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.”