Thursday, June 30, 2011

On our Blog at Youth Today: How "risk assessment" puts kids at risk

Every year or so, the child welfare community finds a new way to prove the adage “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

It works this way. Researchers publish a study or some committee (Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commission) issues a report which determines that “X” is a risk factor for child abuse. In other words, if someone who is an “X” or has “X” or does “X” is in the home, that person is more likely to abuse a child.

Having been officially deemed a risk factor, “X” then makes it onto various “checklists” and “risk assessment” forms that child protective services workers take with them when they investigate an allegation of alleged child maltreatment.

If a parent has too many risk factors, the CPS worker may well walk out with the child – not because the child has been abused but because the “risk factors” supposedly tell us the child might be abused sometime in the future. It’s a bit like the science fiction movie Minority Report, in which people are arrested for crimes they haven’t yet committed based on predictions of three psychics in an oversize bathtub – only the psychics in the movie were more accurate.

Continued on NCCPR's monthly Blog at Youth Today

Monday, June 27, 2011

Foster care in Connecticut: Why Joette Katz needs to watch her back

            This week, on our monthly Blog at the trade journal Youth Today, I wrote about the gutsiest leader in child welfare.

            That would be Joette Katz, who resigned from the state supreme court to run the  Connecticut Department of Children and Families.  She immediately set about trying to reverse the take-the-child-and-run mentality that has dominated Connecticut DCF for decades.

            The state takes away children at a rate more than 45 percent above the national average, when entries into care are compared to the number of impoverished children in each state.  And it warehouses children in group homes and institutions at one of the highest rates in the nation.

            Just last week, she won what amounts to a vote of confidence from the state legislature.  And then, days later, a child known-to-the-system died.

            Often, that’s when child welfare agency chiefs cut-and-run.  But not Joette Katz, telling the excellent online non-profit news site, The Connecticut Mirror:

"I think in the past that's been exactly the mistake, frankly," Katz said. "A child dies and the next thing you know workers are getting thrown under the bus and 500 children get removed [from their homes] the next day because it's a reaction to a tragedy. I think that's the exact wrong way to behave."

            But Katz will face much more pressure in the months and years ahead – and so will her boss, Gov. Dannel Malloy.  It’s happened so often the same way across the country that one might think there’s a playbook somewhere explaining exactly how to bring down a child welfare reform effort.  In fact, it’s more a matter of grandstanding politicians and people who make their living holding children in substitute care doing what comes naturally.

            The data on the astounding number of children Connecticut stashes in group homes and institutions suggest that the state has a particularly powerful “foster care-industrial complex” – the private agencies who run all those group homes and institutions that are paid for every day they warehouse children. 

            Indeed, the Hartford Courant reported in January on what amounts to a rare outbreak of candor among these agencies (the reasons for which will become clear below). According to the Courant  “directors of treatment centers and heads of the trade groups that represent them pointed out in interviews last week that facilities need referrals from DCF to stay in business.”

            So what will happen when they start getting fewer referrals?

            The first option is to wait for the first tragedy that can be pinned on the reforms.  For example, one of the Connecticut reforms is “differential response,” in which families involved in cases believed to be less serious are offered voluntary help instead of a child abuse investigation.  As I’ve noted often on this blog, in a review of the scholarly literature concerning differential response, the Vera Institute of Justice found that every single study of the practice found no compromise of safety, and many found that safety improved.

            But it won’t work every time.  No system gets it right every time.  At some point a child will be wrongly diverted to this program and then something terrible will happen to that child.  When – not if, when – that happens, the members of Connecticut’s foster care-industrial complex will come out from under their rocks, fingers wagging, saying See?  See?  Katz is doing too much to try to keep families together!  The pendulum has swung too far!

            The private agencies will exploit the case in every way they can to drown out the fact that children also die in group homes, institutions and foster homes, and to overwhelm all those studies about the safety of differential response.  And, unfortunately, unless the Connecticut press corps is unusually vigilant, they may well succeed.

            Or if the financial pressure on the institutions gets bad enough soon enough they won’t wait for a fatality.  They’ll start leaking files about cases that didn’t go wrong but could have – cases where differential response was used in the face of what the agencies will claim are obvious warning signs.  (Some of the claims might be true. When an agency handles thousands of cases each year, it’s going to screw some of them up, in all directions.  But no one has a financial incentive to leak files about cases of wrongful removal.)

            All the way back in 1993, when New York City made some early, tentative steps toward reducing entries into care, the now-defunct New York Newsday ran a huge story under the headline “Children sent home to mom, dad danger” – a collection of leaked case files.  There were several of them, in a city which then and now handles tens of thousands of cases every year.

            Of course the reporter did not reveal the sources for the leaked documents – but the fingerprints of the city’s private agencies were all over the story.  (One lesson from this: If the demonstrable benefits to children and the public’s right to know isn’t enough reason to open court hearings and most records in these cases, how about the fact that doing so takes control away from those who leak such records selectively?)

            Much more recently, this past January in fact, the Courant ran a huge story about the serious and real problem of Connecticut warehousing children in residential treatment centers out of state.  But the one and only solution offered in the story was to warehouse the children in state.  The story portrayed Connecticut’s own providers as ready and willing to provide everything these young people needed, but they were forced to watch with empty beds (yes, empty beds!) as the children were sent elsewhere.

            At no point did anyone suggest calling the local institutions’ bluff by demanding that they accept “no reject, no eject” contracts – much less suggest that the solution is not institutionalizing so many children at all.

            So the only question now is whether the same providers will receive an equally-credulous reception when they start leaking stories about problems with Connecticut’s reforms – the ones that haven’t even begun yet.

And see also our op ed column in The Day of New London, Ct., supporting Justice Katz's reforms.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

UPDATED, JULY 3: Foster care in Texas: The issue in the spanking case isn’t spanking

See the update at the end of this post

            Now making its way up the media food chain, via multiple blogs, is the story of the mother in Corpus Christi, Texas, sentenced to five years probation for spanking her child.  Unfortunately, much of the discussion has been simply a rehash of the tired debate over spanking.

            The real issues are consigning children to foster care over a spanking, and a judge who went well beyond so-called judicial activism all the way to judicial vigilantism.

            The original news story is anything but clear about all aspects of this case.  But according to that story:

            ●Last December, a mother named Rosalina Gonzales spanked her nearly-two-year-old daughter, apparently with an open hand on the child’s buttocks. 

            ●The spanking left red marks, so the child’s paternal grandmother took the child to the local children’s hospital to be examined.  The hospital reported Gonzales to authorities.

            ●It was apparently at this point that the child was taken away and placed with the grandmother.  Gonzales does not have custody of her two other children either, but it is not clear if those children were taken away at the same time.

            ●Gonzales also was arrested and charged with a felony.

            This all came to light on June 15, when she accepted a plea deal and was sentenced. 

She was sentenced to five years probation.  She also will have to jump through every hoop imposed by Texas Child Protective Services, take a parenting class (of course) and, just to add a little extra insult to all the injury, pay $50 (which she almost certainly can’t afford)  to the local “children's advocacy center.”

Cameras are allowed in Texas criminal courts.  The news story shows Gonzales stepping forward to be lectured by Judge Jose Longoria.  It is at this point, that the judge rewrote Texas law, declaring that:

You don't spank children today.  In the old days, maybe we got spanked, but there was a different quarrel. You don't spank children. You understand?

Gonzales meekly replies: "Yes, sir."

In fact, Texas law does not prohibit all spanking.  No state bans all spanking.  Judge Longoria was simply making it up as he went along – something one might have thought Gonzales’ lawyer would have pointed out.  But then, if she could afford a lawyer who would point that out, she’d almost certainly never have been standing in that courtroom at all.  Middle-class parents don’t get arrested for spanking their children on the rear with an open hand.  That’s part of the special justice system we reserve for poor people.


I would hope even those against all spanking would acknowledge that there are worse things one can do to children – and high on that list is taking the children away and consigning them to foster care.  Even removal to another relative, as in this case, is a severe emotional blow. 

Opponents of spanking often say it “sends the wrong message” to children.  Well, here’s the message a young child is likely to get from being taken from her or his mother in a case like this: “I must have done something wrong.  That’s why I’m being punished by having my mom taken away from me.”  Great message.

It’s that kind of emotional trauma that helps explain things like those massive studies involving more than 15,000 typical cases, which found that children left in their own homes fared better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care. 

That doesn’t mean no child ever should be removed from the home.  But it does mean the threshold should be a lot higher than it apparently was in this case.  And it should be a lot higher than it is for the thousands of poor families who lose their children when family poverty is confused with neglect, as described in this excellent New York Times essay, which I’ve highlighted before on this Blog.  The essay raises the same issue as this case: turning personal child-rearing preferences into law and then imposing that law on poor people.

Of course Texas CPS is almost certain to say there were other reasons for taking the children. But their track record, as seen in this previous post to this Blog, does not inspire one to take them at their word.

The other issue, of course, is the judge making up his own law and imposing it on someone who couldn’t fight back.  Those who think spanking should be illegal should be working to persuade their legislators to change the law, not acting as vigilantes from the bench.

UPDATE, JULY 3: The Corpus Cristi Caller Times reports that CPS claims the child had suffered abuse significantly more serious than a spanking and the mother had a prior record of physical abuse.

Let’s assume that CPS is right (while also noting how, somehow, all those concerns about “confidentiality” evaporate when disclosure is in the agency’s interest). That still doesn’t deal with the heart of the problem: a judge who issued a decree that any and all spanking is illegal in any case.

Had the judge said to the mother: “Yes, it is legal to spank children in Texas, but what you did goes far beyond a spanking and far beyond what is permitted by law” there would be no issue, no story, no controversy.

But he didn’t.  What he said was: “You don't spank children today.  In the old days, maybe we got spanked, but there was a different quarrel. You don't spank children. You understand?

That’s just as wrong now as it was when he said it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

On our Blog at Youth Today: Connecticut’s profile in courage

            Days after promising reforms to keep families together, a child known-to-the-system dies.  Guess what the child welfare agency chief does?  No, not what you think.  Check out NCCPR’s monthly blog at Youth Today to meet the gutsiest child welfare leader in America.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jersey gall, part two: ACNJ’s reign of error

There are longstanding ties between Advocates for Children of New Jersey and the former New Jersey child welfare agency chief whose policies ran that agency into the ground.

Over and over again, the group now called Advocates for Children of New Jersey has been proven wrong, in some cases making blatant factual errors.  But rather than admit, even to themselves, that they’ve been wrong about child welfare in New Jersey for more than a decade, ACNJ is working to undermine one of the nation’s most successful child welfare reform efforts.

First, ACNJ opposed the lawsuit that led to a settlement.  Then ACNJ worked to undermine the settlement.  And now that, despite ACNJ’s efforts, the settlement has taken hold, ACNJ is exploiting the latest child welfare tragedy in New Jersey, the death of Christiana Glenn, to try to discredit the reforms.

So, as reported yesterday on this Blog, when what is, in fact, a more rigorous version of the standard measure of child safety used by the federal government proved that New Jersey children are getting safer under reform, ACNJ’s answer was: Change the measure!

Even the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights (CR) isn’t buying what ACNJ is trying to sell.  In a statement released Tuesday the group specifically said the Glenn case should not be seen as evidence that reform isn’t working.  On the contrary, the group’s associate director says that “In spite of the shocking news about Christiana Glenn, it is evident that New Jersey’s foster care system has transformed from the system it was just a few years ago.” 

Of all the statewide advocacy groups concerned with children’s issues, I know of no group that has been more wrong more often – including matters of outright factual error – than ACNJ.  But perhaps because, like so many other “child advocates” she means well, the group’s longtime leader, Ceil Zalkind, remains the Godsource for New Jersey media on these issues - despite ACNJ’s prolonged reign of error.

Explaining that requires a bit of background.


For starters, Zalkind opposed the lawsuit that led to the current reforms.  Here’s what she told The New York Times when the suit was filed:

''The cases detailed in the complaint are compelling, devastating and they are representative of what exists here,'' said Cecilia Zalkind, a lawyer and the associate director for the Association for Children of New Jersey, a nonprofit advocacy group that helped Children's Rights gather data. ''Our concern is whether litigation is the most effective strategy for change at this time. We think it is not.''

And here’s how the New Jersey Law Journal reported Zalkind’s view of the litigation:

"On the one hand, we think the issues they're raising and the named plaintiffs are compelling and representative of continuing problems," says Cecelia Zalkind, director of another not-for-profit advocacy group, Association for Children. 

   However, Zalkind shares Venti's concern that the Children's Rights suit will divert DYFS from its efforts to improve. "We're worried about how distracting and time-consuming a lawsuit would be," she says. Zalkind says she helped Children's Rights gather data for the suit but tried to discourage litigation.

            I’ll get to who “Venti” is in a moment.

            Of course some might wonder why I’d have a problem with this – after all, I’m not exactly CR’s biggest fan.  But I’ve always maintained that in New Jersey, and every other state except one – Michigan – the systems were so bad that even a CR lawsuit, for all its limits, could make them a little better.  So unlike ACNJ, NCCPR agreed with the filing of this suit from day one.  (And, as it happens, for reasons no one could predict at the time, the New Jersey settlement was much better than most agreed to by CR).

            But Zalkind didn’t get it.  She was convinced that the director of the state Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) at the time, Charles Venti, would fix things on his own.  Venti, in turn, did a great job of making Zalkind feel important, making sure the governor named her to one of those Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commissions states create when they want to avoid real reform.  So it’s no wonder Zalkind “shared Venti’s concerns” about the lawsuit.

But Venti and Zalkind share something else: a profound hostility to efforts to keep families together.  Zalkind has spoken out strongly against such efforts at least as far back as 1997.  In 2003, the year New Jersey took more children than any other year on record, Zalkind told Philadelphia public radio station WHYY that there was no problem at all with wrongful removal in the state.  So it’s no wonder she has trouble accepting the fact that child safety has improved, even as entries into care have declined more than 30 percent between 2003 and 2009.

As for Venti, during the last four years of his reign, entries into foster care in New Jersey soared by nearly 25 percent. 

So it’s not surprising that Venti’s take-the-child-and-run approach ran the agency into the ground, leaving it in the horrendous shape it was in when Faheem Williams died in January, 2003.  But Zalkind’s faith in Venti remains undiminished.  Since 2003, he’s been a member of ACNJ’s unpaid board of trustees.


Having opposed the lawsuit, ACNJ didn’t like the resulting settlement either.  Within months of the settlement Zalkind was on the attack.  According to a December, 2003 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Recently, [Zalkind] said, she has become pessimistic about DYFS' chances of successful changes because she sees the state heading toward the family-preservation model.

"If you asked me eight months ago, I would have thought only good could have come," she said. "Now I think there is a risk things could get worse rather than get better."

Now, of course, the independent court monitor, the judge overseeing the settlement and even  CR all have made clear she was wrong.

ACNJ’s attack against the settlement included claims about the state’s child abuse hotline that later were proven to be flat wrong.  ACNJ also opposed what proved to be one of the biggest successes in the New Jersey settlement, strong curbs on the misuse and overuse of the worst form of care, institutionalization.  ACNJ branded strong restrictive language in a plan to implement the settlement “foolish and somewhat offensive.”

She didn’t say who was offended.  Perhaps it was her pal Venti, who was quite the booster of institutions when he ran DYFS.  According to the Star-Ledger (in a 2003 story available in the newspaper’s paid archive) Venti even bypassed the normal request-for- proposal process to rush into a $12.5 million contract for a huge residential treatment center in Newark.  The contract was with a for-profit company run by John J. Clancy, a former Essex County youth services director.

According to the Star-Ledger, DYFS “then bent over backwards to keep the place going, paying dearly all the while, $28,000 a day to care for 80 boys, no matter how many were actually there.”

Oh, and the place also was alleged to be rife with abuse.

Shortly after he retired from DYFS, the Star Ledger reported, Venti went to work for Clancy on what Venti said was “a little short-term research project” on adult corrections. 

Today, with Venti long gone, and the settlement working well, New Jersey is a national model for keeping children, especially young children, out of institutions.

But, of course, every time the settlement succeeds; every time it makes New Jersey’s children safer, every time it reduces institutionalization, it is a reminder of the extent to which Zalkind and her board member, Venti, got it wrong.  So it’s no wonder Zalkind seems to have sincerely persuaded herself that the independent monitor, the judge, and even CR all are wrong when they praise the huge strides in New Jersey child welfare.

There may be no way to stop legislators who want to grandstand and children’s expense and find cheap (literally and figuratively) easy ways to posture about “cracking down on child abuse” from doing so, as is discussed in yesterday’s post to this Blog.  And there may be no way to stop Zalkind from trying to vindicate her and Charles Venti’s mistaken judgments at the expense of proven reforms.

But do New Jersey news media really have to accept every word from ACNJ as Holy Writ, never questioning the organization’s assumptions or judgment, and never examining their track record?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

JERSEY GALL: How the latest example of one group’s crusade against families, and refusal to admit error, jeopardizes child welfare reform in New Jersey

The group is behind the usual response to a child welfare tragedy: lousy legislation.  But how did they forget to call it “Christiana’s Law?”

Just one day after Judith Meltzer, the independent monitor of New Jersey’s child welfare consent decree said the four reports on Christiana Glenn were correctly labeled unfounded, it seems the State Legislature is barreling ahead with a bad law based on the premise that those findings were wrong.

The bill would add a third category, “not substantiated” to the current options workers have when investigating a case, “substantiated” and “unfounded.”  And it responds to the strong evidence that reform has made New Jersey’s children safer by changing the measurement of safety to conform to the biases of one of reform’s leading opponents.

Both bad ideas come from the state’s best-known advocacy group on children’s issues, Advocates for Children of New Jersey.  It’s a group whose longtime leader has been strongly opposed to any reform that does more to keep families together, and a group whose track record for bad judgment and, in some cases, outright factual error may be the worst of any similar group in the country - something I will discuss in detail on this Blog tomorrow.

As for the bill now racing through the Legislature, the whole mess is so typical of how lawmakers grandstand after tragedies that only one thing surprises me: How could they have forgotten to name this travesty “Christiana’s Law?”


According to The Star Ledger:

The new category proposed by the bill, "not substantiated," means the investigation did not turn up the high level of evidence required for the state to take action, but it leaves the door open on the case if investigators get further information.
There are several problems with this:

● Substantiating a case does not require a “high level of evidence” – it requires virtually no evidence.    In New Jersey, as in most states, a case can be substantiated if a caseworker, entirely on her own authority, believes there is slightly more evidence than not that maltreatment occurred.  There is no independent review of any kind before this determination is made.

So it is no wonder that, in the only study I know of anywhere in the country that tried to second guess these decisions, workers were found to be two to six times more likely to wrongly label a case “substantiated” than to wrongly label a case “unfounded.”

● Labeling a case unfounded does not shut the door if workers get further information, as sponsors of the New Jersey bill seem to believe.  In the case of Christiana, when a new report came in nine days before her death, the hotline worker either never checked or failed to follow correct procedures to find out that any prior reports existed at all.  The fact that those reports were labeled unfounded would not in any way have stopped further investigation.  Their mere existence, combined with the nature of the more recent report, easily would have been enough to trigger another investigation, while not prompting the caseworker to automatically assume guilt.

● As noted above, and discussed in more detail in the previous post to this blog, the independent monitor’s own assessment indicates that, even had a third category existed when the reports on Christiana were investigated, that would have been the wrong category to use in those cases.  Those reports really should have been labeled unfounded. 

So while the Star Ledger story quotes legislators piously proclaiming this third category would have stopped a case like Christiana’s from falling through the cracks, it would have done nothing of the kind.

But this new category has significant potential to do harm.

● It reinforces the notion that anyone accused of child abuse is guilty until proven innocent. Indeed, the sponsor of the bill practically said as much, arguing that, as the Star Ledger put it: “the term [‘unfounded’] should be reserved for reports with no merit whatsoever.”

But that harms families for precisely the reason many in child welfare like it: It keeps those families highly suspect in case something else comes up, even when the something else is nothing more than harassment by someone with a grudge.

Defenders of assuming everyone accused is guilty like to claim that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” But in child welfare, where there’s smoke there’s often nothing but smoke.  This third category simply encourages neighbors with a grudge or vindictive ex spouses to keep phoning in reports.  If enough people “blow smoke” in the form of such reports, in which the accused can’t prove herself or himself innocent, eventually caseworkers are likely to simply take the children, bringing on all the well-known harms of needless foster care.  (To see, literally, what a fanatical presumption of guilt ultimately can do to a child, check out this previous post to the Blog.  And for a classic example of authorities carried away by their own “smoke” see the series running this week in the Detroit Free Press.)

● In addition, as the Star Ledger story points out, the in-between category was abolished in the first place because it was becoming a catch-all for workers who couldn’t make up their minds.  More likely those workers were too afraid of what would happen to them if they declared a case unfounded, even when it was unfounded, and then, later something they could never have foreseen happened to the child. (I can’t imagine why they’d be afraid of anything like that).

So it’s no wonder that a majority of states use only two categories.


The second provision is nothing more than a dangerous tribute to ACNJ’s desperate effort to vindicate years of poor judgment, including opposing the lawsuit that led to the New Jersey reforms.  That’s something I’ll discuss in detail tomorrow.

As noted above, the independent monitor says the reforms have improved child safety.  Even the group that brought the lawsuit, the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights - a group that certainly is no friend of family preservation - does not dispute this.  According to their associate director:  “In spite of the shocking news about Christiana Glenn, it is evident that New Jersey’s foster care system has transformed from the system it was just a few years ago.” 

The monitor’s finding is based on a more rigorous version of the standard measure used by the federal government in every state to determine child safety.  Now that this measure shows safety has improved under reform plans ACNJ didn’t like, thanks to a lawsuit ACNJ opposed, what is ACNJ’s response? Change the measure!

The federal government measures progress on child safety by requiring states to report the proportion of children who are substantiated victims of maltreatment who are reabused within six months.

The New Jersey measure goes further – it zeroes in on cases in which the children are left in their own homes, and it watches for reabuse for 12 months instead of six.

But at ACNJ’s urging, the new bill demands what should best be called the Doctrine of Psychic Powers.  The ACNJ proposal says: Measure the proportion of unfounded cases in which, at some future point, a child really is abused.

The problem with this approach is aptly illustrated by the Christiana Glenn case itself.  In that case four reports were declared unfounded and, later, she was, of course, horribly abused. 

But if news accounts are correct that’s because, in the intervening years, a man entered the family’s life who persuaded Christiana’s mother that starving the girl and denying her medical care were bizarre religious rituals.

Exactly how were the caseworkers who investigated this case in 2006 and 2008 supposed to know that was going to happen?  Similarly, if a child is safe during prosperous times, but then Dad is laid off in a recession and, in a fit of anger, throws his toddler against a wall, is that something child welfare workers should have predicted years later?  


            worse than any specific provision is the overall message the legislature is sending: Presume every family guilty – and if every family is guilty we all know what workers are supposed to do with every child they encounter: Take the child and run.

            For starters, that’s going to undermine what is needed most to protect the next Christiana, building trust in the impoverished communities where child welfare agencies spend most of their time.

            Citing monitor Judith Meltzer, The Record put it well in a wise editorial today:

"Something happened in this family between 2008 and 2011 when Christiana died," Meltzer said. The child welfare agency must "reach out to community and neighborhood leaders to understand why neighbors, relatives and citizens are frequently reluctant to alert the child protection system when they have concerns."

We agree. A neighborhood knows a child best, and sees how that child is treated away from the eyes of a caseworker. The state must work hard to gain the trust of the communities in which troubled families live, so that if one call to a child-abuse hotline falls through, someone else follows up. Residents must make enough noise to get attention.

            Instead of encouraging residents to make noise, the ACNJ bill, with its demand that everyone in those communities who is the subject of such noise should be presumed guilty, is likely to terrify them into silence.

            And, of course, the bill is one more goad to another foster-care panic in New Jersey.  If that happens, ACNJ will probably respond exactly as they did to the foster care panic following Faheem Williams death in 2003 – when they misread the data and put out a report wrongly claiming there was no evidence of such a panic.

It’s all part of a reign of error that dates back more than a decade, error that impedes reform in New Jersey to this day.  That story tomorrow.

Monday, June 13, 2011

UPDATED, 5:25PM: Foster care in New Jersey: Child safety continues to improve

Monitor’s statement is rebuke to those seeking a return to the days of “take the child and run”

Judge overseeing class-action suit also praises agency

            The latest state to see the take-the-child-and-run crowd try to roll back a successful reform is New Jersey. As usual, they’re trying to exploit a tragic death.

But this time a reform effort that has significantly reduced entries into care and improved child safety has two strong defenders – the independent monitor overseeing a class-action lawsuit settlement, and the judge who has the final word on that settlement.

            In unusually-strong language for this kind of document, monitor Juith Meltzer of the Center for the Study of Social Policy issued a special statement along with the regular monitoring report released today.  In that statement she strongly defended both the reforms in general and the handling of the recent tragedy.

            That tragedy is the death of Christiana Glenn, who was allegedly starved and denied medical care by her mother.  According to news accounts, this allegedly occurred after the mother came under the sway of a boyfriend involved in what he persuaded her were religious rituals.

As is always the case with statements from child welfare court monitors, the language is measured, even genteel.  That’s because a monitor’s role also is to serve as a de facto mediator between the state and whoever is suing the state.  So by the standards of such documents, this statement amounts to a stinging rebuke to those who have tried to exploit the Glenn case to roll back reform and return to the take-the-child-and-run approach that dominated the system before reform.

            In general, “New Jersey’s child welfare system is …doing a better job protecting and supporting New Jersey’s children and families,” than before the reforms, Meltzer said.

            She went on to address specifically, the case of Christiana Glenn. 

            New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families and its Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), investigated four previous reports about the family and determined that all of them were unfounded.  That prompted those who have opposed reform from the start to “raise questions” about whether too many cases are labeled unfounded and more children should be torn from their homes.


            But Meltzer concluded that the reason these four reports were declared unfounded is because they were, in fact, unfounded.  The reports were received between 2006 and 2008, well before the boyfriend entered the picture.  At the time, Meltzer wrote, “none of the activities and behaviors that were associated with the children’s abuse and Christiana’s death were observable by the DYFS worker” nor were they reported to that worker by the family’s only neighbor, a day care worker or the children’s pediatrician.

            Workers for agencies like DYFS are expected to be many things.  But they are not expected to be psychic.  Sometimes children “known to the system” die and it’s not the child welfare agency’s fault.

            That means even looking only at this case, there is nothing to indicate the reforms have compromised safety or that New Jersey needs to return to taking away more children.

            Using a more reliable measure than the latest horror story, the overall rate of reabuse of children left in their own homes after a substantiated report of maltreatment, the monitor found that the reabuse rate remains well below the level required to meet the terms of the consent decree, and, of course, well below where it was when New Jersey was taking away far more children.

            Indeed, to the extent that there was any failing it was that DYFS was not able to persuade the mother to accept enough voluntary help. 

            This echoes a theme in previous monitoring reports on New Jersey: that the biggest failings involve prevention and family preservation, not investigations or failure to be aggressive about removing children.

            The monitor’s comments do not address the issue of a newly-discovered fifth report received days before Christiana’s death, a call which a hotline operator did not refer for investigation.  Based on news accounts, it appears that the person calling was anonymous, he had an address but no name for the family and his concerns were vague.

If that is the case, had this been the only report on this family, it would have been the right decision.  The apparent failure on the part of the hotline operator was a failure to link the address given by the anonymous reporter to the address of Christiana.  So the operator apparently was unaware of the family’s history.

            Unfortunately, in any system that responds to tens of thousands of calls every year, operators sometimes will screw up, and sometimes that will have tragic results. That may well be what happened here.  It does not follow, however, that the hotline regularly is failing.

The state's handling of the investigation into the Glenn case won praise from the judge in charge of the consent decree.

According to the Newark Star-Ledger:

"This is not an agency that went into a bunker mentality," Judge [Stanley R.] Chesler said, in praising DCF for working closely with Meltzer, the federal monitor, as she has sought in recent weeks to review DYFS's investigation of the Glenn family in 2006 and 2008. In expressing further approval of the agency's handling of its investigation into Christiana Glenn's brutal death, he said DCF had "presented this situation indeed transparently."

            The monitor’s report also is notable in other respects.  While New Jersey still has a very long way to go, few systems under consent decrees have come so far so fast.  To cite just one example: New Jersey went an entire year without placing even one child under age 13 in a parking place “shelter” -  one of the worst forms of placement.  That is a record almost any state would envy, whether under a consent decree or not. 

And that helps explain why Judge Chesler said that, compared to when he first started overseeing the New Jersey child welfare system, that system has improved "drastically."

            What makes this all so important is the urgent need to avoid a repeat of the foster-care panic - the huge spike in needless removals of children - in the immediate aftermath of a horrendous case that made headlines in January, 2003, the death of Faheem Williams. 

            That case led to a foster care panic in a state that already had been wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach for several years.  It also forced the state to settle the lawsuit.  And even though the suit was brought by the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights, the settlement came during a time when CR was willing to listen to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a former funder of NCCPR, and so was more progressive than most.

            The result: A reversal of the take the child and run approach, a significant reduction in entries into foster care and safer children.

            That’s what’s under attack right now – and fortunately, that’s what the independent monitor has come forward to defend.

Foster care in Los Angeles: Using another tragedy to push a take-the-child-and-run agenda

Presumably, Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf flunked his tryout as a foreign correspondent* because he’s back doing what he does best – using tragedy to smear efforts to keep families together.

Therolf built his latest story around a letter he obtained from the founder of what in California is known as a Foster Family Agency (FFA). These are private agencies that recruit and train foster parents and oversee foster homes. FFAs are paid for every day they hold children in foster care.

The founder of this FFA, Linda Kontis, sent the letter to Michael Nash, the presiding judge of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court, deploring the reunification of Vyctorya Sandoval with her parents and warning that the reunification was unsafe. The letter was courteous, respectful and, apparently heartfelt.  And Kontis was absolutely right.  A few months later, the child was dead.  The parents are under investigation.

This was, in fact, one of those cases with more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade. 

But instead of just seeking a review of the case before it was too late, Kontis also sought to scapegoat all efforts to keep families together.  That, of course, is red meat for Therolf, whose willingness to distort facts to push that same agenda has been documented repeatedly on this Blog and elsewhere.

So that became the theme of Therolf’s story as well.  Once again it was up to Celeste Fremon at WitnessLA to set the record straight.  Writes Fremon:

The implication in the letter and in Therolf’s story is that the Department of Children and Family Services now has such a blindly strong prejudice toward keeping families together that it is endangering children’s lives—in some cases with deadly results.

However the details in the letter, if accurate, paint a picture more of reckless incompetence.  [Emphasis added.]

Exactly.  And in these egregious cases, the real roots of tragedy almost always can be found either in such incompetence or in caseworkers too overloaded with false allegations and trivial cases to investigate any case properly.  Those also almost always are the reasons behind the many cases in which children are needlessly torn from everyone they know and love. But Garrett Therolf refuses to report on those cases.


Further support for Fremon’s take can be found in the data. 

I have emphasized data on entries into care – that is, the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year – and how those entries increased because of Therolf’s shoddy reporting.  But data also are available on exits from care, that is, the number of children released from foster care over the course of a year.

Rather than a mad rush to reunify, the number of children reunified with their parents actually declined from the year ending October 2008 through the year ending October, 2010, the most recent year for which data are available.  Reunifications that year were at their lowest point since the end of 2006.  (Too see the data Therolf either didn’t include in his story, click here and follow the instructions for creating a table.)

Meanwhile, entries into care increased during the first full year after the Los Angeles County foster-care panic.  And on October 31, 2010, the most recent date for which data are available, the number of children in foster care in Los Angeles County actually increased over three months earlier – the first time that’s happened in Los Angeles in more than a decade.

In short, all the trends are going Garrett Therolf’s way, and yet, somehow, Vyctorya Sandoval still died.  While I think incompetence is the most likely explanation, it’s possible that it was system overload, in which case Vyctoria Sandoval died in part because all the trends are going the way Garrett Therolf wants them to go.

And, of course, Therolf gives readers no inkling of the fact that people who run FFAs have a vested interest in scapegoating efforts to keep families together.

Sadly, that very vested interest might even be why Kontis’ letter didn’t get the attention it deserved.  Since FFAs have a vested interest in opposing reunification in every case, Judge Nash may have thought Kontis was crying wolf.  In fact, her concerns were entirely justified.


Therolf even managed to distort the issue of opening court hearings in these cases.  He wrote that legislation to open the hearings in California was put on hold “partly because of opposition from the union representing many county social workers.”

That’s true, and it’s deplorable – but it’s also grossly incomplete.  The union opposed such legislation in past years and this year as well. But so has “management” in the form of the California Welfare Directors Association.  And this year, it looked like the bill had a good shot at passage anyway - until the California Youth Connection, a group of current and former foster children, opposed it, something discussed in detail in these posts to this Blog.

Yet Therolf doesn’t mention CYC or any group opposing the bill except the union.  Apparently the union has joined family preservation and family reunification on Therolf’s Most Favored Scapegoats list.

*Actually, I have no idea if Therolf flunked a tryout.  It may be that his assignment in Egypt was meant to be strictly temporary all along.  I simply decided to apply Los Angeles Times journalistic standards and “presume” that he failed.  Just as Times Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter declared that “presumably” anyone who doesn’t like their child welfare coverage doesn’t want news organizations to cover “mismanagement or poor execution of policies” and just as Lauter declared that a group criticizing the newspaper’s failed attempt to rate teachers wants information about teacher performance kept secret.

Since I am applying the Times’ own standards here, presumably Garrett Therolf won’t mind a bit.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: How Marcia Lowry helps to make poor people poorer

Two stories starkly illustrate why Marcia Lowry and the group she runs, the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR) may be one of the most harmful forces in American child welfare, and a threat to poor people across the country.

 The first story, from the Detroit News, is one of many about a foster care worker / child abuse caseworker hiring binge in Michigan as a result of the dreadful consent decree the state entered into with CR.  The hiring binge and other settlement requirements are going to cost the state $70 million this year.  (Of the many stories, this is the only one to raise any questions about priorities.)

And how does a state that was among the hardest hit by the recession propose to pay for all this?  In part by throwing 12,600 people off the welfare rolls. If the plan becomes law, the expulsions will be immediate, there will be no time for those kicked off to even try to find some other way to support their families.  This comes on top of years of cuts in prevention and family preservation programs in order to finance the settlement and a rate increase for “residential treatment” centers.  Details are in our reports on Michigan child welfare.

Jackie Doig of the Center for Civil Justice in Saginaw asked will happen when the parents thrown off welfare can’t afford to feed or house their children: “Are they just going to remove the children and put them into foster care?”


And 700 newly-minted caseworkers will be ready to come and get them.

Because while Marcia loves to negotiate settlements that call for spending more on child abuse investigations and foster care, the settlements never specify that states can’t get the money by cutting prevention family preservation and other help for impoverished families. So of course, governments go after those least able to fight back.  After all these years, surely Marcia could have figured that out.

Still, you’ve got to give Marcia credit for salesmanship.  While the left will blast the welfare cuts, lots of liberals love Marcia and her group, taking no notice of her role in those cuts.

But Marcia does not love liberals back. Marcia’s group used to be a project of the American Civil Liberties Union.  But Marcia told the Chronicle of Philanthropy that she left the ACLU in part because too much of what that group did was tied to a “liberal agenda.”  (Of course, leaving the ACLU also may have made her more appealing to Carl Icahn, the corporate raider who once chaired her Board of Directors).

So Marcia keeps on suckering liberal donors, and then using their money to win settlements that harm poor people.


As for why I keep referring to her group as arrogant, for one reason, just check out what was revealed at the first court hearing in connection with their suit in Texas.

Children cannot bring civil lawsuits on their own; it has to be done by someone known in legal jargon as a “next friend” – meaning someone deemed knowledgeable enough and caring enough to act in the child’s best interests.

In the Texas suit two of the next friends don’t even know the children they “represent.”  The rest were the children’s guardians ad litem in their individual cases.  But while in most cases CR’s Complaint specifies that the “next friends” have visited their clients, in three cases the Complaint makes no such claim – which raises an obvious question.

At the first hearing on the suit it was revealed that at least two of the “next friends” have not even bothered to tell the children they “represent” that they have brought suit on their behalf – even though these children are old enough to understand and to have a say in whether they want to be a part of the lawsuit.

And this isn’t the first time issues like this have arisen in connection with a CR suit.

This is one more indication of the dehumanizing, bureaucratic mentality that characterizes CR.  It’s hard to imagine an organization that saw children as flesh-and-blood human beings treating them this way. But it’s easy to see how that can come from a group that sees children only as numbers and case files.

That helps explain why it’s so easy for CR to accept funding its settlements by taking the money out of poor people’s pockets. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Foster care in America: Then and now

My daughter found this on YouTube.  It's from the 1927 Clara Bow film "It"

If anyone wants to see the rest of the film, it's available here thanks to a YouTube user who goes by the name "Silver Light Special"

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Foster care in New York: John Mattingly’s broken promise, and the children hurt by it

The New York Daily News ran an excellent story Monday about schools using “educational neglect” charges to harass families, or simply to protect themselves, not the children.   The story documents case after case of children needlessly harmed by trumped-up charges. One school practically admits that the people reporting these families know that a lot of the reports aren’t really necessary:

"If we don't make a call when a student has been absent an excessive amount and something happens to the student when they should have been at school, then it will come back to us," said Achievement First [school] spokesman Mel Ochoa.

Then comes the usual boilerplate from the city child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services:

 “ACS is appropriately required to investigate concerns of educational neglect when a parent is not making sure that a child is going to school, particularly when the concerns involve younger children."  

The best that can be said about this is that the flak who said it, Elysia Carnevale Murphy, is too new to the job to know better.  At least I hope that’s the explanation. Because she is flat wrong.

 ACS has to do something. While half the states are wise enough not to include educational neglect in the mandate of their child welfare agencies at all, New York State is not one of them. 

But New York City and the county agencies that handle child abuse allegations in the rest of the state no longer have to launch full-scale investigations.  They have the option of using an approach called “differential response.”

As Ive noted in previous posts to this blog, more than a year ago ACS Commissioner John Mattingly promised to try differential response in some educational neglect cases  – as recommended in a report from the Vera Institute of Justice.  Then, Mattingly reneged. 

The Daily News story gives some idea of the suffering Mattinglys broken promise has caused for New York City children.

ON MONDAY: How much has child welfare really changed in 84 years?