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.”