cruz is charged with neglecting her child, in part, because "she has failed to learn the English language" and "was unable to call for assistance for transportation to the hospital" to give birth. Her inability to speak English "placed her unborn child in danger and will place the baby in danger in the future," according to the document.

A spokeswoman for the Mississippi child welfare agency denies that they have a no-English-no-child policy. But she did not explain why the allegation keeps turning up in case records.

The case is not unique.

In 2005, the Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat, revealed that, at least twice, a local judge ordered Mexican mothers to learn English – or lose their children forever. (Access to the story may require free registration on the newspaper's website.) In one case the child still lived with the mother, in the other the child was in foster care. In both cases, the mothers spoke an indigenous language rather than Spanish. NCCPR helped call the cases to the attention of national media. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times did stories, the Southern Poverty Law Center heard about the case from news accounts and got involved. The mother at risk of losing her child had her case dismissed. In the other case, where the child already had been placed with affluent foster parents, custody was awarded to the birth father. The judge was disciplined by the Tennessee Court on the Judiciary.

But in Iowa, which long has had one of the nation's most regressive child welfare systems, The Clarion-Ledger noted that

In 2002, a panel of judges in Iowa's Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling to terminate the parental rights of an immigrant couple to their two children, both of whom had special medical needs. Attorneys for the couple, who spoke Chatino, said they were not afforded translation services and had been unable to adequately defend their rights as parents.

Meanwhile, in Mississippi, MIRA did what neither the hospital nor CPS was either willing or able to do. According to a press release from the organization:

MIRA located an interpreter who is fluent in Chatino in Los Angeles CA and has interviewed the mother extensively with the interpreters help. The mother has been accused of being poor and not being able to provide for this child. No one has asked the mother to provide evidence of support. She owns a home in Mexico and a store which provides both secure shelter and financial support, not counting the nurturing of a loving family of two other siblings, a grandmother, aunts, uncles and other extended family.

Fortunately, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which intervened in Tennessee, also is helping the mother in the Mississippi case.

There is one other group that could be a big help here. They settled a class-action lawsuit about the Mississippi system. They're even bragging about alleged progress in that state on the home page of their website. And they are enormously skilled at P.R. But so far, I've seen no public comment on this case from the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights.

Two footnotes to this story:

The only reason the scandal in Tennessee was exposed and the judge disciplined was because a very good reporter, the late Brooks Franklin, as a matter of principle would show up at the local juvenile court whenever the Lebanon Democrat was interested in a story. Courts in Tennessee are nominally open, but judges routinely throw reporters out, Franklin told me at the time. While he was waiting to be thrown out, he happened to witness the judge issue is "no-English-no-child" order. So this is one more reason why it's so important that all courts hearing child welfare cases be open. The judge, of course, didn't see it that way. In defending himself to the Court on the Judiciary he said he was sorry he ever spoke to the newspaper. He complained that the public controversy "made me look like an idiot."

In Mississippi, a spokesman for the hospital did not respond to any of the specifics alleged by MIRA – he just said the hospital was right to turn in the mother. But he added that he's "really not pleased" with the tone of the MIRA press release.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

TexProtects seems to think we’re pretty dumb

A group called TexProtects, The Texas Association for the Protection of Children, has put out an "Advocacy Alert" urging people to write to the Governor to ask him to sign SB 1440, that bill discussed in previous posts to this Blog that would legalize CPS' illegal behavior in cases like the FLDS raid.

Their argument boils down to this: Current law is terribly vague, but this bill supposedly makes things more specific. Therefore, TexProtects says, the bill "actually provides more protections for a parent in connection with orders in aid of an investigation."

Let's leave aside, for the moment, the phony notion implied by that statement that unlimited state power benefits children and basic due process benefits only parents. Let's ignore, for the moment, that in cases like the FLDS raid it was the children who suffered most from CPS' actions.

The argument from TexProtects still leaves out one small detail: Two key court rulings. One is the Texas Supreme Court ruling in the FLDS case, the other came from a federal appellate court in one of those rare cases where CPS picked on someone with the money to hire good lawyers. These rulings have filled in a lot of the blanks. Thanks to those rulings, the law now is a bit more specific. What SB 1440 really tries to do is undermine those court rulings and effectively return things to where they were before those courts ruled.

And let's get serious. If SB 1440 really increases families' protections, why are groups like Texas CASA and the Center for Public Policy Priorities, groups that strongly favored the FLDS raid, desperate to see SB 1440 become law? And why are so many groups that were against the raid urging a veto?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Finally: Someone gets the recession-and-child-maltreatment story right

I've probably read dozens of recession-causing-more-child-abuse stories. Almost all of them are about how the recession supposedly is causing parents to snap and beat up their kids, so taking more kids away supposedly is the inevitable and logical result.

This story, from reporter Shannon McCaffrey of the Associated Press Atlanta Bureau, finally gets it right. It's the first story I've seen that explains what's really going on – people who love their children but have run out of options, or people forced to take a night shift job who wind up charged with lack of supervision. The very fact that the local "child advocate lawyer" brands being too poor to care for the children "economic neglect" speaks volumes about child welfare – and the field of child advocacy law.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Surrendering to social media

    There once was a character in the comic strip "Peanuts" whose name was "5." (His sisters were "3" and "4".)

    5 explains that his father changed all the family names because he was so upset about the fact that numbers were coming to dominate people's lives.

    "And this was his way of protesting?" asked Charlie Brown.

    "No," replied 5. "This was his way of giving in."

    It is in that spirit that I announce that NCCPR is now on Twitter. And also Facebook.

    I was persuaded to try this after attending a workshop by Prof. Sree Sreenivasan of my alma mater, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Prof. Sreenivasan describes himself as a "tech evangelist/skeptic." I must have caught him on an evangelical day.

At this point, it's an experiment. I intend to use these media almost entirely to tell the world when there's something new here on the Blog or at I solemnly promise never to use them to let the world know what I had for dinner last night, whether I'm in a bad mood because a flight was delayed or anything similar that the world can't possibly want to know.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

UPDATED JUNE 11: Texas: Where the stereotypes die hard

UPDATE: Thank you to the Dallas Morning News. While I disagree with some of how that paper's story today characterized what the bill, SB 1440, would do as compared with current law, the paper made a point of not stereotyping opponents ideologically.

I suppose if a newspaper in Texas calls your group "conservative" you should just shut up and let them believe it. But an old-fashioned belief in at least trying to be accurate, something carried over from my days as a reporter, compels me to set the record straight. The attempt to lump everyone opposing a dreadful bill now on the desk of Texas Gov. Rick Perry into the same ideological camp was not even the worst stereotype in the story. Also: The story misrepresents current law.

The story ran in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram today. It's about a bill I wrote about on this blog a few days ago, the one that would legalize the illegal behavior of Texas CPS in the FLDS raid and another case in that state.

The story begins this way:

A coalition of conservative and libertarian groups is urging Gov. Rick Perry to veto a bill that would make it easier for Child Protective Services to remove children from a home while investigating possible abuse.

That's stereotype number one. The story goes on to quote a conservative obligingly fulfilling stereotype number two by complaining that the bill undermines "parental rights."

In the most literal sense, both statements are true. What the reporter leaves out is that there are a whole lot of groups like NCCPR – filled with lifelong liberals – who think bills like this stink because they undermine children's rights.

Children have a right not to be traumatized by police and CPS workers based on no more than an anonymous call. Children have a right not to be stripsearched for no reason. And, most of all, children have a right not to be torn from everyone they know and love and exposed to the emotional trauma, and serious risk of physical or sexual abuse in foster care, based on no more than a caseworker's guess.

All this is why, when I wrote about the injustice of the FLDS raid for the website of a national magazine, it was for The Nation, not, say The Weekly Standard.

Similarly, there is nothing right-wing about the Parent Guidance Center, the excellent grassroots organization in Texas that has been among the leaders in opposing this bill.

Only at the very end of the story does the reporter concede that, well, yes, a blogger at the liberal Daily Kos said Perry should veto the bill – and so did Scott Henson of the excellent, and decidedly left-leaning Texas criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast. But the bottom of the story is the traditional resting place for facts that contradict a reporter's pre-conceived notions.

Much higher in the story, there is this grossly-misleading description of the bill:

If the bill became law, a judge would be able to grant CPS a court order similar to a criminal search warrant, allowing a CPS worker to immediately enter the home and, if necessary, remove the child and secure medical and mental-health records as part of an investigation. It would be done without notifying the parent in advance.

That's wrong in what it says and wrong in what it implies. The bill would not create a procedure requiring an order "similar to a criminal search warrant." On the contrary, it would eviscerate an existing procedure that, even now, requires less than is needed in a criminal case.

Current law already allows CPS "to immediately enter the home and, if necessary, remove the child and secure medical and mental-health records as part of an investigation … without notifying the parent in advance." All the worker has to do is tell a judge a child is at imminent risk of maltreatment – and under some circumstances the worker doesn't need to go to a judge at all. The worker need offer only what amounts to a smidgen of evidence.

As I wrote in my previous post on this issue:

The reason for [the "imminent risk" standard] should be obvious. If the only alleged problem is that children face a threat that is not imminent, then there is time to hold a hearing before exposing children to the trauma of being questioned, stirpsearched, and often, torn away from everyone they know and love. In the FLDS case, for example, some of the allegations boiled down to the claim that very young children might be abused when they reached puberty. Now granted, there are a lot of delays in juvenile court – but ten years also usually is enough time to schedule a hearing.

What the new law does is lower the required amount of evidence to about one tenth of a smidgen. And no longer would there be a requirement that the child be in imminent danger before allowing a CPS raid without a hearing first.

When it comes to child welfare, both left and right have a lot to account for. Too many conservatives think family values are a middle-class entitlement only – like Newt Gingrich who wants to throw poor people's children into orphanages. And too many of my fellow liberals forget everything they claim to believe about civil liberties as soon as somebody whispers the words "child abuse" in their ears. So the fact that opponents of this bill include liberals and conservatives, advocates of children's rights and advocates of parents' rights is a good step in the right direction.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The naked emperors of social work

Yesterday's post to this blog about still another study, from Prof. Joseph Doyle of MIT, showing that children left in their own homes generally fare better than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care, prompted a question to a listserv from a lawyer, which I will paraphrase this way: Why aren't more people paying attention? In other words, with all that solid research pointing to the harm of foster care, why do our laws and policies still encourage a take-the-child-and-run approach?

There are a couple of reasons. For starters, lawmakers are far more likely to base legislation on the latest horror story in the news than on actual research. It's hard to imagine legislators reading Prof. Doyle's study and then rushing off to pass "Joseph's Law" to make it harder to tear apart families.

But also, there is a profound bias in the social work community – a bias favoring child removal. (Prof. Doyle is not a social worker, and his studies have not appeared in social work journals.) Indeed, in child welfare, the more a researcher pompously proclaims his neutrality, the more he insists he is a paragon of objectivity who merely goes "where the research leads," the more he looks down his nose at mere mortals and, to paraphrase an old Chevy Chase routine, says "I'm a scholarand you're not!" – the more you'd better look very, very closely at the "methodology" section in the actual research. There are some outstanding scholars in the field of social work – but there are others for whom "scholar" is just a euphemism for ideologue-with-a-Ph-D.

I can't prove that empirically, of course. But I can show evidence of a profound bias in social work scholarship, thanks to some wonderful research done more than 20 years ago by, yes, a professor of social work.

His name is William Epstein, and this is what he did: He submitted to various journals a study concerning the efficacy of taking children from their parents when the children had asthma. But the study was a fake. The real research subjects were the editors of scholarly journals. Half of the editors got studies "concluding" that taking away the children helped with their asthma. The other half got studies concluding that taking away the children didn't work.

The results: 53 percent of the journals that got the study with the positive outcome accepted it for publication. Only 14 percent of the journals who got the version with the negative finding accepted it.

One would hope that the social work profession would have taken the findings to heart and cleaned up its act. But alas, no. On the contrary. The Royal Court of Social Work was not pleased when Prof. Epstein pointed out that the emperor had no clothes.

A group of angry journal editors filed an ethics complaint with the National Association of Social Workers. They said it was unethical of Prof. Epstein to fail to get their informed consent before trying to fool them! It could have led to Epstein being drummed out of the NASW. The furious "scholars" were led by one John Schuerman, who was, at the time, editor of the Social Service Review, and a professor at the University of Chicago. As The New York Times explained:

[Schuerman's] journal was not fooled by Dr. Epstein's paper because an alert editor noticed that part of it was copied from an earlier article. … While Dr. Schuerman acknowledges that there are some circumstances in social science research where it is accepted procedure not to obtain informed consent, he said, ''You have to weigh the benefits of the research against the risk of harm to the subjects.'' He added, ''Here the harm was the cost and time to busy professionals, the large numbers of reviewers and staff involved.''

Another cost, Dr. Schuerman noted, was emotional: ''The chagrin and embarrassment of those editors who accepted the article.''

Ultimately NASW decided it was not unethical to point out a naked emperor. But the social work profession wasn't through with Dr. Epstein. NASW threatened to bring him up on new charges – for talking to the press about the old charges!

When I went back to that New York Times story yesterday, it was the first time I'd looked at it in more than 20 years – I'd first seen it when I was researching my book, Wounded Innocents, which first was published in 1990.

Back then, the name John Schuerman meant nothing to me. But in the following years he would join the Chapin Hall Center for Children, an organization prone to that "Chevy Chase" attitude I mentioned above. There, he would lead a team that would produce a series of studies claiming that Intensive Family Preservation Services (IFPS) didn't work. I think the researchers firmly believed it. And I think that Schuerman, like most people in child welfare, really wants to help children. But each study had the same fatal flaw – they failed to study IFPS programs that actually followed the model of the original such program, Homebuilders, in Washington State.

To me, admittedly a mere advocate, it appeared that each study was a more strident attempt to justify the one before. And to one of the leading honest-to-God scholars in the field, Prof. Ray Kirk of the University of North Carolina, the results of Schuerman's biggest study were "a non finding from a failed study."

Several more rigorous evaluations have found that IFPS is successful. Details are in NCCPR Issue Paper 11. But because the Schuerman group said what the child welfare establishment wanted to hear, his work has gotten far more amplification in the social work echo chamber - the very echo chamber Schuerman himself was so desperate to defend in 1988.

None of this means we should be free to retreat into the cop-out of saying, in effect, "since the studies disagree, I'll just believe what I want." Rather, it means that all research must be subjected to rigorous critique and fair competition in the marketplace of ideas. As it happens, Epstein himself has written things with which I strongly disagree (but at least he has a really good sense of humor). But What Epstein's study reveals is that there is no free market of ideas in social work scholarship. Rather, the modern successors to those who, in the 19th Century, proudly called themselves "child savers" have a near-monopoly in that market; to the detriment of vulnerable children.

We all have biases. Epstein's study reminds us that a Ph-D does not inoculate us against them.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The evidence is in - again

    It's long been known that children left in their own homes whose families receive lots of help to stay together tend to do better than comparably-maltreated children thrown into foster care. Given what we know about foster care, common sense says as much, but there's also a wealth of research. Some of that research is discussed in NCCPR's Issue Papers, particularly Issue Papers 1, 10 and 11.

But nearly two years ago, a researcher at MIT took the research a giant step further. He released the definitive study comparing outcomes of children placed in foster care to comparably-maltreated children left in their home who did not get any special help. The study of 15,000 cases focused not on extreme cases but on those that typically dominate workers caseloads; what I have come to call the "in-between cases." The result: The children left in their own homes were less likely to get pregnant as teenagers, less likely to get in trouble with the law as juveniles – and more likely to be able to get and hold a job. Our detailed analysis of the study is available here. The full study can be found here. (A second study, by University of Minnesota researchers, using different outcome measures came up with the same results – the children left in their own homes did better.)

Last week, Prof. Matthew Fraidin of the University of the District of Columbia's David A. Clarke School of Law pointed out to me that the same MIT researcher is out with another study. This time he was able to examine 23,000 cases, to determine which children were more likely to be arrested as adults, the foster children or comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes. Once again, the children left in their own homes did better.

Just imagine how much less foster care there'd be if all the people who throw around the big buzzword in child welfare "evidence-based" really meant it

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Texas tries to “legalize” FLDS-type raids

A couple of months ago on this Blog, I noted a solemn promise by Texas child protective service – a promise to, in effect break the law. I wrote that in stories about the FLDS raid,

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?

Clearly, the Texas Legislature couldn't stand for something like this – so they sprang into action: They passed a bill that would legalize CPS' illegal behavior in the FLDS case and another case in which their actions were struck down by courts. An excellent family advocacy organization in Texas, the Parent Guidance Center, reports that this language actually failed to pass on its own. It was sneaked onto another bill at the last minute.

Under current law, if CPS wants to rush onto someone else's property, demand entry, seize records question the children, stripsearch the children, and then seize the children and take them away, all without so much as a court hearing, CPS is supposed to convince a judge that it's a dire emergency. The judge needs to be persuaded that the children are being abused right now – or will be abused so soon that there is no time to even hold a hearing for the families to defend themselves.

The reason for this should be obvious. If the only alleged problem is that children face a threat that is not imminent, then there is time to hold a hearing before exposing children to the trauma of being questioned, stirpsearched, and often, torn away from everyone they know and love. In the FLDS case, for example, some of the allegations boiled down to the claim that very young children might be abused when they reached puberty. Now granted, there are a lot of delays in juvenile court – but ten years also usually is enough time to schedule a hearing.

Under the new bill, SB 1440, all CPS would have to do is file an affidavit claiming that

  1. based on information available, a child's physical or mental health or welfare has been or may be adversely affected by abuse or neglect;
  2. the requested order is necessary to aid in the investigation; and
  3. there is a fair probability that allegations of abuse or neglect will be sustained if the order is issued and executed.

The law says nothing about when the child's "physical or mental health or welfare … may be adversely affected." It could be tomorrow, next month or years from now.

Johana Scot, executive director of the Parent Guidance Center, points out that "based on information available…" can be nothing more than an anonymous tip. She calls the "fair probability" requirement the "I swear what I'm about to find is true" clause.

As with most states, Texas has a broad, vague definition of neglect that easily is confused with poverty. So under the new law, all CPS needs to barge into any home at any time and take any impoverished child is an affidavit that says, in effect, "we think this family is very poor and it's likely that, once we get into the home, it will turn out that yes, they really are poor."

Or, in an FLDS-type case, they would need only present an affidavit saying "Sure the child's an infant now, but in 12 or 13 years…"

Indeed, this bill specifically rejects the notion that danger has to be imminent before CPS can skip over the niceties of due process. According to the bill:

This section does not prevent a court from requiring notice and a hearing before issuance of an order in aid of an investigation under this section if the court determines that:
(1) there is no immediate risk to the safety of the child; and
(2) notice and a hearing are required to determine whether the requested access to persons, records, or places or transport of the child is necessary to aid in the investigation
[emphasis added].

First of all, the key words are "does not prevent." Courts would remain free to let CPS run roughshod over families even when there was no immediate risk to the safety of the child, if the court felt like it.

And the court would be required to let CPS do this, even when there was no immediate risk to the safety of the child if the court simply determined that it is necessary "to aid in the investigation."

Of course, even if the governor signs the bill, at some point, it may be challenged on constitutional grounds. But most children victimized by needless intrusion, stripsearches and foster care don't have parents who can afford such court challenges. And, of course, there's no guarantee such challenges will succeed; not when so many judges are afraid to look "soft on child abuse."