Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Keystone Kops of commissions holds another conference call: We listen, so you don’t have to!

The "Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities"
held a conference call Saturday.

● Commission chair suggests raiding scarce prevention funds to pay for more child abuse investigations.

● The Commission vs. the evidence base.

● Meet Michael Petit, born again fiscal conservative.

● One commissioner raises questions about keeping drafts hidden from the public.

 After NCCPR issued its comprehensive “pre-buttal” to draft recommendations by the “Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities” the Commission responded immediately – they stopped making their drafts public.  (See the discussion below concerning whether this is legal.)  So now they conduct long, drawn-out conference calls discussing later drafts and other documents that no one outside the commission can see.  It’s sometimes been necessary, therefore, to draw inferences concerning what, exactly the commission is talking about.

If any commissioner feels these inferences are inaccurate, the Commission is welcome to set the record straight – by releasing the documents and the tape recordings it makes of its conference calls.

When we last left the “Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities” they were debating a recommendation for a “surge” in which states would be forced to reopen thousands of cases of alleged child maltreatment in which children were allowed to stay in their own homes, in order to see which ones should be torn from everyone they know and love and consigned to the chaos of foster care after all.  There would be no comparable look at children already trapped in foster care to see if they could go home.

Another draft recommendation calls for prohibiting state child abuse hotlines from “screening out” any call alleging child abuse or neglect involving a child under age 5, no matter how patently absurd that call might be.  Even among calls that are screened in, 87 percent turn out to be false.  We estimate this recommendation would increase investigator caseloads by 44 percent, and almost all of that time will be spent spinning their wheels as they look where abuse and neglect are least likely to be found – stealing time and effort from finding children in real danger.

The Commission has been going around in circles debating which would scare Congress more: saying out loud that they want $1 billion in new funds just for the “surge,” or whether they should just say, in effect: “If you don’t throw gobs of money at our unscientific recommendation that has no evidence behind it, children will die!”

But on a conference call that lasted nearly three hours Saturday (about one-third of which was devoted just to figuring out whether there would be an up-or-down vote on all recommendations) Commission Chair David Sanders floated a new idea:

Either instead of, or in addition to, asking for more money, it’s not clear which, Sanders suggested that the Commission might want to recommend letting states use money from something called Title IV-B.  This is the meager pot of money the federal government now makes available, in part, for prevention and family preservation. 

Even though the evidence is clear that it is prevention programs, as well as broader anti-poverty efforts, that actually curb child abuse fatalities, Sanders is proposing allowing states to divert money from such efforts and pour it into investigating more families and taking away more children.

This is a bit like telling states: Hey, you know that federal money that now goes to food stamps for poor families – how would you like to spend it on hiring more cops instead?  It’s not hard to imagine the result. 

Actually, we know the result because it’s already happening: Many states already raid funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) – the program that replaced “welfare as we knew it” to fund child abuse investigations and foster care, now Sanders is proposing to rob poor families again.

At another point there was some discussion of making the far bigger program that funds foster care and adoption, Title IV-E available for these investigations as well.  And one time I would have thought that wasn’t so bad.

But, as it happens, right now, for the first time in decades there is serious discussion in Congress about actually allowing those foster care funds to be used for prevention and family preservation – soon there may even be legislation to that effect.  But some on the Commission already appear ready to swoop down and urge that some of that money be carried off to fund giant schemes for traumatizing thousands – maybe more than a million – children every year with needless child abuse investigations.

Ignoring the evidence base

Sanders made his suggestion at a particularly revealing moment in the deliberations.  He’d just finished admitting, in effect, that the Commission had failed.

He noted that after two years of searching the Commission had found exactly one approach to reducing child abuse deaths that met the standard for being “evidence based.”  (A few others were “promising.”  The terms are not just rhetoric, there actually are formal definitions.) 

But that one evidence-based practice had nothing to do with screening in more hotline calls or “substantiating” more cases or taking away more children.  No, the one and only evidence-based practice they found was a well-known, highly regarded home visiting program known as the Nurse Family Partnership.  In other words, a prevention program.  That’s exactly the kind of program that might be funded by, say, Title IV-B – if David Sanders doesn’t succeed in getting that money diverted into all those things that don’t work!

Indeed, Sanders even admitted that there’s “no evidence” that a “case review” – apparently the new euphemism for the surge – “will reduce fatalities.”

The new shade of lipstick

In a previous post about the Commission, I noted that changing the exact language in the surge
Graphic by Murdocke23 
recommendation is just putting lipstick on a pig.  Now, Sanders seems to have come up with a new shade of lipstick.

Michael Petit, the actual guiding force behind the Commission, and the person who, judging by the discussion at Saturday’s conference call, suddenly sprang the surge idea on the group late in its deliberations, has made clear that the purpose of the surge is to investigate more families and remove children who might be at risk.

But Sanders now is trying to reframe the surge – as a research project!  (After all, he admits there’s no evidence it will actually reduce fatalities.)  The theory is that by looking at all fatalities for the past five years (which, in small states, is likely to be an extremely low number) and finding common “risk factors” and then barging into every family that has at least one such “risk factor” we’ll somehow learn more about how to prevent child abuse deaths, even if we don’t actually prevent any.

Sanders offered no evidence that this approach to “research” actually works, nor did he cite any researchers who know how to study the issue who are clamoring for this approach to studying it.

Meet the new fiscal conservative

Michael Petit is the commissioner whose constant cry can be boiled down to “Spend more money!  Spend more money!  Spend more money!”  But on Saturday, he was singing a different tune.

That’s because the issue was a prevention initiative.  A subcommittee dealing with issues that include racial bias proposed a plan involving a special kind of court in which representatives of all the organizations providing services to families were right there at the courthouse, ready to step in immediately to provide the help a family needed to prevent abuse and neglect and stay together safely.  Instead of a collection of referral slips, the family would get immediate help with whatever was needed, perhaps housing, or job training, or drug treatment.

It’s not entirely clear how it would work – because the actual document under discussion is secret – but it sounds similar to this initiative in San Antonio.

Michael Petit was peeved.  He kept denouncing the idea – because it would cost too much money!  (He calmed down when assured the recommendation was only for a pilot project.) And, he argued, it wouldn’t stop fatalities.  “In terms of the immediacy of stopping child fatalities” he said, this was the wrong priority.  Yes, it’s a good idea “long term” Petit said, “But how much does this contribute to stopping children’s deaths now?”

Quite a lot, probably.  As noted above, and in our full report, there is no evidence at all that a surge or anything similar will prevent child abuse deaths.  David Sanders himself admitted as much.  In contrast, both ChildTrends (speaking of abuse in general) and the Center for Public Policy Priorities, speaking specifically about fatalities, found that serious prevention efforts are about the only things that do work.

Hiding behind secrecy

If there’s one thing child protective services agencies love to do it’s hide their errors behind “confidentiality.”  In fact, the Commission appears likely to recommend that Congress demand more transparency from state child welfare agencies when it comes to how they investigate child abuse fatalities.

But for the Commission, transparency does not begin at home.

On Saturday’s call, one of the commissioners, Theresa Covington, said people had complained to her about being unable to follow deliberations because the actual documents being discussed are now withheld from the public.  She asked in particular about written comments commissioners have circulated about the drafts.  It’s not clear if she was aware of the fact that even the drafts themselves are secret.

Sanders blithely assured her that the secrecy is just fine because the Commission regularly checks with the General Services Administration.  That is the federal agency which tells commissions like this one whether what they’re doing is legal under various statutes, including open government laws.

There are two problems with this:

● It’s not hard to get a government agency to tell another government agency what it wants to hear.  Look at the handstands the Bush Justice Department did to justify torture, for example.

● Even if, in fact, hiding the drafts and other documents is legal, that doesn’t make it right.  There is nothing in any law prohibiting the Commission from demonstrating the sort of transparency it appears ready to demand of others.

But apparently David Sanders, Michael Petit and some others on the Commission want to wait until they’ve found enough lipstick for the pig.

Friday, January 29, 2016


● Commission studying child abuse deaths holds public conference call – but keeps the draft they’re debating secret.

● Michael Petit desperately tries to put lipstick on a pig.

● Republican Commissioners fight over who cares more about kids.

● There’s another conference call tomorrow afternoon.

The lipstick isn't helping.
Graphic by Murdocke23
It’s chaotic, it’s angry, it’s dysfunctional, it’s secretive and it makes its decisions based on newspaper horror stories.  Yes, the federal advisory commission tasked with studying the child protective services system has devolved into a microcosm of that very system.

It would be funny – if not for the fact that the “Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities” is about to put forth recommendations that, if enacted, would do enormous harm to children.

Apparently, some members of the commission were embarrassed when NCCPR disclosed the wretched state of their draft recommendations, and the lack of logic behind them, in our “pre-buttal” to the commission released last week.  A story about internal dissension on the commission also probably was not something they wanted the world to know about.

So while they continue to meet via public conference call, they’ve stopped putting drafts of their report on their website.  It turns out there’s an entire new draft of the Commission’s report.  They discussed it for two hours last night.  But the document itself is secret.  As a result, no one who is new to the Commission would have much idea what was going on.

That seems to be how the leaders of the Commission -- its official chair, David Sanders, and its actual driving force, Michael Petit, want it.  Just as child protective services agencies desperately try to hide their mistakes behind “confidentiality” Sanders and Petit seem to want to do the same with the blunders of the Commission itself.

There is a special irony here since one commission draft recommendation – at least in the earlier drafts – is that states be required to be more transparent about child abuse deaths.

Refining the recommendation about the “surge”

Much of the discussion concerned refining Petit’s pet recommendation, something he calls a “surge” and other commissioners have called, with no sense of irony, an “accelerant.”

The wording was always vague, but the original surge proposal seemed to call for sending a “multi-disciplinary team” out to re-investigate every case that already had been investigated – but only those in which children were left in their own homes, in order to see if those children should be taken away.  There would be no examination of cases where children were consigned to the chaos of foster care to see if they could go home.

This would needlessly traumatize thousands of families, cost a fortune, and so overload workers that they would wind up with less time to find children in real danger.  Indeed, the one time I know of where this kind of surge was tried, in Connecticut in 1995, that’s exactly what happened.

In the new version, the process would be a little different.  First, child protective services agencies would be required to pull records for every child abuse death over the past five years.  They would study the files and look for common “risk factors.”  Then they would send those “multi-disciplinary teams” out to re-examine every case that had the same risk factor.

So, for example, if the vast majority of deaths studied (which, in a small state might mean four child abuse deaths out of a total of six) involved alleged drug abuse, every case with such an allegation would have to be re-investigated.  So for example, a mother like this one, who drank drank marijuana tea to ease the pain of labor, had her infant taken away as a result, and got the infant back after media coverage, might have her child put through that entire ordeal again, thanks to the surge.

Or, if the common factor was that the cases had at least one “screened out” referral – that is someone called the hotline, said there was abuse in the home, but the call was not accepted for investigation – then every screened out case would have to be screened in, with the multi-disciplinary team sent out to pry into the family, and quite possibly, leave with the children.

This is another example of the fundamental false premise underlying the Commission’s work, and discussed in detail in our “prebuttal,”  the idea that if you just find the magic risk factor, we can rush in and, in Petit’s words, figure out “who among these children is going to be killed,” [emphasis added]. 

But even if you double the official figure for child abuse fatalities, roughly 99.9967 percent of all parents or caretakers do not kill a child in any given year.  Therefore, very close to 99.9967 percent of parents or caretakers with a given “risk” factor also don’t kill a child in any given year.  So the surge will wind up harassing huge numbers of innocent families and stealing time from better ways to find children in real danger.

Foster care cases still effectively excluded

Cook County Judge Patricia Martin, the presiding judge of the Court’s Child Protection Division, again raised her concern that the “surge” targets only children in their own homes, not children in foster care.  She noted that she’s raised this often, Petit keeps promising to change the wording, but it never seems to change.

Petit promised that this time it really would change, and there would be no explicit language targeting only children in their own homes.  (The fact that he keeps forgetting to do this tells you all you need to know about his mindset.)

But changing the formal language is putting lipstick on a pig.  A set of laws that can never be repealed require that this kind of surge target only children in their own homes: the laws of mathematics.

Here we come back to the part of this story for which we all can be grateful. Though each is the worst kind of tragedy, and the only acceptable number is zero, there are too few child abuse fatalities to detect a pattern.

Here’s why: As noted above, even if you double the official figure, roughly 0.0033 percent of children die at the hands of a parent or caretaker each year.  Since a surge could look at only known cases, they’ll be looking at deaths caused by perhaps 0.00165 percent of parents or caretakers.

When looking at children in their own homes you’re looking at 0.00165 percent of 73.5 million – the number of children in America on any given day.  But if you’re looking at deaths in foster care, you’re looking at 0.00165 percent of somewhere between 400,000 (the number of children in foster care on any given day) and 650,000 (the number who pass through foster care for even one day in a given year).  That means you wind up with perhaps nine deaths in foster care in the entire country.  And given the double standards, written and unwritten, that permeate the process of deciding when a child is abused, the official figure is likely to be lower.

That doesn’t mean foster care is safe.  Study after study shows high rates of abuse in foster care, and a recent court decision from Texas documents that abuse in foster care there isn’t just common, it’s rampant.

But because in any setting, abuse that rises to the level of a fatality is very rare, many states will have no actual deaths in foster care and most will have too few to find a common “risk factor.”

So once again, Michael Petit has engineered a “surge” that gives the horrors of foster care a free pass.

Finding the right euphemism

Judge Martin also objected to the use of the term “surge.”  She noted that it conjures up images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  “I’m not at war with my parents and families,” she said, referring to those who come through her courtroom.  But Michael Petit is at war with parents and families.  His entire record makes that clear.

So “surge” is the appropriate term (“accelerant” is even better).  But the commission p.r. staff has been tasked with coming up with a euphemism.


The way the Commission is going about its task reminds me of a Doonesbury cartoon from the 1980s.  I’ve been unable to find the cartoon, so I’m working from memory here, but it went roughly like this:  President Ronald Reagan is asked what research he’s relying on for his proposals to slash assistance to the poor.  “This, right here,” he says, holding up a New York Daily News front page with the headline: “Welfare Queen Owns Six Cadillacs!” 

The commission is behaving the same way.

There was debate last night over whether to lard the report with horror stories from news accounts.  Apparently the draft contemplates sprinkling them all over the report, not just as introductions but even in the margins – a technique much-beloved by Petit.

There is a reason for this: Horror stories are what “child savers” -  the term they gave themselves in the 19th Century – have used ever since that time to stampede Americans into tearing apart families.  It served to obscure the real agenda: taking children from impoverished immigrant families whom these “child savers” feared and loathed.  Unfortunately, not has much has changed as we’d like to think.  And in this case, the horror stories are a way to distract readers from the lack of scholarship and lack of logic in the Commission recommendations.

At one point one Commissioner suggested that the horror stories stay in, but that the report specify that those horror stories were not the basis for the Commission recommendations.

Unfortunately, that’s not true.

The horror stories appear to the primary method the Commission used to reach its conclusions. Commissioners reference them constantly, and last night Petit vouched for what splendid sources they are.

Wade Horn
Indeed, at last night’s meeting, when Commissioner Wade Horn, a conservative Republican who once was the top child welfare official in the George W. Bush Administration, was asked why he’d changed his mind and now was willing to rcommend spending $1 billion on things like the surge, he explicitly stated that it was the horror stories that prompted him to want to spend the new money.

The dangers in this are spelled out well in a current story in The New Yorker.

In fact, if tough cases make bad law, horror stories make worse law.  One need only look at how this kind of reporting prompts foster-care panics, huge spikes (or “surges”) in the number of children torn from everyone they know and love and forced into foster care.  They also overload caseworkers, so they have less time to find children in real danger so more children wind up dying.

These panics fail because the overwhelming majority of children caught in the child protective services net are nothing like those in the horror stories.  Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect.  That’s one reason why two massive studies of typical cases found that children left in their own homes fared far better in later life than those consigned to foster care.

Now, the Commission is relying on those same sorts of stories to push a series of recommendations that would set off a nationwide foster-care panic.

Hey, big spender

Horn’s explanation for his turnaround did lead to two interesting moments.  Twice he spoke of how amazed people supposedly would be that a conservative Republican would advocate more government spending.

In fact there’s nothing surprising about that at all.  A lot of conservative Republicans love to spend more – as long as it’s on some kind of war.  A surge of caseworkers rushing in to see of more children need to be taken away resonates with this branch of conservatism every bit as well as a surge of troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.  After all, it was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who proposed consigning poor people’s children to orphanages.  (There is a similar problem on the Left.)

Cassie Bevan
But Horn’s statement also led to a remarkable confrontation with another conservative Republican on the commission, Cassie Bevan.  Bevan, a former aide to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, was once described as “the velvet glove holding DeLay’s hammer.She is one of the authors of one of the most harmful pieces of child welfare legislation of the 20th Century, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act.  (Another force behind this law: Hillary Clinton.)

Bevan does not want to recommend spending more money – in part because, she argues, the Commission has done nothing to evaluate all the existing programs and figure out which, if any, actually work.  It’s a good point, actually, though there is so much bias in child welfare scholarship, that there would need to be extraordinary safeguards to ensure that any such evaluation was truly objective.

When Horn talked about how the horror stories persuaded him to embrace more spending, Bevan exploded.  She accused Horn of somehow suggesting that she didn’t care just as much about children as he did, and insisted that no one cared more than she.

Horn replied that he was speaking for himself, and did not mean to imply that anyone cared less than anyone else.

Tune in tomorrow

There is another conference call scheduled for tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time.  Though there is no published agenda, it appears that at the meeting, Judge Martin will be trying to explain the issue of racial bias in child welfare to people like Petit, who once said the states doing the best job of protecting children “have smaller, whiter populations.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Recommendations from federal commission on child abuse deaths would take a bad system and make it much worse

  • Recommendations now being finalized by the "Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities"  would create a regime of domestic spying that would make the NSA blush

Today, NCCPR releases a report analyzing draft recommendations from the federal "Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities."

The analysis responds primarily to two documents containing draft recommendations from the Commission, available here and here. Other parts of the analysis are based on recent public meetings of the Commission held via conference call. 

We realize some might wonder why we are responding to recommendations before they are final.  But we’re sure the Commission will understand.  After all, the entire theme of their work is the need to try to stop harm before it occurs.

Below, is the introduction to the report.  The full report is available here.
It is, of course the most noble of goals: eliminating child abuse and neglect fatalities.  But a commission created by a federal law and charged with recommending ways to achieve those goals is debating draft recommendations that, if enacted, are doomed to fail.  They would harm hundreds of thousands of children who were never maltreated and actually make it less likely that children in real danger will be found in time.

            We estimate that just one of the recommendations from the “Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities” probably would add more than 800,000 new child abuse investigations every year – a 44 percent increase. One Commission document appears to say that this recommendation alone would cost more than $1 billion, at another point it was suggested that the cost for all recommendations would be at least $4 billion per year – and even that may be just the amount the Commission wants the federal government to supply.  These funds would have to be taken from far better approaches to reducing child abuse.  And the additional 800,000 investigations would inundate the system, so overloading workers that they actually would wind up missing more children in real danger.

            Another recommendation, the one the Commission appears most proud of, would require Child Protective Services (CPS) to go back and reconsider every open case in which they decided to leave a child in her or his own home.  Some commissioners are calling it a “surge;” others prefer “accelerant.”  (There are a number of variations on this floating around – some say it would be every open case with certain risk factors – but all versions target only children left in their own homes.)  This appears to be based on the false assumption that at least if the child is in foster care, that child is safe.  The high rates of abuse in foster care indicate otherwise. 

This recommendation gives no weight to the enormous emotional trauma of foster care, trauma so great that two huge studies found that children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.
And once again it would divert time, energy and resources from far better options.  One state that tried this approach wound up with a huge increase in its foster care population – and an increase in child abuse deaths.

            Indeed, if the Commission’s top priority is child safety, it should be calling first and foremost for a review of every child in foster care to see if the child really needs to be there.

            Still another recommendation, discussed below, reveals the same sort of racial and class biases as permeate the child welfare system itself.

All of the members of the Commission have the best of intentions; some have an excellent track record as child welfare reformers. But strip away the rhetoric and the jargon and all that the Commission really is recommending is more of the same: a vast expansion of the current failed child protective services bureaucracy that already wreaks havoc in the lives of millions of innocent families even as it overlooks children in real danger. 

The Commission added a dystopian, 21st Century twist.  They appear to justify the draft  recommendations based on the notion that science has advanced to the point where the same sorts of algorithms that Netflix uses to predict which movies you want to see also can tell us where CPS workers can barge into a home and, often, take away the children.

            It is much like the model depicted in the science fiction film Minority Report, in which people are arrested and jailed based on the predictions of three psychics in a bathtub.  But instead of seeing that film as a warning, the Commission seems to view it as a blueprint.

            But what the Commission does is even worse.  At least the algorithms are, in theory, tailored to individual circumstances (though anyone looking at their suggestions list from Netflix may question that).  The Commission is proposing wholesale changes in law, changes that would apply to millions of Americans, based on wild extrapolations from studies of individual risk factors.

The commission uses the same sort of fear-mongering as
Donald Trump to justify its recommendations.
Photo by Gage Skidmore
            In other words, the Commission takes the concept of “predictive analytics,” a fad that is questionable in itself – and perverts it.  The result is recommendations that add up to a regime of domestic spying that would make the NSA blush.

            The rationale behind these recommendations echoes the worst excesses of the so-called war on terror.  Terrorists kill innocent men, women – and children.  So demagogues like Donald Trump propose that we prevent all Muslims from entering America. Most of the members of the Commission probably found Trump’s proposal appalling.  But it is remarkable how often otherwise sensible people resort to Trump’s kind of fear-mongering and extremism when the topic is child abuse. 

In this case, the draft recommendations use the same justification as Trump – the killing of innocent children - to justify allowing CPS workers to barge into hundreds of thousands of homes where the evidence of maltreatment is so weak that child abuse hotlines did not even accept the call for investigation.  They use Trump’s logic to try to justify their proposed “surge” – with Trump-style disregard for the massive collateral damage it would cause.  And they use   Trump logic for what appears to be a call for changes in state law that would allow CPS workers to conduct traumatic investigations of children, have the children stripsearched, and consign those children to the chaos of foster care, all based on a hunch that and at some point in the future someone in that home might abuse or neglect a child.

            In Minority Report, this was known as “pre-crime.”

            Still another draft recommendation might expand the authority of CPS workers to remove children in one of the places where such removal hurts children the most – when a parent has been a victim of domesticviolence.

            And like the child welfare system itself, the recommendations reflect profound bias.  One recommendation calls for universal drug testing for pregnant mothers whose birth is paid for by Medicaid – in other words, mothers who are poor. The Commission member whose lobbying led to creation of the Commission, and who has been the strongest supporter of the most draconian recommendations, Michael Petit, once told a Congressional committee that, when it comes to preventing child abuse “the states that do the best overall are the ones that have smaller, whiter populations” [emphasis added].  During that same testimony, Petit perpetuated stereotypes about minorities and drug abuse.

A transcript of the December 3, 2015 Commission meeting reveals Petit still trying to minimize the role of racial bias in the disproportionate rate at which African-American and Native American children are taken from their homes.  Indeed, in a dialogue with another commissioner, Cook County Judge Patricia Martin, the presiding judge of the Court’s Child Protection Division, Petit seems to have difficulty even grasping the concept. (For details, see the previous post to this blog.)

            Even if one thinks it’s worth this massive undermining of civil liberties in order to reduce child abuse fatalities, there is another problem with this approach: It will backfire.  In fact, it already has.  All over the country, high-profile child abuse deaths have led to demands to investigate more cases and take away more children.  That’s led to foster-care panics – sharp sudden spikes in removals of children from their homes.  Over and over, these panics have been followed by increases in child abuse deaths.

            The draft recommendations are a formula for a nationwide foster-care panic, on a massive scale.

            The Commission recommendations involve a huge increase in the number of people to be investigated and spied upon by child protective services agencies.  We know that state and local governments aren’t going to raise taxes to pay the more than $1 billion per year or $4 billion per year or maybe much more that this will require.  Rather, they will turn to one of two alternatives: They will cut back on other human services programs – programs that are far more likely to curb child abuse – or they will simply increase the workload of existing staff.

            Indeed, at a time when Congress finally is giving serious consideration to allowing funds now reserved for foster care to be used for safe, proven prevention and family preservation programs as well, there are Commissioners who seem to have their eye on that pot of money as a way to fund child abuse investigations instead.  (There was a somewhat vague, general discussion of this during a Commission conference call on January 16.)

            Either way, it backfires.  If you cut effective child abuse prevention programs the result is obvious: more child abuse.  If you overload staff they have less time to investigate any case properly, so they make more snap judgments in all directions.  So even as more children are taken needlessly from their homes, more children also are left in danger.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Child welfare and racial bias: A big blindspot on the Left

In an episode of Michael Moore's TV Nation, Yaphet Kotto
tries to hail a cab.  The flowers and baby didn't help.
UPDATE, MARCH 2021: Sadly, many in child welfare, including the dean of at least one school of social work, remain "in denial" about racial bias.

Back in the mid-1990s, filmmaker Michael Moore had a wonderful television series called TV Nation. In one segment, two men tried to hail a taxi on a New York City street. One, the person any driver would see first, was Yaphet Kotto, the distinguished Black actor. The other, farther down the block was Louis Bruno, a white convicted felon, recently out on parole.

This story - and the fact that I don’t need to tell anyone who kept getting the cabs - comes to mind whenever I read about the extent to which child welfare practitioners and policymakers are “in denial” about racial bias in their own field.  Martin Luther King Day seems an appropriate time to examine this denial and its consequences.

Those not in the field might be surprised.  A lot of people in child welfare, people with impeccable liberal credentials, people who have no problem understanding how bias might influence a police officer, refuse to believe that the same bias could influence a Child Protective Services caseworker exercising what are, in fact, police powers: going into a home and deciding whether to take away the children.

Why are children of color taken from their homes at rates so much higher than their representation in the general population?  It’s not race, the deniers say, it’s poverty. 

There are two problems with this argument:

First, child protective services agencies are not supposed to take away children because the family is poor – though it happens all the time.  (The great thing about pointing out racial bias in child welfare is that it makes defenders of the system so defensive that at least they’ll admit to the class bias.)  Of course there are times when the stress of poverty contributes to actual maltreatment, but in most such cases that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to remove the children from the home.

But there’s another problem with the “it’s because of poverty” argument:

Multiple studies have found that even when you control for poverty, children of color are more likely to be taken from their homes: 
● A study by researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that when doctors examined children, “toddlers with accidental injuries were over five times more likely to be evaluated for child abuse, and over three times more likely to be reported to child protective services if they were African-American or Latino.”   
● A study of decision-making at 39 pediatric hospitals found that “Black children are more likely to be evaluated for abuse than white children with comparable injuries …”
● A study of decisions to “substantiate” allegations of maltreatment after they are reported found that caseworkers were more likely to substantiate allegations of neglect against Black and Latino families – and the only variable that could explain the discrepancy is race.
● A study of women whose newborns tested positive for cocaine found that the child was more than 72 percent more likely to be taken away, if the mother was Black.
● A comprehensive federal study of child maltreatment found that “even when families have the same characteristics and lack of problems, African-American children and Latino children, to a lesser extent, are more likely than white children to be placed in foster care.”      
● But perhaps most telling is what happens when caseworkers are given hypothetical situations and asked to evaluate the risk to the child.  The scenarios are identical – except for the race of the family.  Consistently, if the family is Black, the workers say the child is at greater risk.
 Citations for all of these studies are available here.

Yet the denial persists.  Case in point: Michael Petit, who founded a group called Every Child Matters with a lot of backing from liberal foundations.  Petit  has been among the foremost proponents of the take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare.  Much of the material ECM published, when Petit was leading it, was misleading.

Michael Petit
Petit once told a Congressional committee that, when it comes to preventing child abuse “the states that do the best overall are the ones that have smaller, whiter populations” [emphasis added].  During that same testimony, Petit perpetuated stereotypes about people of color and drug abuse.

Partly as a result of that hearing, Petit managed to persuade Congress to establish a “Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.”  The Commission is finalizing its report and there will be much more about it on this blog soon. [UPDATE: Our posts about the commission are available here.]

But for now I want to focus on a transcript of the December 3, 2015 Commission meeting. It reveals Petit still trying to minimize the role of racial bias. It  also reveals a disturbing streak of arrogance.  At one point, Petit says, that though she wasn’t doing it on purpose, another Commission member, Patricia Martin was “minimizing” and “downplaying” various “risk factors” that might contribute to the overrepresentation of people of color in child welfare. 

Judge Patricia Martin
Patricia Martin is the Presiding Judge of the Child Protection Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, (Metropolitan Chicago) Illinois, a job she has held for more than 15 years.  She also has served as the President of the Board of Trustees of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.  Before becoming a judge she held several positions in the office of the Cook County Public Defender.  She also is African-American.

Petit ran the child welfare system in Maine in the 1980s and then worked for a trade association for public and private child welfare agencies. Many of the private agencies are paid for each day they keep a child in foster care.

So, who is most likely to actually know about the risk factors in families that come to the attention of child protective services?  Who is more likely to know about the role of racial bias?  Who is most likely to know about the interplay of these factors?

But Petit wasn’t done.  He went on to offer up the equivalent of the “some of my best friends are…” defense.

He questioned whether racial bias could be at play since, in some urban areas, much of the leadership and many caseworkers are African-American.

It was up to Judge Martin to break the bad news:  “Black people have bias, too, Mike,” she said.  “It's not intentional bias all the time, and I would never suggest that the people I work with are prejudiced or biased intentionally. We do things because we are conditioned to do them.
And, of course, sadly, the world is filled with examples of intra-ethnic prejudice; in which people in the same racial, religious and ethnic group, hold prejudices against others in their own group.

None of this means that people who work in child welfare are a bunch of racists – though occasionally one witnesses an example of behavior that should give anyone pause.  Rather the research means that they are human, subject to the same prejudices as the rest of us.  But child protective services workers have a lot more power than most of us – power to destroy a family with almost no checks andbalances.  That’s why it’s so urgent to guard against decisions based on prejudice – and why the persistence of the Myth of Child Welfare Exceptionalism is so alarming.

When will we really know when there is little or no racial bias in child welfare?

How about when Yaphet Kotto can hail a taxi?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Media shocked – shocked! – when Oregon foster care chief states the obvious

A headline on the website of the Portland Oregonian today says: 
Foster care scandal: Are kids safe? 'I can't answer that question yes' 
The headline refers to a dialogue at a legislative hearing yesterday.  According to the Oregonian it went this way: 
Clyde Saiki, the department [of Human Services] interim director, was asked at a hearing Thursday whether he could say all children in state care "are safe today." He gave a blunt response: "No." 
"The way you've asked that question," Saiki told [State Sen. Sara] Gelser, "I can't answer that question yes. That's something that bothers me. That's something that keeps me up at night." 
Judging by the stories written about this, it seems reporters were shocked – shocked! – that the head of the child welfare agency can’t guarantee that every foster child is safe.

But it was a loaded question – one to which the only possible honest answer is “no” and always will be “no.”  Not just in Oregon, but in every child welfare system in America, including the few that are relatively good.

Clyde Saiki
Abuse in foster care is a major national problem.  Study after study has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes – and the record of group homes and institutions is even worse. 

Oregon may well be no worse than many other states, particularly those other states which, like Oregon take away far too many children.  Oregon may just be getting more attention at the moment.

But Sen. Gelser trivializes this serious issue by setting an impossible standard.  Indeed, the phrasing of the question makes me wonder if she wanted a serious answer, or just a chance to look good on television.  Earlier I gave her credit for sincerity, now I’m starting to wonder.

The reason for that boils down to the word that made the question so loaded: All.

Are all children in foster care in Oregon safe? No.
Are all children in foster care anywhere safe? No.
Are all children agencies decided to leave in their own homes safe? No.
Are all children at college safe? No.
Are all children in high school safe? No.
Are all children currently in cars on America’s highways safe? No.
Are all children currently walking down the street safe? No.
Are all politicians more interested in grandstanding than genuinely improving child welfare? No.

Or, to put it another way: Would anyone seriously call a police chief on the carpet by demanding to know if all citizens in his or her community are guaranteed not to be victims of crime?

The question should be: What can be done to make children as safe as possible – and bring abuse in foster care as close as possible to zero?  But that’s not nearly as likely to get you headlines – especially since the honest answer is: Start by taking away fewer children.

A threat from foster care agencies

This was illustrated, albeit unintentionally, in the Oregonian story.  Gelser has introduced legislation that supposedly would crack down on abuse in foster care.  But look what the head of a trade association for foster care agencies said: 
Janet Arenz, the director of the Oregon Alliance of Children's Programs, a group that lobbies for foster care providers, supported Gelser's goals 
Let me just stop here: Her goals involve making sure foster children aren’t abused.  Who wouldn’t support them?  Now, get ready for the but … 
but raised concerns about the cost some providers might face under stricter rules. She said agencies had been ending their foster care contracts even before the prospect of reforms. State officials have repeatedly lamented, in hearings but also in … emails … Oregon's lack of safe and appropriate placements for foster children. The foster system is in charge of 8,000 kids on any given night. 
"They're not sustainable," Arenz said. "They're losing too much money. There's tremendous risk in managing the kids and making sure they're complying with rules and regulations." 
In other words: Better watch out Oregon, if you make us meet even minimal standards we’ll close our doors and then what are you going to do? 

That threat only works when the state is taking away too many children in the first place.  Stop the wrongful removal and foster care no longer is a sellers’ market. The state can call the agencies’ bluff and get rid of the bad actors.

Flaws in proposed legislation

Unfortunately, Gelser’s “all or nothing” approach also is reflected in a bill she’s introduced to force Oregon DHS to crack down on abusive foster care providers.  Again from the story: 
Officials would also be forced to revoke a license if a child dies because of abuse, regulators learn a provider didn't immediately report a sex crime, or the provider fails to cooperate in an investigation. 
Now, consider a hypothetical:

Agency X has been doing an exemplary job for 40 years.  It holds foster parents and group home staff to the highest standards and it genuinely works with families to get children returned home as soon as possible.  It has an unblemished record.

Until one day, one staff member, perhaps beset by personal problems of his own that no one knew about, explodes.  He hits a child hard, the child hits his head on the floor and dies.

Or, let’s say one staffer gets scared and covers up an instance of child-on-child sexual abuse.

If the Oregonian description of Gelser’s bill is correct, the license for this entire agency is pulled immediately.

What happens to the children?

Actually, Linus was on to something
Flickr Photo by Lehigh Valley, Pa.
They may well have to be uprooted and moved to another foster home – even though one of the major reasons foster care does so much harm to children is because it forces them to move from placement to placement.

Gelser’s jury-rigged solutions remind me of an old Peanuts cartoon in which everyone is trying to figure out how to keep Snoopy warm when he sleeps atop his doghouse on cold winter nights.

All sorts of bizarre ideas are brought up until, finally, Linus says: "Why doesn't he just sleep inside the doghouse?"  The others just look at him and roll their eyes at the absurdity of such a suggestion.

Similarly, Gelser and Oregon media, insist on ignoring the fact that the only way to fix foster care is to have less of it.

By the way, if you click on the Oregonian story be sure to scroll down to the comment from WeCanDoBetterOregon. It is one of the best analyses of political – and media – response to this kind of crisis I’ve ever read.