Monday, February 29, 2016

Debunking the latest dangerous fad in child welfare: "predictive analytics"

There are big dangers in using "big data" to try to predict who is going to abuse or neglect a child.  Meta Brown, a columnist for Forbes, who also is a statistician and expert on “data mining,” warns of those dangers in this column.

And I have my own column on the dangers of data-nuking poor families at the Chronicle of Social Change

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Foster care in Michigan: The reporter who listened

The Lansing State Journal published a package of excellent stories this week on how families in Michigan are destroyed when they don’t have adequate defense counsel to fight for them in court.  Sadly that is the norm, not just in Michigan, where we discussed it in our reports on child welfare in that state, but in most of the country.

The State Journal stories include an outstanding overview of the damage done, contrasting what happens in typical cases with the results in the rare cases when families can get help from groups like the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, some useful graphics and two sidebars, including one about a case that perfectly illustrates the biggest single problem in American child welfare: the confusion of poverty with neglect.

But I was most struck by a paragraph at the very end of the main story.  It’s in the how-and-why-we-did-this-project section, a standard feature of investigative projects

In this case, that section began this way:

This story started with a brief report in July 2015, on the 10th anniversary of the death of Ingham County foster child Ricky Holland, that detailed the ways Michigan continues to fail foster kids. After that story published, Lansing State Journal investigative reporter Justin A. Hinkley received numerous phone calls from parents claiming the Michigan Children’s Protective Services had taken their kids away without cause. The State Journal decided to dig.

The original story wasn’t about wrongful removal at all.  Yet the newspaper received lots of calls from people saying that’s what happened to their families.

That’s not unusual.  Any reporter who does a big story about child welfare gets those calls. Even if the story was the most common kind, the kind that’s easiest to get, the “Why-did-the-child- welfare-system-allow-this-child-to-die” story, the calls and emails and letters will come in.

But most reporters ignore those calls.  Most reporters blow off the very idea that there’s a big problem with children needlessly being taken from their homes.  And the exceptions usually involve the very rare cases in which the problem affects a middle-class family – the kind of family reporters can identify with.

There are a lot of reasons.

● The race, class and personal experiences of most journalists are a lot closer to those of foster and adoptive parents than they are to birth parents who lose their children to foster care.  Chances are every reporter has a relative or a colleague or a friend or a friend-of-a-friend who is  an adoptive parent or foster parent; odds are almost none have a personal connection to a birth parent whose child was taken away.

● With no personal experience to counter it, reporters accept the same stereotypes as most people: Parents who lose their children to foster care must be sadists brutes and/or hopeless addicts who “put drugs ahead of their children.”

● It’s easy to make such assumptions both because they have no personal experiences to counter it, and because child welfare systems are more secret than the CIA.  It’s easy to hide needless removal of children behind “confidentiality” rules that supposedly protect children but actually protect only agencies. 

In contrast, the only time the system can’t hide – or at least can’t hide as easily – is when a child dies.  So it’s easy for journalists to get the misimpression that the system errs in only one direction – leaving children in dangerous homes.  It’s just as easy for reporters to convince themselves that if the system occasionally errs in the other direction, no real harm is done.

Then there are the problems in reporting the story, even when reporters are inclined to do so:

● Desperate people don’t always tell the most coherent stories.  The words tumble out over the phone or they come in page after page of email, often without so much as a paragraph break.  It takes a lot of work to figure out the story, and then there’s no guarantee that there is a story. 

Some of the people who make these claims actually are guilty as sin.  Some are crazy. Some have been driven crazy by what has happened to them.  But many of them are right.  They are fighting for children who have been victimized by a very real injustice – being torn needlessly from everyone they know and love.

The people making the calls and sending the emails are desperate for a reporter to listen.  Justin Hinkley listened.  Another Michigan reporter who listened was Curt Guyette.  He wrote about the confusion of poverty with neglect for the Detroit alternative weekly Metro Times in 2009.  Being a good listener pays off.  More recently, Guyette was the reporter who first exposed the poisoning of Flint.

There are a lot of reasons why so many reporters don’t listen; I mentioned some of them earlier.  But there are other barriers as well.

● A reporter who commits to trying to do the story then has to face the “veto of silence.”  The child welfare agency is likely to say “Oh, there is so much more to the story and we wish we could tell you, really we do, but we just can’t – confidentiality, you know.”

This is nonsense.  In a few states, laws specify that, in many cases, agencies can talk.  The agencies just pretend they can’t.  And child welfare agencies are no different than any other bureaucracy.  I know from my own 19 years as a reporter, and from the experiences of so many others, that  if the agency really has information that will make it look better, someone is likely to leak it.

But still, there’s that nagging doubt in the back of the reporter’s mind – what if I publish this and I wind up looking like a fool?

● And after all that, there’s one last problem – the problem faced by all reporters: Editors.

Not only are editors likely to be reluctant to give reporters the time to do a project like this, they’re likely to cling to the same preconceived notions as most reporters.

There are ways to overcome all of these problems.  Many reporters have.  Links to some of their work are on this page at

But sadly, when it comes to that paragraph in the Lansing State Journal story, the one thing that’s unusual is that last sentence.  The one that says “The State Journal decided to dig”

Thank you, Justin Hinkley, for digging.  And, oh alright, thank you State Journal editors, too.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Data-nuking poor families is not the answer to child abuse

For more recent information about the harm of predictive analytics in child welfare, see our publication Big Data Is Watching You

Much as the National Rifle Association argues that “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” Joshua New defends the use of predictive analytics in child welfare by telling us, in effect, that computers don’t remove children, caseworkers do.

But there’s a corollary: Just as we should be doing more to keep big, powerful guns out of the hands of people who don’t know how to use them, the human beings who run child welfare systems can’t be trusted with the nuclear weapon of big data.
This is illustrated by the way New himself handles data. In the second sentence of his column, the champion of big data misunderstands the first statistic he cites.  He writes: “Consider that in 2014, 702,000 children were abused or neglected in the United States …”
But that’s not true. Rather, the 702,000 figure represents the number of children involved in cases where a caseworker, typically acting on her or his own authority, decided there is slightly more evidence than not that maltreatment took place and checked a box on a form to that effect.

For purposes of this particular statistic, there is no court hearing beforehand, no judge weighing all sides, no chance for the accused to defend themselves.
I am aware of only one study that attempted to second-guess these caseworker decisions. It was done as part of the federal government’s second “National Incidence Study” of child abuse and neglect.  Those data show that caseworkers were two to six times more likely to wrongly substantiate maltreatment than to wrongly label a case “unfounded.”
I don’t blame the federal government for compiling the data.  I don’t blame the computers that crunched the numbers.  My problem is with how the human being – New – misinterpreted the numbers in a way favorable to his point of view.
I’m not saying he did it on purpose (after all, he’s only human); I use the example only to illustrate why, when he says that predictive analytics systems are merely “decision support systems,” that’s not reassuring.
Nor is it reassuring to find that while New tells us how the predictive analytics experiment in Los Angeles, called AURA, allegedly pinpointed a large proportion of cases that led to severe abuse (according to a study done by the same company that developed the software), he leaves out the fact that more than 95 percent of cases flagged by AURA apparently were false positives.

New also accuses those of us who disagree with him not simply of opposing predictive analytics, but “sabotaging” it, a word that conjures up images of luddites from the Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy sneaking into offices to destroy computers.  He offers no data to support his claim of sabotage.
Then, he concludes by dredging up the latest version of the classic canard: If you don’t support doing exactly what I want to do in exactly the way I want to do it, then you don’t care about child abuse!  His version is to allege that those of us who disagree with him are “more fearful of data than they are concerned about the welfare of children.”
Human fallibility intrudes in other ways as well.
Human beings decide which “risk factors” the computers seek out.  So, for example, in AURA, the computer looks at things like whether a child has been taken to an emergency room often.  But impoverished parents rely more on E.Rs, whether they also happen to abuse their children or not.
Another alleged risk factor: changing schools a lot. But that happens to impoverished families who are homeless or get evicted because they can’t afford the rent – and to families of color whose children were victimized by the well-known racial bias in school discipline – whether they also happen to abuse their children or not.
Instead of compensating for human biases, AURA is likely to magnify them.
And let’s not kid ourselves.  How many child protective services caseworkers will dare to leave a child in his or her own home — notwithstanding the 95 percent false positive rate – when it means that, in the event of a tragedy, that caseworker will be on the front page for ignoring the “sophisticated computerized risk assessment protocol” and “allowing” a child to die?  New’s own rhetoric makes clear what such a caseworker will face.
Right now, AURA is going to be used to analyze reports received by the Los Angeles child protective services “hotline” and passed on for investigation. But why wait for reports? Once we have all that “big data” about where the “high risk” cases are, will CPS workers simply be empowered to barge in the door of every home that gives off an “aura” of child abuse? That federal commission on child abuse fatalities may recommend something similar.
So no, we should not give child protective services agencies the power to data-nuke our most impoverished families. Even if the data are up to the challenge, the human beings are not.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Parking place “shelters” help the helpers, not the children

When writing about child welfare I often cite an old Peanuts cartoon in which the characters are gathered around Snoopy’s dog house trying to figure out how to keep him warm when he sleeps on the roof on cold winter nights.

Finally, Linus offers up a suggestion: “Why doesn’t he just sleep inside the doghouse?”  The other characters roll their eyes at the absurdity of the idea.
The latest bit of child welfare news to bring this to mind is Daniel Heimpel’s plea to save one of the worst forms of “care” for young children – a parking place shelter (albeit an “award-winning” shelter).

It seems the State of California dared to question the idea of warehousing children in such institutions for more than 24 hours. The state is right.
Shelters are dumping grounds for overloaded child welfare systems. Sometimes they’re very pretty dumping grounds with lots of well-meaning people. But that doesn’t change the fact that, instead of a home, children are cared for by shift-staff dispensing indiscriminate pseudo-love to whoever comes in the door. They’re also “assessed” by “trained staff” of course, in order to prepare them for exactly what they would have gotten without the shelters – usually a succession of foster homes.
“Shelters” may be the second most sacred cow in all of child welfare – right after CASA – and no wonder. Donors love them. They can get a plaque on the wall for giving money or furniture or, if they’re really rich, donating a whole building.

The volunteers love them. They can turn real flesh-and-blood human beings into human teddy bears who exist for the volunteers’ gratification and convenience, even as they convince themselves they’re helping children. When they get bored with their human teddy bears, they simply hand them back to the shift staff.
In short, they’re good for everyone but the children.
Shelters are exercises in adult self-indulgence and self-delusion. This can be seen in the fact that so often the shelters are for younger children only. All the same rationalizations apply to older foster youth, but they’re not nearly so cute and huggable, so the adults aren’t interested in “sheltering” them.
 As with any form of institution, and that’s what shelters are, a whole rationalization industry has grown up around them.

And so, the chief defender of the “Children’s Welcome Center” in Los Angeles, Dr. Astrid Heger, offers a series of claims with no actual data to back them up. She tells us, for example, that if Los Angeles dares close her shelter, “rates will go back up of [sic] reabuse.” But according to the excellent database maintained by the California Child Welfare Indicators Project, the rate of re-abuse didn’t go down in the years since the shelter opened – it stayed the same.

In contrast to Heger’s unsupported claims, Connecticut actually launched a comprehensive study of its parking place shelters.
The study found that children who went through the shelters tended to have worse outcomes than those who went straight to foster homes. The only thing the shelters were good at was wasting huge sums of money. As usual in child welfare, the worse the option for children, the more it costs.

Just like other shelter defenders, Heger is interested only in keeping the shelter for the cute kids – she’s just fine with dispensing with another one in the same building for older youths, even though, if shelters had any real value, they’d be equally valuable for both. After all, don’t older kids need to be “assessed” by “trained staff” just as much as younger kids?
Sure, the L.A. shelter for the older youth quickly became a hellhole, but if shelters really are so great their proponents should be advocating for fixing the problems, instead of dispensing with the whole shelter idea once the children no longer are as adorable. But it’s so much harder to turn a teenager into a human teddy bear.
Like most people in child welfare, Heger means well. But Heger’s own “solution” shows a startling lack of understanding of the emotional trauma children endure when they undergo multiple placements: If the child is still at the shelter after 24 hours, she says, uproot the child and place her or him in another institution – a “decompression center” for 72 hours, before finally, in theory at least, moving the child to an actual family.
Or, maybe it’s not so startling, considering some serious errors she’s made in the past.

But the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services isn’t actually proposing a better idea. DCFS wants to dump the children in four new shelters run by private agencies and officially licensed to do what the current shelter does unofficially: warehouse the children for up to 72 hours.
In fact, none of these options would be needed if Los Angeles simply stopped taking away so many children in the first place. But one can see how this option might not get on the agenda if, like Heimpel, you simply declare as fact that all of the children are “passing from their abusers’ to DCFS’ hands.” At least now that Judge Heimpel has decreed every parent who loses a child to DCFS to be guilty we can dispense with that big, expensive court system.
But other cities know better.
[THESE DATA HAVE BEEN UPDATED SINCE THIS POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED] Compare the rates at which children are taken from their parents in America’s ten largest cities and their surrounding counties and the rate of removal Los Angeles is third highest, more than 40 percent above the ten-city average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in. The rate of removal in Los Angeles is well over double the rate in New York City.

Anybody have any evidence (not competing horror stories, actual evidence, please) that Los Angeles children are well over twice as safe? The rate of removal in Los Angeles is more than triple the rate in metropolitan Chicago – where independent court-appointed monitors say that, as foster care has been drastically reduced, child safety has improved.
Anyone seriously want to claim L.A. children are more than three times safer from abuse than Chicago children?
Get the children who don’t need to be in foster care out, and there will be plenty of room in good, safe foster homes for all the children who really need to be there – and no child will need to be parked for days in a shelter.

But that’s absurd, right?  As crazy as suggesting that Snoopy sleep inside the doghouse.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Two new NCCPR op-ed columns: Child welfare finance and fixing foster care in Texas

The Chronicle of Social Change has begun a series of columns and stories about child welfare finance.  First up, pro and con columns concerning child welfare waivers.

Here's NCCPR's column in favor of waivers

And at TribTalk, the op-ed division of the Texas Tribune, Johana Scot and I have a column on how to fix the hellscape that is foster care in that state.

Read the TribTalk column here

Do waivers work? Compared to what?

In the middle of the last decade, the State of Florida and two counties in California got a head start on the pack in developing and implementing the modern era of child welfare waivers. These waivers allow federal funds now reserved for foster care to be used on better alternatives, including family preservation strategies.

Key measures tracked in evaluating waivers include: entries into care, number of children in foster care on a given day, re-abuse of children left in their own home and re-abuse of children after they are returned from foster care.
So, how did they fare?
§  In Florida, entries into care declined significantly, and the independent evaluation of the waiver found that child safety improved.
§  In Alameda County, Calif., there was a big drop in entries into care, and both key safety measures improved, according to the California Child Welfare Indicators Project.
§  In Los Angeles County, foster care entries barely changed; the point-in-time number actually declined more slowly than before the waiver.  One safety measure stayed the same, one got worse.

The conclusion is obvious, right? Get rid of the waivers – they’re endangering children!

Only in the upside-down, inside-out world of American child welfare would anyone think that makes sense.
What also makes no sense is how we fund child welfare now. The giant, open-ended entitlement reserved for foster care dwarfs the meager amount of federal aid available to keep families together.
This does not mean, as some on the far right say, that governments make money on foster care. But it does mean that even when safe, proven alternatives cost less in total dollars, it can cost a state or a county less to place a child in foster care. And many private agencies, paid for each day they hold a child in foster care, do indeed make their money that way, creating a perverse incentive to prolong foster care.

Waivers are a very small effort to redress this imbalance, because anything bigger is routinely defeated by lobbying from agency trade associations such as the Child Welfare League of America.
So, how do we know waivers won’t encourage a mad rush to keep children in dangerous homes? It didn’t happen in Florida. And it didn’t happen in Alameda County.

It also didn’t happen in Illinois, which didn’t wait for a waiver and moved to change incentives for private agencies on its own. In 1997, there were 50,000 children trapped in foster care in that state, proportionately more than any other.
Then, instead of simply paying per diems to private agencies, Illinois started rewarding them for permanence – adoption and reunification – and penalizing those that didn’t deliver. Today there are about 17,000 children in foster care in Illinois, and independent court-appointed monitors found that child safety improved.

What about L.A.? The results tell us only that in one of the most dysfunctional, highly politicized systems in America – with, at the time of the waiver, possibly the worst governing body in all of child welfare – it’s going to take more than a few years to get a waiver right.

The Other Incentives
The other reason the Chicken Littles are wrong about waivers is that while financial incentives are an important incentive, they’re not the only incentive. All the other incentives encourage needless removal of children as well.
Personal incentives: When a worker sees a child living in poverty, the first instinct is often to “rescue” the child on the assumption that the child is bound to be “better off” in care.

The child in that impoverished home is a reality before the worker’s eyes. The dangers of foster care, physical and emotional, are an abstraction.  The problem is compounded by the class bias and racial bias that permeate child welfare. If keeping families together really is everyone’s first priority, as everyone claims, why is it that the only form of permanence most ever celebrate is adoption?

Political incentives: Many child welfare workers like to say they’re “damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”  But it’s not true.  Caseworkers and administrators don’t get fired, suspended, demoted or even slapped on the wrist for taking away too many children. All of those things have happened to workers and agency chiefs who “allowed” a child to die on their watch.

When it comes to taking away children, you’re only damned if you don’t. Indeed, one reason the waiver changed so little in Los Angeles was because of ongoing, inaccurate media coverage in the Los Angeles Times.  Something similar is happening now in Florida.  But while entries into care now are increasing again, they have not increased at nearly the rate they did under almost identical circumstances in 1999 – when there was no waiver.

Ideally, there would be no “external” incentives pushing child welfare decision-makers in any direction. But that’s impossible. So as long as so many incentives push workers to take the child and run, a change in financial incentives is needed to push back, just a little, the other way.
The “Compared To What?” Factor
The trashing of waivers also suffers from the same double standard that crops up whenever someone tries to change the foster care status quo. A few examples:

A whole lot of studies of Intensive Family Preservation Services programs that follow the Homebuilders model find them safe and effective, while a few studies of programs that don’t follow the model do not. Critics focused only on the studies of programs that don’t follow the model.

There are 26 studies of differential response, and 25 find that it does not compromise child safety. But one finds that that it does, so critics focus on that one and accuse everyone else of bias! (In fact, the only study I know of to look at scholarly bias in child welfare suggests the bias goes in a very different direction.)

And when one evaluation after another finds that waivers don’t compromise safety, critics focus on the one indicator from one evaluation that does.
That pernicious double standard allows things like the appalling rate of abuse in foster care itself to go unchecked.
We can’t measure how many Los Angeles children were saved from abuse in foster care itself by being sent home sooner. But given the number of studies that show abuse in one quarter to one third of foster homes (with a worse rate in institutions), it probably was a lot.

Even those studies are likely underestimates.  Read the scathing 200 page decision by a federal judge in Texas in a class-action lawsuit against that state’s system – a decision finding that abuse in foster care isn’t just common, it’s rampant – and tell me why we shouldn’t be demanding changes in the financial incentives that encourage needless placement.

The real problem with waivers is that they don’t go nearly far enough.  At a minimum, every state should be allowed to trade in its foster care entitlement funding for a flat amount of funding, adjusted for inflation, that could be used for prevention and family preservation as well as foster care.  Ideally, such a change would be mandatory.
Isn’t it time, finally, for the burden of proof to switch to those who want to keep on shoveling money into a foster care system that does so much harm to so many children?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Child abuse in America: Why we need to remember “McMartin”

I was asked recently about the issue of highly-credible allegations of child sexual abuse not being taken seriously when they should.  The explanation once could be boiled down to simple shorthand – it’s a response to “McMartin.”

Another commentator recently wrote a column extolling the virtues of one of those awful parking-place shelters that do so much harm to children.  I wonder if he would have been quite so credulous about the claims made by his primary source had he realized that she was a key player in the injustices that once could be summed up just by saying “McMartin”?

When it was all still fresh in people’s minds, we understood that “McMartin” was a reference to a wave of mass hysteria over alleged “mass molestation,” usually in day care centers, that seems almost incomprehensible today.  Or, as The New York Times put it in a story looking back on that era:

[S]ome of the early allegations were so fantastic as to make many people wonder later how anyone could have believed them in the first place. Really now, teachers chopped up animals, clubbed a horse to death with a baseball bat, sacrificed a baby in a church and made children drink the blood, dressed up as witches and flew in the air — and all this had been going on unnoticed for a good long while until a disturbed mother spoke up?

But they believed – oh, how they believed.  The case involving the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California was among the first and got the most attention.  But, as the Times explained, it didn’t stop there: 
 McMartin unleashed nationwide hysteria about child abuse and Satanism in schools. One report after another told of horrific practices, with the Devil often literally in the details. 
Criminal cases of dubious provenance abounded. One that received great attention involved Margaret Kelly Michaels, convicted in 1988 of rampant sexual abuse at the Wee Care Day Nursery in Maplewood, N.J., where children said she had sexually abused them with knives, spoons and forks, and had urinated in their mouths. None showed signs of injury. Six years later, Ms. Michaels’s conviction was overturned. Another prominent case from those days involved charges of rape and sodomy brought against the operators of the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, N.C. As with McMartin, there were bizarre allegations early on about babies being murdered and children thrown in with sharks. Though defendants were found guilty, their convictions were later overturned and charges were dropped. 
They believed in large part because a whole lot of medical professionals and therapists told them to believe.  “Believe the children,” they said.  “Children don’t lie,” they said.  And if you don’t believe the children then you’re little better than an abuser yourself.

But the children were coached.  Sometimes bribed, sometimes cajoled, sometimes bullied until they told the “professionals” what they wanted to hear.

In what is probably the best account of all this, Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker’s book, Satan’s Silence, the authors describe how Dr. Astrid Heger, then of the Children’s Institute International, which fomented the McMartin hysteria, questioned one girl who repeatedly denied being abused.  Heger tells the little girl:

I don’t want to hear any more “no’s.  No, no!  Detective Dog and we are going to figure this out.  Every little boy and girl in the whole school got touched like that … I think there’s something to tell me about touching.”

That’s far from the worst example.  Watch the documentary accompanying the Times story for others:

But I mention the example involving Heger here because Heger now runs the clinic that’s the first stop for medical and mental health examinations for thousands of children taken from their parents by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.  The clinic is right down the hall from theparking place shelter she wants to keep.

Both now and during the McMartin case, Heger had only the best of intentions.  But she's mistaken now as well.  She claims that if her shelter is closed “rates will go back up of [sic] reabuse.”  But according to the excellent database maintained by the California Child Welfare Indicators Project, the rate of reabuse didn’t go down in the years since the shelter opened – it stayed the same.

The other reason to remember McMartin is the devastation left in its wake – not just the lives destroyed by legal bills, at best, and jail terms at worst.  But all the children who lost their families, and all the children who actually were persuaded they were abused when in fact they were not.  Click on the comments tab for the Times story and you’ll find a comment from someone who says he was one of them.

And even that is not the end of the damage.

The hysteria was just starting to abate when my book, Wounded Innocents, was published in 1990.  At that time I wrote:

When hoaxes are exposed, they cast suspicion on all children who say they have been abused and make it easier for the public to retreat back into denial of a very real problem.
Recently there have been charges that the problem of false allegations in [divorce and] custody cases is beginning to produce a backlash.  Instead of automatically believing the charge, some judges are said to be automatically disbelieving.  If so, the blame rests squarely with the child savers who started the hysteria.  They have managed to find one more way to destroy children in order to save them. 
If that’s happening now in some cases, there may be a variety of reasons.  But one reason can be summed up in one word: McMartin.

Friday, February 12, 2016

From a Florida child saver: A startling admission and a new low in smears

No, Maj. Shingledecker, every parent who loses a child to foster care is NOT a likely murderer

I don't think even HE would say what Maj. Connie Shingledecker said.
Photo by Gage Skidmore
Anyone who still doubts that the Florida Foster-Care panic – the huge surge in removals of children in that state in the wake of shoddy reporting by the Miami Herald - is causing more children in real danger to be overlooked should read this column by Tom Lyons in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The headline is: “Child abuse crises created by those we think are fixing it.”

He cites remarks by none other than Major Connie Shingledecker of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.  Manatee is one of a handful of counties in which the Sheriff, rather than the state Department of Children and Families, handle child abuse investigations.

Shingledecker is in charge of that division.  For many years she also chaired the state’s Child Abuse Death Review Committee, where she constantly pressured the state to broaden the definition of neglect to the point where almost any parent in the state would be covered.

Shingledecker is probably the second strongest proponent of the take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare in Florida’s recent history (just behind disgraced former DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney).  Like Kearney, Shingledecker means well.  But like Kearney, she fits the mold of those who, in the 19th Century, proudly called themselves “child savers” as they tore apart the families of impoverished immigrants.

And because Shingledecker has been at it for such a long time – nearly two decades now – she may have done even more damage.  Indeed, year after year, Manatee County has had one of the highest rates of child removal in Florida.

So it was startling when, after a high-profile tragedy for which her own department shared responsibility made headlines, she effectively blamed the very foster-care panic she did so much to encourage.  Then she tried to divert attention from her own office’s failings by offering up a smear of birth parents so rotten I don’t think even Donald Trump would sink so low.

It happened at a forum on child abuse in which there was much discussion of the death of Janiya Thomas, an 11-year-old Manatee County girl who was missing more than a year before her body was discovered.

A state report on the case documented blunder after blunder by Shingledecker’s officers – with many of the crucial mistakes made in the spring and summer of 2014 – right after the Herald stories were published, setting off the current foster-care panic.  The body was not discovered until 2015.

As a result, removals of children in Manatee County skyrocketed during the same months Shingledecker’s deputies were making crucial mistakes.  In the four months after the Herald stories were published, the number of children torn from their families in Manatee County was more than double the number the year before.  Even as so many children were taken needlessly, Janiya Thomas was overlooked.

Asked to explain her agency’s failures, Shingledecker came startlingly close to admitting it was because of the panic.  According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune:

Shingledecker declined to discuss specifics about the case, which remains under investigation. Yet she outlined what child protection detectives in Manatee dealt with overall in 2015, a year in which the death of Janiya Thomas became “an anomaly.”
“It was an unbelievable year for us,” Shingledecker said.
The Sheriff's Office … received a record high 4,300 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect from a state hotline last year.
Of those, 22 percent were verified, with the leading reasons being substance abuse by the parents and family violence.
Investigators removed from their homes and arranged shelter for 652 children, 56 percent of whom were age 5 or younger.
 It was up to Tom Lyons to point out something else about that 652 figure -  it was up from 387 the year before.  Lyons wrtites that  
Big increases in children taken into state protection almost always reflect changes in policies and pressures on caseworkers to err in that direction, not changes in the threat level.
 So, to review: Shingledecker’s officers faced a deluge of child abuse reports, 78 percent of which, by the officers’ own estimate, had no merit.  So they spent more than three-quarters of their time spinning their wheels.  They also wasted a huge amount of time needlessly removing vastly more children.  And while workers were overwhelmed doing that, they missed crucial warning signs in the case of Janiya Thomas.

The same thing was playing out all across Florida, which may explain why child deaths among children previously “known to the system” increased in Florida in 2015.

But Shingledecker learned nothing from the foster-care panic.  By the same period this year removals were up another 35 percent.  And this past October, when the death of Janiya herself finally was discovered, removals skyrocketed again.  Manatee County tore apart 74 families in that month alone, nearly quadruple the number in the same month two years earlier.

But of course while Shingledecker strongly implies that the overload caused the blunders that contributed to Janiya’s death, she doesn’t acknowledge the role of foster-care panic in causing the overload.  And that’s where the smear comes in.  Lyons writes:

If you wonder if [all those additional removals of children] means someone was being overzealous, you should. But here is what Shingledecker said about that:
“We saved 652 lives last year.”
That's so far from true that I'm amazed she said it. Even taken as forgivable exaggeration to make a point, it is alarmingly misguided.
 Lyons is more forgiving than I.

To me, smearing every birth parent who loses a child to foster care as a likely murderer ranks right up there with Donald Trump suggesting every undocumented immigrant is a rapist (although even Trump said that “some, I assume, are good people”).

This is exactly the kind of stereotyping that foments foster-care panic in the first place.  These are the smears that allow hundreds of thousands of children nationwide to be consigned needlessly to the chaos of foster care, often because their parents are simply too poor to provide adequate housing, or too poor to afford child care so they leave a child home alone while they work to make ends meet.

And, of course, these are the kinds of smears that encourage the overload of the system, so more children in real danger are missed.

When taken together with all the other harm Shingledecker’s well-intentioned crusade has done to the children she intended to help, it’s not forgivable – not yet anyway.

It will be forgivable if she admits she was wrong.  It will be forgivable if she acknowledges the damage those kinds of comments do to children.  And it will be forgivable if she changes course and abandons the take-the-child-and-run approach she has practiced for nearly 20 years.

The prerequisite for forgiveness should be saying “I’m sorry.”

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Child abuse fatalities commission has found the answer: Throw platitudes at the problem!

Try our "Mad Libs version" of the commission's
latest blog post

 Have you heard about the computer program that can churn out political speeches.  Apparently, such speeches are so predictable and so clich├ęd that now a literal machine can write for a political machine.

I thought of that as I read the collection of strung-together platitudes that constitutes the latest  blog post from the so-called Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect fatalities. Just how devoid of content is this thing?  Well, you can read the original here.

Or, make it a little less painful by just looking below at what I call the Mad Libs version.  I’ve removed all references specific to child welfare and child abuse fatalities.  But other than that, it’s exactly what Comission Chair David Sanders allegedly wrote.  Try filling in the blanks with just about any other pressing problem – race relations, the global economy, education, poverty, environmental protection.  I particularly like the fact that item #1 on the list of “three major problems” can be used for almost anything without changing even one word.

So, for anyone out there who might someday chair a “blue-ribbon commission” file this away.  You never know when you might need it:


_______  Today and Envisioning a Stronger ___________ System for the Future

As the Commission nears the end of its work on the issue of ____________, it is clear that there are no simple answers to this complex challenge.

There have been promising findings from a few communities that have come together in ways that appear to be reducing _______________. These approaches are hopeful, and the Commission will build its recommendations off of what we’ve learned about what works and what does not and what approaches appear to hold promise. Unfortunately, we found only a few well-researched programs that are demonstrated to ______________ and only a handful of communities that had chosen to attempt to _______________. Furthermore, we found that a coordinated national response that reflects and responds to the urgency of the present crisis is lacking.

Based on the promising efforts we observed, we identified three major challenges facing communities that hindered efforts to reform _____________:

First, there is a lack of sustained leadership and accountability at the federal, state, and local levels. Leadership on this issue will require strategic planning, coordination across multiple agencies, sustained focus, and a level of resources to bring about significant change.

There is also a lack of evidence-based research and clear data about _________________. There is no standard mandated reporting system _______________, and definitions, investigative procedures, and reporting requirements vary from state to state.

And finally, a lack of cross-system collaboration places too much of the onus on ______ for __________________.

As we have heard from agencies across the spectrum, in order for any strategy to succeed, it will need to include a multidisciplinary model that features meaningful and mutually accountable partnerships among ________________, and more. We recognize that this kind of deeply rooted collaboration, while necessary to generate real and lasting solutions, takes time.

Yet we know that there is no time to waste if we are to ______________right now, today. As we completed this work, we read hundreds of headlines about ____________________. Not a day has gone by that we haven’t thought about _____________.

That is why, as we near the release of our final report, our Commission is reviewing options for both immediate recommendations that will begin to ____________ right away and comprehensive changes to create a redefined _______________ of the 21st century.

Solving the issue of _____________________is within our reach, if we can apply the lessons of the past, act with urgency to _______________, and create a new vision for a more effective ____________ system of the future.

There is, however, a very serious side to all this.  Whatever problem you used to fill in the blanks, odds are it was an issue with serious consequences for a lot of people.  The issue of child abuse fatalities is among the most serious imaginable. But it is throwing platitudes at the problem that trivializes it, not pointing out that those platitudes and recycled bad ideas are all this commission has got.