Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Child welfare Finance: Beware of “The Triad”: The bill they’re backing has become a Trojan horse

Time to take a close look at the "Family First Act"
To read the rhetoric coming from the foster care-industrial complex lately, you’d think that the private child welfare agencies that need a steady supply of foster children to stay in business had undergone a conversion worthy of Saint Paul.

Suddenly they’re all talking about “more should be done to keep kids in families” and how the federal government should be spending more on “prevention.”  They’ve even created a website called Keeping Kids in Families, (run by a group that actually calls itself the “Triad” partnership)  with infographics implying that they want to change funding priorities.

Don’t believe it.

They’ve stolen the rhetoric of reform, while getting rid of almost all of the substance.

Indeed, you have to spend a long, long, time poking around the website to even find the specifics about the legislation they urge people to support.  There’s a reason for that.

What these groups really are supporting is a plan for legislation (it’s not even a bill yet) called the Family First Act.  (This analysis is based on this outline from Senate Finance Committee staff, and a similar memo circulating among some child welfare groups.  So instead of referring to “the bill” I’ll be referring to “the outline.”) 

Like so much in child welfare, the original proposal was born of good intentions – and it might have made a pretty good bill. But it was quickly watered down.  In its present form, it opens up funding only to very limited forms of prevention.  And it does nothing to curb the current huge, open-ended entitlement for foster care.

In its present form the Family First Act is a Trojan Horse.  It leaves the false impression that its passage would lead to fundamental child welfare finance reform – thereby removing the pressure to make real changes, and possibly setting the stage for efforts to funnel even more money into foster care.

Child welfare funding today

Foster care is funded through a large open-ended entitlement program known as “Title IV-E.”  For every eligible child, the state picks up a large share of the tab – the share varies from state to state.  Roughly 44 percent of foster care cases are eligible for this reimbursement, and that percentage declines ever so slightly every year.  That’s because of something called “The lookback,” which I’ll get to below.

In contrast, a much smaller pot of money, called Title IV-B, is available for services to help keep children out of foster care – and that money is not an entitlement.  (Details are in this NCCPR Issue Paper.)

What the Family First bill would do (as far as we can tell)

The Family First Act outline calls for allowing IV-E funding for some services to keep children out of foster care.  However:

--These could be almost exclusively “soft services” – the “counseling” and “parent education” that typically do nothing to actually keep children out of foster care, but make the helpers feel good.  The one exception: Some forms of services might be available for “substance abuse prevention” – whether that also includes drug treatment is not clear. In addition. when a child is placed with her or his parent in a residential substance abuse treatment program, federal foster care reimbursement could be used to pay for the child’s care.

Totally absent are what families so often really need: Aid for child care, housing, or simply basic cash assistance to ameliorate the worst aspects of the poverty that often is confused with “neglect.”  This reportedly was in earlier proposals but was negotiated away early in the process.

The outline calls for allowing very limited aid of this sort under Title IV-B – but that’s the one that has almost no money in it, and is not an entitlement, so this means almost nothing.

The outline does allow emergency cash assistance if the child is placed with a grandparent or other relative.  In other words: In a case where the allegation is “lack of supervision” the new federal money could not be used to help the child’s parents pay for day care.  But if the child were placed with grandparents, federal money could help them pay for day care.

The problem is compounded by the criteria any prevention program must meet to be eligible for funding.  By the time the provisions in the outline are fully in effect the standard of proof would be so absurdly high that almost nothing would qualify.

That’s because the outline continues the profound double-standard for what constitutes an “evidence-based” practice in child welfare: If it’s an alternative to foster care it must be able to dot every I and cross every t on the most rigorous form of evaluation. Lizbeth Schorr, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, has several excellent articles on why this is an unwise approach in human services.  And in child welfare, there is the additional problem of a profound bias among many of the “scholars.” But the same standard does not apply to foster care – in fact, the outline contemplates continuing funding-as-usual for foster care despite the overwhelming evidence that, for most of the children placed there, it’s a far worse option than family preservation.

So state and local child welfare agencies would end up with the theoretical “right” to spend federal money on preventive services – but almost none of the services actually would qualify for funding.

A ceiling, not a floor

One could argue that the outline should be supported because at least it doesn’t make things worse – and there are some improvements around the edges.  And one could argue that this at least would set a precedent for using Title IV-E funds for prevention – it could be said to be a floor on which more reform could be built.

But it’s more likely that this bill would be a ceiling, not a floor.  Once the bill was passed, all the pressure for real reform – ending the foster-care entitlement - would go away.  Everyone could say: “See, we’ve now given child welfare agencies all the funding flexibility they need!” And if, by some chance, the number of children in foster care doesn’t drop, that will be cited as evidence that financial incentives were never the issue, and all those children really, truly need to be in foster care.

That’s when the foster care industrial complex will come charging back, seeking what they really want all along – an end to the “lookback.”

As I mentioned earlier, thanks to the lookback, the number of children eligible for federal foster care aid under Title IV-E decreases ever so slightly each year.  As a result, the foster-care industrial complex is finally feeling the heat – they know that if they don’t support some kind of change, federal foster care funding is going to dry up completely – though not for another 50 years or so.

So they want the fake reform of the Family First Act, followed by some form of end to the lookback.  (Details on how the lookback works and why we need it are here.)

And that’s exactly why those of us who want real reform should not settle for the Family First Act.  Rather we should let the heat keep rising on the foster-care industrial complex, until they’re willing to support the real reform.  That means ending the unlimited, open-ended entitlement for foster care and converting it into an inflation-indexed flat grant, that could be used both on foster care and on all kinds of prevention and family preservation programs.   

Similar problems with provisions on “congregate care”

The Family First Act also attempts to curb the use of the worst form of “care,” group homes and institutions, by putting some limits on when federal foster care money could be spent on such placements.  One could argue, again, that this is better than the status quo, since currently there are no limits, even on paper.

But the outline has so many ifs, ands, buts, and assorted other loopholes that the limit appears largely meaningless. And by actually creating a category of placement called a “Qualified Residential Treatment Programs” (or worse, one summary of the bill says these would have the oxymoronic name Quality Residential Treatment Programs) the bill runs the risk of “institutionalizing” the idea that there is something acceptable about institutionalizing children.

Now, about the Triad

The people behind that Orwellian Keeping Kids in Families website are a who’s who of the foster-care industrial complex.  The group is calling itself “The Triad for Results-Based Funding for Safe Children and Stronger Families” (you’d think they would have at least run a basic Google search for “Triad” before coming up with that name).

Leading the Triad is the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, a group that has little to so with either one.  Rather, it is a trade association made up largely of private agencies that oversee foster homes and run group homes and institutions.  These agencies typically are paid for each day they hold a child in foster care. The Alliance is led by Susan Dreyfus who came to the group after an undistinguished tenure running two child welfare systems. A good indication of where Dreyfus stands is the fact that, as a member of the so-called Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities she voted for the Commission’s awful recommendations.

Dereyfus’ group is joined by the National Organization for State Associations for Children, which actually is a collection of state federations dominated by foster care providers.  So two-thirds of the Triad has a vested interest in opposing any reform that actually would curb the huge open-ended entitlement for foster care funding. And there’s no downside for the third member of the Triad, the American Public Human Services Association, since the outline offers more money for limited forms of prevention without touching foster care.

The fact that these groups are supporting the Family First Act is not a reason to oppose it.  On the contrary, I’ve said repeatedly that child welfare is a field filled with good people who keep doing the wrong things for the right reasons.  If someone wants to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, I’ll take it.

But the Family First Act is not the right thing.

It’s also often said that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.  That’s true.  But the Family First Act is not good.  It is, at best, mediocre.  And the good should be the enemy of the mediocre.

Monday, April 25, 2016

What would a child welfare predictive analytics algorithm say about this?

Let’s take a trip into the near future. Just a couple of years.

Child Protective Services has just received a child maltreatment report concerning a father of five. With a few keystrokes, CPS workers find out the following about him:
He’s married, but the family lives in deep poverty. He has a criminal record, a misdemeanor conviction. He and his wife also had the children taken away from them; they were returned after six months.
These data immediately are entered into a computer programmed with the latest predictive analytics software. And quicker than you can say “danger, Will Robinson!” the computer warns CPS that this guy is high-risk.
When the caseworker gets to the home, she knows the risk score is high, so if she leaves those children at home and something goes wrong, she’ll have even more than usual to answer for.
No matter what the actual report – since in this new modern age of “pre-crime” making determinations based on what actually may have happened is so passe – those children are likely to be taken away, again.

So, now let’s return to the present and meet the family at the center of the actual case on which this hypothetical is based: (If the video below doesn't play properly follow this link instead.)
In the hypothetical, I changed two things about this story. First, the story mentions no criminal charges, and, in fact, panhandling is illegal only in some parts of Houston. But predictive analytics tends not to factor in Anatole France’s famous observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
 So had there been a criminal conviction, or even a charge, it almost certainly would have added to the risk score.
And second, I’m assuming Dennison and his wife actually will get their children back. In fact, there’s no telling what will happen, and the family is under the impression that CPS is pursuing termination of parental rights.
What we do know is that in the brave new world of predictive analytics, if Dennison’s children ever are returned, and if Dennison ever is reported again, the children are likely to be removed again. And, what with it then being the second time and all, they’re more likely to stay removed forever.
For now, the parents don’t know where their children are. But given that this is Texas foster care we’re talking about, odds are it’s nowhere good.

I can hear the predictive analytics evangelists now: “You don’t understand,” they’ll say. “We would just use this tool to help people like Dennison and his family.”
And yes, there are a very few enlightened child protective services agencies that would do that. But when Houston CPS encountered the Dennison family that’s not what they did. They did not offer emergency cash assistance. They did not offer assistance to Dennison to find another job, or train for a new one.
They took the children and ran. Just as Houston CPS did in another case, where they rushed to confuse poverty with neglect.


An algorithm won’t make these decisions any better.  They’ll just make it easier to take the child and run.
For much more about the harm of predictive analytics in child welfare, see our publication, Big Data is Watching You

Friday, April 22, 2016

UPDATED: How to get a liberal to renounce everything he claims to believe in: Whisper the words “child abuse” in his ear

UPDATE, MAY 10: It happened again.  This time the "suspicious" passenger was writing something in what another passenger apparently took to be a secret code.  Actually, he was an Ivy League professor writing equations.

The Professor told The Washington Post's Catherine Rampell that, "It is hard not to recognize in this incident, the ethos of [Donald] Trump’s voting base."

Except, of course, when the issue is child abuse - then it becomes the ethos of too many on the Left as well.

Why is the kind of behavior that got the left rightly upset with Southwest
 Airlines, considered just fine when the fear is about child abuse?
By now, most people have heard about the Muslim student who was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight after another passenger overheard him speaking Arabic and reported him to the flight crew. Of course. Young male + Arabic = terrorist, right?

My fellow liberals were outraged – and rightly so.  The story made The New York Times, and was the subject of this segment on The Daily Show:


All that is exactly as it should be.

But compare that response to what happens when the same sort of “if you see something, say something” extremism is applied to child abuse:

As I noted in a previous post to this Blog, a post at Medium by Michele Booth Cole, who runs a “Child Advocacy Center” in Washington, urged us to turn in anyone we think might be sexually abusing a child if “you just get the feeling that something’s not right.”  In other words, the author of this post, a so-called child abuse professional, is urging all of us to behave exactly as the passenger on that plane did – report someone based on essentially nothing.

Yet the comments on this post were almost entirely favorable. The column got one endorsement after another – such as this one: “even a 1% risk of a child being at risk is worth saying something, and you can do so anonymously.”

Yes, isn’t it great?  Unlike that airline passenger, who at least had to reveal her own identity to the flight crew, you can accuse someone of child abuse based on absolutely nothing with no accountability at all!

This advice is given even though the consequences of a false report – for the child – are a lot worse than being thrown off an airplane.

As I noted in that previous post, Cole writes that

You may never be sure and you don’t have to be sure. If you report your suspicions, the professionals in law enforcement and child protection will follow up and find out what’s happening. You could literally be saving that child’s life.

Or you could be bringing down a world of misery upon that child.

First of all, referring to the child protective services workers who will respond to the call as “professionals” often is a stretch.  In Washington, D.C., where Cole is located, they’re generally well-qualified.  More typically, however, you’re talking about someone with a bachelor’s degree in anything and a quickie training course.  Law enforcement often isn’t any better.

These total strangers will interrogate the child about the most intimate aspects of her or his life.  That’s what happened in this case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (with my organization’s Vice President acting as pro-bono counsel for the family).

Often that interrogation will be followed by a medical examination that, if anyone else did it, would be sexual abuse.

All this harm occurs before we even reach the issue of the child protective services worker possibly panicking – depending on whether a high-profile tragedy is in the news at the moment – and consigning a child who was not abused to the chaos of foster care.

Sometimes all this has to be done anyway.  The problem of child sexual abuse, like all child abuse, is serious and real. But starting this process in motion should be based on more than “you just get the feeling that something’s not right…”

Other advice given by Cole is even worse – at one point she actually encourages the dangerous practice of distracted driving.  Seriously.  She writes:

Let’s say a school employee needed to give a child a ride home, and only the two of them would be in the car. The adult and/or the child could be on a cell phone the whole time, giving a running description of the drive to the child’s parent or caregiver.

I've put a great big National Safety Council infographic at the end of this post in the hope that Cole will understand just how dangerous and irresponsible that suggestion really is, and everyone else will see how extremism and paranoia in the war against child abuse can trump research and sound judgment.

  More generally, her ideas would lead to a generation of paranoid adults raising a generation of terrified children. In fact, it’s worth comparing Cole’s column to the comments made by the right-wing Republicans in the Daily Show video.

Odd how easily we on the left understand all this when the issue is terrorism, and how easily many of us forget when the issue is child abuse.

Read more about how the normal due process and civil liberties protections liberals fight for in other fields don’t exist in cases of alleged child abuse.


Hands free not risk free
Provided by The National Safety Council

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Child welfare solutions: Paging Captain Obvious

Two recent child welfare columns in the Chronicle of Social Change (the Fox News of child welfare) this publication make me wonder if Captain Obvious has taken early retirement.

1. IF THAT’S HOW THEY TREAT FOSTER PARENTS…

Jim Kenny has posted a series of columns on the appalling problem of false allegations of child abuse and lack of due process – for foster parents.
He makes some good points. So good that I’ve taken the liberty of reprinting most of three paragraphs from one of his columns, exactly as they appeared originally – except for the deletion of a single word:

In an understandable attempt to protect a child from abuse and neglect, our child welfare systems have placed foster parents in a difficult position. To encourage reporting of child endangerment, anonymity is granted to the accuser. Minimal standards of proof are accepted. Hearsay is allowed. Often, what the case manager believes to be credible is enough to initiate some action. The child may be removed …

 As the most vulnerable party, the child’s well-being is the number one priority. Yet the child’s needs are not necessarily contrary to those of the foster parent. In fact, an unexamined precipitous separation of the child from his foster family may be harmful. In many ways, the child’s best interests and those of the foster family are tied together. …

 Foster parents deserve better treatment than the substantiation of unproven charges based upon hearsay. We can still protect the child while providing fosterparents with all the rights that our legal system guarantees.

When foster parents tell me about their ill-treatment I always say the same thing: The system really needs you. If that’s how they treat you, how do you think they treat the birth parents?

Think about that long enough, and you might start to do what former fosterparent Mary Callahan did – start questioning what child welfare agencies told her about the children they were placing with her.

And then you might want to reconsider whether all those children really need to be taken away at all. You might even consider reforms like providing all parents with “all the rights that our legal system guarantees.” Because it turns out, that’s the best way to protect children.

 2. AS LONG AS YOU’VE GOT $31 MILLION FOR CHILD CARE…

Marie Cohen has a different complaint. She thinks this is the wrong way to spend $31 million:

The $31 million budget proposal would address the issue [of foster parents finding child care for their foster children] by setting aside money for six-month emergency child care vouchers for foster parents caring for children ages 0 to 3 … Navigators would help foster parents negotiate the state’s byzantine subsidized child care system and help them avoid childcare gaps.

 Ridiculous! says Cohen. Instead, spend the money paying foster parents to stay home with the children.

You don’t suppose, if we all think really hard, we can come up with a third option for spending that $31 million in child care funds – such as helping birth parents find child care? You know, for those cases where the charge that led to removal of the children was “lack of supervision.”  Or the cases in which parents stayed home with the kids, lost their jobs, got evicted and lost their children for lack of housing? Or the cases in which all the stress of finding child care and housing and food and medical care and on and on and on led parents to lash out at their children?

And if you’re wondering if such an obvious alternative could be sufficiently “evidence-based,” consider this study of the amazing transformative power of something even simpler: cash. [UPDATE: And this study, too.]


Please, Captain Obvious, come back soon.

Texas Hide ‘em: Nearly Two-thirds of state’s foster care placements are “off the books”

The repeated claims that Texas takes proportionately few children are false.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

The claim has been made over and over by Texans who want the state to take away more children: Texas, it is claimed, takes away children at a much lower rate than other states.

That claim always hid more than it revealed.  But now it turns out that the claim is flat-out false in every respect.  Because now we know that when Texas tells the federal government, and the public, how many children it placed in foster care in a given year, Texas simply leaves out nearly two-thirds of the placements.

Texas does this by slapping a different label onto these placements.  They’re called “parental child safety placements.”  They are a form of kinship care – that is, placement with extended family or friends of the family instead of with total strangers.  Kinship care almost always is a  better,  safer option than stranger care. But it is still foster care.

Here’s how it works. The state Department of Family and Protective Services decides to remove a child from the home.  In order to make the process easier – for the agency, not the family – they essentially blackmail the parent: Give us the child and let us place him “informally” with a relative, without involving the court, or we’ll go to court and your child might wind up with a stranger – or worse, in one of our wonderful Texas institutions.

And make no mistake – once the child is gone, the child welfare agency and maybe, at some point, a court, but not the parent decides when or if that child will ever come back. It is a foster-care placement in everything but name.

The federal government understands that these placements are, in fact, foster care and should be counted as such.  As we noted in a previous post to this blog:

Federal regulations define foster care as :

24 hour substitute care for all children placed away from their parents or guardians and for whom the State agency has placement and care responsibility. 

The regulations go on to say that

the State is required to count a placement that lasts more than 24 hours while the child is in foster care under the placement, care or supervision responsibility of the State agency” 
 Note that it does not say “custody” of the agency, only “placement, care or supervision responsibility.”

What we did not know when we put up that previous post, and the real shocker in all this, is how widespread the practice is. 

Officially, Texas took away children 17,357 times in 2014 – at least that’s what Texas reported to the federal government.  But according to a December, 2015 report from a  “roundtable” of “stakeholders” convened by the Texas Supreme court Children’s Commission there also were 34,000 so-called parental child safety placements. 

According to the report, about 4,000 of those PCSPs later became officially-counted foster care placements, so counting those 4,000 would be double counting. But that still leaves 30,000 foster care placements in 2014 that Texas simply chose to call something else.

Or to put it another way, Texas has been hiding more than 63 percent of its foster care placements from the federal government – and from anyone else trying to compare the rate at which states take away children.

Put back those off-the-books placements and Texas is apparently taking away children at a rate more than 60 percent above the national average – even when rates of child poverty are factored in. 

Of course, that assumes Texas is the only state that cheats this way.  That’s almost certainly not the case.  We’ve known for nearly a decade that Kansas has its own way of cheating.  And kinship care is particularly vulnerable to this kind of cheating. But I doubt that there are many states that cheat to the extent of hiding nearly two-thirds of their entries into foster care.  Maybe everything really is bigger than Texas.

The reason all this is coming out in the open is that PCSPs now are under attack by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who wants to crack down on these kinship care placements, not because they’re off-the-books, but because two of them were the scenes of headline-grabbing horror stories.  (And, of course, nothing ever goes wrong in other Texas placements.)

So now, caseworkers are afraid to use PCSPs, and traditional foster-care placements are skyrocketing.  Soon, we may finally see an official figure on entries into foster care that is closer to reality – but thousands of children will pay the price, by losing out on the chance to stay with relatives.

There are other revelations in the “roundtable” report:

The report notes that “PCSPs are not really voluntary when the alternative is removal of the child.”  The roundtable participants also noted that, since the state doesn’t have to go to court first, “the parent does not have a lawyer or understand the child welfare or legal system.”

There’s also a truly Orwellian twist:

In theory, federal law requires states to make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together before resorting to foster care. In fact, this has never been enforced and the law is full of loopholes. But Texas actually claims that, if they put a child in foster care and call it a “parental child safety placement” they’ve met the “reasonable efforts” requirement – because, supposedly, that’s not foster care.

One other point about the Roundtable and its December, 2015 report: Scott McCown, the state’s leading champion of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, served on the roundtable.  So I don’t understand why, one month after the report came out, McCown, still was repeating his claim about Texas having an unusually low rate of removal.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

There is nothing “incomprehensible” about the latest child welfare failure in Texas

The Dallas Morning News reports that, in response to the latest child abuse death in Texas involving a child “known to the system,” four-year-old Leiliana Wright, State Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat whose district includes the town where the tragedy took place tweeted this:

“Incomprehensible failure of Govt.”

He’s wrong.

It’s a horrible failure of government, a tragic failure of government and an abysmal failure of government, and I don't doubt that Rep. Turner is sincere in wanting to do something about it.

But it is entirely comprehensible.  It happens over and over in Texas, year after year.  And while Republicans bear most of the responsibility – because they run the state government - Democrats who can think of no alternative other than spending more (which is necessary) without also spending smarter (which is just as necessary) share some of the blame.

That’s not hindsight.  NCCPR issued a comprehensive analysis of Texas child welfare in 2005.  Several years later, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal Texas think tank, issued a report in which it found that taking away more children does nothing to reduce child abuse fatalities.

And while we’re considering responsibility, some of it rests with those in the Texas press corps who have covered the issue year after year after year and written pretty much the same stories or columns year after year after year, all the while systematically ignoring the problem that leads to most of the others: the needless removal of children from their homes.

Because it’s all those unnecessary investigations and needless removals that are overloading caseworkers to the point that, at best, they can’t possibly find all the children in real danger or at worst, as may be the case in the most recent horror, they don’t try.

One exception is Randy Wallace of KRIV-TV in Houston.  Consider this case he reported on last week:


In addition to all the harm done to this father’s children by being consigned to the hellscape of Texas foster care, consider all the time and resources spent investigating this case, hauling the family into court and finding placements for the children.  All that time money and effort was, in effect, stolen from finding the next Leiliana Wright.

It’s not the first time Houston CPS rushed to confuse poverty with neglect.  Here’s another example.

So why do reporters keep covering the story the same old way – in Texas and elsewhere? 

In the worst cases, it’s an example of what David Simon aptly calls “Pulitzer sniffing.”  Of all the stories you can do in child welfare, the “Who Let [name of child] Die?” story, or better yet, the entire series on the children the child protective services agency “allowed” to die, is the quickest way to cheap glory within the profession.

But like most people in the system itself, most reporters are well-motivated.  So the answer may lie in another video: this 11-minute Ted-X talk from Molly McGrath Tierney, someone who is trying to run a child welfare system the right way:


 In particular I’m struck by what she says about why caseworkers keep taking so many children, knowing – in their heads, at least – how much harm it does them.  It’s at about four minutes and 16 seconds in, where she says:
“[I]t feels good to save kids. We get a great injection of adrenaline when we rush in and our brain responds to that stimuli just like we do anything else that feels good — we want more of it. And when we figure out how to keep returning to that good feeling, we start thinking that, in and of itself, is success. We start mistaking something that feels good to us for something that’s actually helping other people — ‘cause it feels so good, we must be doing the right thing.”
She could as easily have been speaking of a lot of journalists – the ones who actually are well-motivated but who get their righteous-indignation high from writing the “boy-do-I-hate-child-abuse-and-look-how-I-care-more-than-anyone-else” column, or the news story dripping with sneer and swagger instead of the kind of sophistication and nuance Simon calls for.  It feels so good – so they figure they must be doing the right thing.

At best such reporting diverts attention from the real problems besetting child welfare  - and from real solutions.  At worst it encourages foster-care panics, with workers rushing to tear apart many more families needlessly rather than risk being on the front page if they leave a child at home and something goes wrong.

And then, once the panic takes place, papers like the Dallas Morning News solemnly proclaim in an editorial that there has been “a spike in the number of children removed from dangerous home situations.”  In some cases, those home situations really were dangerous; in others they were not.  But the editorial writers, dependent on their own paper’s news coverage, would have little way of knowing that.

I can hear the reporters’ responses now: Oh, so you want us to let incompetent workers and administrators get away with it!  You want to let them stay on the job and let more children die! You want us to ignore child abuse deaths!  You don’t care if children die!

All of which is fully in keeping with the sneer-and-swagger ethos of those journalists.  And all of which is b------t.

The solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism. Those of us who want better child welfare journalism want reporters to do more.  We want reporters to hold caseworkers and administrators accountable, and draw the distinction between accountability and scapegoating, and report on children wrongfully removed from their homes, and report on real solutions.

It’s not that hard. Because some journalists have been getting it right for years, we have a web page full of examples to learn from.

Read more about how to fix child welfare in Texas

Preventing child abuse: Welcome to Child Abuse Paranoia Month


Call CPS:  These children  appear to be
walking somewhere - on their own! 
           Six years ago, I wrote a post about the kind of op-ed column that typically turns up every April during “Child Abuse Prevention/awareness Month.”  There’s also a subset, of sorts.  It’s directed specifically at the issue of child sexual abuse.  Call it the Child Abuse Paranoia Month column. 
       
If we did what the authors of these columns suggest, we’d wind up with a generation of paranoid adults raising a generation of terrified children.  And we’d traumatize tens of thousands of children with needless child abuse investigations and extremely intrusive medical examinations. In fact, we’d be well on our way to recreating the atmosphere of mindless fear that led to the mass molestation hysteria of the 1980s, typified by cases such as the McMartin Preschool.

            This column is a classic example. It starts with the obligatory three bullet points of horror stories and jumps immediately to the claim that “No young child or teenager is inherently safe from sexual abuse.”

            That is, literally, true. Just as no young child or teenager is safe from getting into an auto accident or coming down with a serious illness. But it doesn’t follow that we should never let a child into a car or out of a 100 percent sterile environment. 

            When it comes to “preventing” sexual abuse, however, this column comes close to recommending something similar. The author, Michele Booth Cole, writes: 
So with everything that institutions and people have learned about child sexual abuse, why would a school allow a staff member to be alone with a student behind a closed door? Why are there places on campus where no one can see what’s going on?
             Probably because A) When a child needs to confide something personal to the school nurse or guidance counselor, it makes sense that the door would be closed and B) We don’t want to live in an Orwellian surveillance state with cameras poking into every corner. 

            But nothing better sums up the mentality of the column than one of Cole’s proposed solutions: 
Individually and collectively, we would have to get creative, constantly assessing places and situations to make them as safe as possible for children. Let’s say a school employee needed to give a child a ride home, and only the two of them would be in the car. The adult and/or the child could be on a cell phone the whole time, giving a running description of the drive to the child’s parent or caregiver. 
            Let’s start with the practical problems. Distracted driving, because the driver had to talk on the cell phone the whole time in order to prove he’s not a child molester, is a much greater danger to this child than the exceedingly small likelihood that this school employee will turn out to be the next Jerry Sandusky.  And yes, that also applies to "hands free" cell phone use.  I've put a great big National Safety Council infographic at the end of this post to illustrate just how irresponsible this idea really is. And imagine the panic that would ensue – complete with false alarm calls to 911 - if the signal were dropped.

EMOTIONAL ABUSE

            But the bigger problem is what all this would do to the psyches of our children. 

            Cole says she wants to “inspire adults to create safe, whimsical childhoods for children at all times.”

            But the “solutions” we hear during Child Abuse Paranoia Month don’t put much emphasis on whimsy. On the contrary, from as early as toddlerhood, Cole is talking about raising children to be constantly wary and fearful. We’ve also trained the adults in their lives to be wary of so much as giving them a hug for fear it will be misinterpreted. All that is emotional abuse on a massive scale.

            And it gets worse. Cole writes:
People sometimes ask how to get “bystanders” to report their suspicions of child sexual abuse. Perhaps, as a neighbor or an acquaintance, you just get the feeling that something’s not right, but you’re afraid to raise your concerns.
You may never be sure and you don’t have to be sure. If you report your suspicions, the professionals in law enforcement and child protection will follow up and find out what’s happening. You could literally be saving that child’s life.
            Or you could be bringing down a world of misery upon that child.

            First of all, referring to the child protective services workers who will respond to the call as “professionals” often is a stretch.  In Washington, D.C., where Cole is located, they’re generally well-qualified.  More typically, however, you’re talking about someone with a bachelor’s degree in anything and a quickie training course.  Law enforcement often isn’t any better.

            These total strangers will interrogate the child about the most intimate aspects of her or his life.  That’s what happened in this case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (with my organization’s Vice President acting as pro-bono counsel for the family). 

Often that interrogation will be followed by a medical examination that, if anyone else did it, would be sexual abuse.

All this harm occurs before we even reach the issue of the child protective services worker possibly panicking – depending on whether a high-profile tragedy is in the news at the moment – and consigning a child who was not abused to the chaos of foster care.

            Cole runs a Child Advocacy Center – where the staff try their best to minimize the trauma (though suggesting, as Cole’s center does in a graphic, that the child is having a wonderful time through it all is somewhat misleading). Even when they’re the first to question the child – and that’s not always the case – it’s going to be very difficult for that child.
 
Sometimes all this has to be done anyway.  The problem of child sexual abuse, like all child abuse, is serious and real. But starting this process in motion should be based on more than “you just get the feeling that something’s not right…” (Special note to my liberal friends: How would you feel about a presidential candidate who said we should call the cops about anyone we thought might be a terrorist because we “just got the feeling that something’s not right…”?  UPDATE, APRIL 18: Or consider this story from The New York Times about what happened to a man who spoke Arabic on an airplane.  Liberals would be outraged.  Yet the behavior of the airline is no different from what Cole says we should do to children.)

            Part of the problem is the very fact that Cole runs a Child Advocacy Center. Day after day she sees the very worst that some adults do to some children.  I don’t know how you can do that and not emerge from it feeling that the world is a dark and dangerous place for children. But it’s a distorted view of reality – and another example of the tyranny of personal experience.

          “Imagine what the world would look like,” Cole writes, “if we did everything we could to keep kids safe?”

           Actually, if we went from doing what’s prudent and sensible to doing everything, it would look pretty awful. 
           
          ●It would be a world where children were raised to cower in their homes, afraid of everyone they meet – or running home after so much as seeing a stranger nearby.

          ●It would be a world that destroyed any opportunity to build the self-confidence, self-reliance and independence they’ll need to thrive as adults.  What will our children do when we’re too old to always be there to protect them?

          ●It would be a world in which children were taught to treat normal human kindness as suspect, making it far less likely they will be able to receive such kindness – or give it.

             We’ve already  gone way too far down this road, as Lenore Skenazy, once labeled the “world’s worst mom” for fighting the trend, documents on her Free Range Kids website.

WHOM ARE WE REALLY “PROTECTING”?

            Like so much that is done in the name of “child protection” Child Abuse Paranoia Month columns are not about protecting children at all – they’re about protecting parents.
          
            Specifically it’s about our efforts to protect ourselves from one of the inevitable side-effects of parenthood: Worry - that constant, nagging fear that the worst will happen to our children as soon as they are out of our sight.  (Interestingly, in my own experience, this does not stop when the child becomes a young adult.)

            When our daughter was in college and wanted to spend a semester of her junior year studying in South Africa my wife and I worried – constantly.  The easy way out would have been to say no.   But we let her go, and it turned out to be one of the most important and fulfilling experiences of her life.  (We remain grateful that she did not tell us about going shark diving off Cape Town until after the fact.)

            At other times, I’m sure we gave in to fears when we shouldn’t have. But putting the children first means rising above our own fears as much as we can, whenever it’s prudent.   

           Anything less is not child protection, it’s adult self-indulgence.

Now, about that distracted driving idea...


Hands free not risk free
Provided by The National Safety Council

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Need evidence that child welfare confuses poverty with neglect? Step one: Look

When  Sean Hughes and I debated whether it would be a good idea to massively increase spending on foster care, Hughes wrote:

If you look at the data, it’s hard to see any evidence of there being a pattern of foster care entry due solely to material deprivations of poverty.

 Presumably he means the data other than —

§  The three separate studies since 1996 that found 30 percent of America’s foster children could be safely in their own homes right now if their birth parents had safe, affordable housing.
§  A fourth study which found: “In terms of reunification, even substance abuse is not as important a factor as income or housing in determining whether children will remain with their families.”
§  The two studies from New York which found that families struggling to keep their children out of foster care are stymied by two major problems: homelessness and low public assistance grants.

Those New York studies are old. But …
§  When the foster care population in Genesee County, Michigan, (which includes Flint) doubled in 2000 to 2003, even the head of the county child welfare office said one of the main reasons was they were removing children from women who were forced to leave their children with unsuitable caretakers while they went to jobs they had to take under the state’s welfare laws.
§  And now, The Atlantic reports that a forthcoming study finds that making it harder to get help under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program leads to an increase in foster care placements.

UPDATE, FEBRUARY, 2018: And still another study finds that simply raising the minimum wage by $1 an hour reduces what child protective services agencies call "neglect" by ten percent.

The data are “hard to see” only if you refuse to look. And that also turns out to be part of the problem.
One of the studies concerning children kept in foster care due to lack of housing also found caseworkers actually may be – to use that favorite phrase of the child welfare industry – “in denial” about housing issues.  The study found that caseworkers “may tend to ignore housing as a problem rather than deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by the recognition that they cannot help their clients with this important need.”

Anatole France Would Have Understood

A classic example of such denial can be seen in this case from Houston:

After Prince Leonard was injured at work, he and his wife and their six children could no longer afford to live in their apartment complex. They lived in a shelter for a while, but it wasn’t safe enough for the children. So the family moved into the only “gated community” they could afford: a 12 x 25 foot storage unit.
Leonard built a loft area and shelves. The unit had electricity, heat and air conditioning. The family lived there, and the children did well, for three years. Then someone called Child Protective Services, which removed the children on the spot without lifting a finger to help find the family housing.
A CPS spokeswoman insisted the children were not torn from their parents because of poverty. Rather, she said, they were taken because they were living in an “unsafe living environment.” And, in a comment Anatole France surely would have cherished, the spokeswoman added: “You could live in a mansion and be in an unsafe living environment.”

And this new case from Houston makes clear that CPS still is too often confusing poverty with neglect.

A major reason for all that denial is, of course, because there are always funds for foster care, and not for services to keep children out of foster care – exactly the problem Hughes proposes to worsen.
Fortunately, not everyone is in denial. A few of the people who “get it” even run child welfare systems – people like Molly McGrath Tierney, director of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services. In a brilliant, 11-minute Ted-x talk she says:
The reason that child welfare isn’t working is because there are children in foster care. It’s not that the government is doing it badly, it’s that foster care is a bad idea. The error is the intervention.

Then she describes the reasons it happens, and not just the financial reasons:
It feels good to save kids. We get a great injection of adrenaline when we rush in and our brain responds to that stimuli just like we do anything else that feels good – we want more of it. And when we figure out how to keep returning to that good feeling, we start thinking that, in and of itself, is success. We start mistaking something that feels good to us for something that’s actually helping other people – ‘cause it feels so good, we must be doing the right thing.

Here’s her entire talk:
What do you know? I thought I was the only one who used the term “foster care-industrial complex.”