Saturday, September 24, 2016

Opposition to differential response dealt heavy blow

There is a new study out from the federal government, another in a long line documenting that an approach to child welfare known as “differential response” is, in fact, safe.

Under differential response, some cases that formerly were subject to a full-scale investigation instead are assigned to caseworkers who “assess” the family and offer voluntary help.
The latest “revelation” that differential response (DR) is safe comes on top of many others. A 2011 literature review, looking at 23 studies, found none concluding that differential response compromised child safety.

Three more studies, all using random assignment and designed specifically to deal with alleged flaws in earlier research, have been published. Two found no indication that children in differential response were less safe; one found worse safety outcomes by one measure.
Of all these 26 studies, guess which was the only one to be the subject of a big story in the Chronicle of Social Change complete with the headline “Differential Response Dealt Heavy Blow.”

The Chronicle took a more low-key approach to the latest study. This one examined the six states that have used DR the longest. Once again, the review found no compromise of safety. It also found that states making more use of DR had lower rates of re-reports of maltreatment and lower rates of “substantiated” re-reports than states using it less.

But instead of gushing, The Chronicle story declares, “It is worth noting that in January of 2015, Minnesota — one of the six states focused on in this study – moved toward discontinuing the use of DR.”

It is “worth noting” only in the sense that, once again, we see how scapegoating efforts to keep families together in the wake of a high-profile child abuse death – as happened in Minnesota – trumps research every time.
It’s been much the same in Massachusetts. There, re-abuse of children and deaths of children “known to the system” declined during most years DR was in effect. But deaths may have spiked in one year. (Even that isn’t certain; there are a lot of questions about data, definitions, and causes of death.) That was enough to get the program killed. It is worth noting that, in contrast, no one ever concludes that the death of a foster child means we should abolish foster care.
Opponents of DR have another answer to all those inconvenient studies. They say, in effect, all the studies we don’t like are biased! They say this in an article that is, in itself, striking for its intemperate, defensive tone.

The authors seem to have quite a chip on their collective shoulder. They spend much time bemoaning the way proponents of DR characterize the traditional, investigative approach. In that approach, caseworkers investigate a family, pry into the most intimate aspects of their lives, may strip search the children and/or subject them to traumatic medical exams, and then may, if they so choose, walk out with the children. The authors are deeply offended by the fact that backers of DR refer to this as “adversarial.”
The ironies don’t stop there. I am aware of only one systematic experiment to actually test the bias of researchers in the child welfare field. It found a profound bias in favor of publishing articles purporting to show benefit to removing children.

 Enter APSAC

And now, we have the so-called American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children presenting a “special issue” of one of its publications devoted to DR – or rather, devoted to bashing DR. Every article is from a DR critic, and the guest editor of the issue, Judith Rycus, is a co-author of the all-the-studies-we-don’t-like-are-biased article noted above. Another co-author of that article is a former APSAC president.

APSAC’s track record for getting child welfare issues right is less than distinguished. As Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker explain in their book, Satan’s Silence, APSAC was formed in the 1980s largely by well-meaning “professionals” who promoted claims of a supposed epidemic of mass molestation and satanic ritual abuse in day care centers.

“From its inception,” Nathan and Snedeker write, “APSAC’s leadership roster was a veritable directory of ritual-abuse architects.”  Kee MacFarlane, who led the questioning of children in the notorious McMartin Preschool case, served on APSAC’s board – and received the group’s “Outstanding Professional” award – a decade after McMartin.  And in 1997, three years after writing an article promoting the idea that there really were secret tunnels under the McMartin Preschool, Roland Summit, another former board member, received the group’s “Lifetime Achievement” award.

For those who are not familiar with McMartin, this New York Times video is an excellent primer:
Given that track record, anything APSAC says about differential response should be taken with at least a shaker of salt.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Latest objection to Family First Act: You’re kidding, right?

Maybe the Family First Act has a better chance of passing than I thought.
I assumed passage was unlikely. But the latest argument from those who think the bill would go too far is so absurd that it sounds like an act of desperation. In fact, I wasn’t going to bother writing about it, until I saw that the Los Angeles Times cited it in an editorial as a reason to oppose the bill.
The argument goes like this: Under current law, under a collection of highly unlikely circumstances, a small subset of kinship foster care placements could, at some point, lead to a situation where a later placement that otherwise would be eligible for federal aid would not be eligible for such aid.
That’s because, under these narrow circumstances, the income of the former kinship caregivers would be used to determine if the subsequent placement is eligible for reimbursement. Normally, the income of the birth parents is used.  (Yes, we’re talking about that importantand very helpful, provision of current law known as the “lookback.”)
But if the Family First Act passes, then – oh, wait, this has nothing to do with the Family First Act.
And that’s the first problem with this lame excuse for opposing the Family First Act.  The problem isn’t in the Family First Act – it’s in existing law.

So, given the penchant of child welfare agencies to whine about anything that doesn’t bring in money, why haven’t we heard about it until now?  Probably because it affects so few cases.
How the Quirk Works

In order for a case to be ineligible for federal Title IV-E foster care funds because of this quirk in existing law, all of these things have to happen:

§  The child must be placed in a kinship foster home that is not licensed the way homes with strangers are licensed. That doesn’t mean the placement isn’t foster care, it just means the grandparents or other relatives were unwilling to go through licensing or, more likely, unable to meet hypertechnical licensing requirements geared more to middle-class creature comforts than to actual health and safety issues.

Some of these placements are reported when states tell the federal government how many children they’ve taken away, but many are not. It amounts to a foster-care Twilight Zone that allows states to understate how often they tear apart families.

The issue does not arise with licensed kinship foster parents since they are treated identically to all other foster parents.
§  The relative has to give up caring for the child after six months. That happens, of course, but one of the many benefits of kinship foster care is that it tends to be more stable than what should properly be called “stranger care.”

§  The next placement for this child has to be with a licensed relative or a stranger care home or an institution. (Otherwise it’s not eligible for federal reimbursement anyway.)

§  The grandparent’s (or other relatives’) income has to be higher than the level allowed for a case to receive federal reimbursement under the lookback. That’s not likely to happen, often because part of the reason many grandparents and other relatives are unlicensed is that they, like the parents, are poor – so they can’t meet those hypertechnical licensing requirements.

Many cases may meet one of these criteria, but how many are likely to meet all of them?
The feeble attempt to link this to the Family First Act goes like this: The bill would make more services available to help families stay together, and those services sometimes might be provided to those families while their children were placed with relatives, so more children will be placed with relatives, so this tiny little quirk will be ever so slightly less tiny.
But the services that can be reimbursed under the Family First Act are extremely limited – that’s one of the reasons I’m still against itAnd the top priority for use of those services is supposed to be birth families while their children stay with those birth families – avoiding any kind of disruption in the child’s life. So there should be only a very small increase in kinship placements due to the Family First Act.

Escape from the Twilight Zone

I would like to suggest, however, a modest proposal to fix this modest problem. Exempt any unlicensed kinship care placement from the quirk in current law, on one condition: The placement must be reported to the federal government as a foster-care placement. Actually, that’s already required under federal regulations defining an entry into care, but the requirement is not enforced.  In other words, no more hiding these placements in the foster care Twilight Zone.
Substantively, this changes nothing. It’s a truth-in-labeling clause. Twilight Zone placements were foster care placements all along. This suggestion simply would provide an incentive for child welfare agencies to be honest about what they’ve been doing all along.
Dredging up this obscure quirk in current law is a bizarre effort to kill a bill that already didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

That very desperation illustrates how deeply the foster-care industrial complex clings to the status quo.  And it illustrates why real reform requires much stronger medicine than the Family First Act.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Family First Act has problems, but the “imminent risk” provision isn’t one of them

Have you heard the one about how the Family First Prevention Services Act supposedly isn’t really about prevention? The claim is based on the fact that the bill would require a child to be at “imminent risk” of foster care placement before federal Title IV-E funds could be used to fund prevention services for that family.
In fact, while the Family First Act has many problems, the “imminent risk” clause makes perfect sense – and yes, it is about child abuse prevention.

In June, Sean Hughes wrote:

Despite including the word “prevention” in its title, by only providing an entitlement to supportive services when families have reached that level of crisis, the bill isn’t really funding prevention at all.

The goal of prevention should be to prevent abuse and neglect, not just prevention of entry into foster care.

Schwartz argues that the Family First Act doesn’t do this because “prior statutes” define imminent risk of foster care as something that happens only after a child has been a “substantiated victim” of abuse or neglect.
Let’s assume, for the moment, that the Department of Health and Human Services would choose to define “imminent risk” the same way in regulations implementing the Family First Act, were it to become law. Schwartz and Hughes are still wrong. Their statements reflect a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be a “substantiated victim” of child abuse or neglect.
It does not necessarily mean that the child was abused or neglected. For starters, state definitions of neglect often are so broad and so vague that they are synonymous with poverty. So this was a “substantiated” case of “neglect” that, in fact, led to removal. So was this.  And this. And several of the cases discussed hereNone of these cases reflects actual neglect.

In Washington, D.C., in 2012, social services officials actually used the threat of reporting families to the child welfare agency to discourage them from seeking help with their housing problems.

In at least 28 states, statutes say explicitly that a case can be “substantiated” if the child is at risk of abuse or neglect – most often “substantial risk” – it doesn’t even have to be imminent. One place where the “imminent risk” language does appear: the federal definition of child abuse and neglect in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.

Given that it is entirely possible to be “substantiated” as a child abuser without having committed an act of child abuse, it is entirely reasonable to target federal aid for child abuse prevention services to such cases.
Were there a law that allowed the use of federal Title IV-E funds for emergency cash assistance, or rent subsidies, or child care, that would indeed be child abuse prevention since it would prevent cases such as those noted above from escalating to the point where a child actually was harmed.

Preventing Foster Care Prevents Abuse in Foster Care

There is one other way in which prevention of foster care also prevents child abuse – and this is what the take-the-child-and-run crowd most hopes everyone will forget: All those studies that keep finding that many foster children were abused in foster homes. The record of group homes and institutions on this subject is even worse.

So in many cases, preventing foster care is preventing child abuse.

The real problem with the “prevention” piece of the Families First Act concerns another point raised by Schwartz: It is way too limited in the kinds of prevention for which IV-E funds could be used.
The bill would reinforce the worst instincts of child protective services agencies, paying largely for the kinds of help that make the helpers feel good, such as endless “counseling” and “parent education,” instead of what families really need. It’s not clear from the article discussing Schwartz’s concerns whether Schwartz is concerned about the lack of such funding for such services for birth parents; she’s clearly concerned about the failure to fund them for grandparents and other relatives who provide kinship foster care. In fact, both are a problem.
This failure is one of the main reasons I oppose the Family First Act.

Why targeting “imminent risk” makes sense

Of course, some would argue for both: funding more types of services and dropping the “imminent risk” clause. Indeed, that seems to be Schwartz’s position, at least for grandparents.
There are two problems with this. One is the obvious, practical problem that if you create an open-ended IV-E entitlement for “prevention” and say it can be applied to pretty much any family in America, the cost of the bill would skyrocket and it would never pass.
But there’s another problem: An entitlement of this kind that is too broad will vastly expand the net of coercive intervention into families. Instead of providing genuine help to families that really need it, an entitlement that is overly broad will lead to governments dragging many more families that don’t need “help” into a forced march through counseling and parent education that will only add stress to families, and harm their children.

So if and when the Senate takes up the bill, Senators should leave the “imminent risk” provision alone.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Big Data is Watching You: If predictive analytics still doesn’t creep you out, there's an ad you should see (if you can find it)

The debate over predictive analytics in child welfare will continue right after this important message:

A bunch of data analysts, presumably working for a firm that sells sporting goods, are spying on a woman’s recreational habits. They have amassed so much data and their algorithms are so wonderful that it’s like having a camera watching her 24/7. Not only do they know her preferences, they know exactly why she prefers one sport over another and exactly what she’ll do next.
In other words, they’re stalking her.
But this is not presented as a warning of the dangers of predictive analytics. On the contrary, virtual stalking is what they’re selling.
That’s because the commercial is not aimed at consumers – such as the woman being stalked. The target audience is potential stalkers; in this case people who want to sell her stuff.
The maker of the stalking – er, analytics – software, and maker of the commercial, is SAP – described as one of the “market leaders” in predictive analytics and a potential competitor in the child welfare market.
[UPDATE: MARCH 14, 2018: When I originally posted this, I embedded the actual commercial.  But SAP seems to have removed it from YouTube.] 

Unlike the bland reassurances given when people raise concerns about predictive analytics, the commercial reveals the real mindset of some of the human beings pushing big data.
Apparently, no one at SAP was creeped out by the ad’s Orwellian overtones. The slogan might as well have been “Big Data Is Watching You.” That alone ought to be enough to make anyone think twice about turning these companies loose in the child welfare field.
And it ought to make anyone think twice about giving this kind of power to secretive, unaccountable child welfare bureaucracies that have almost unlimited power to take away people’s children.
But in case that’s not enough, there’s also:
§  ProPublica’s expose of profound racial bias in a field far closer to child welfare than sporting goods: criminal justice.
§  The findings from New Zealand about bias in predictive analytics in child welfare itself.
§  The fact that when the highly touted predictive analytics program being tested in Los Angeles predicted a child would be the victim of a “critical incident,” it apparently was wrong 95 percent of the time.

[Links to all of this can be found in our publication Big Data is Watching You]

There’s little harm in mistakenly telling a sporting goods salesperson to promote golf clubs to someone who’s more interested in soccer. There’s far more harm in telling a child protective services caseworker that a child is in grave danger when he’s not.