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.