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.