Thursday, June 29, 2017

Students pay the price for a school district’s child abuse paranoia


A first grader gives her teacher a hug. The teacher kisses the little girl on the top of her head.  That used to be considered normal behavior for elementary school students and their teachers.  But not in the public schools of Prince George’s County, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C. Instead, someone decided it might be child abuse. So the teacher was placed on leave and barred from teaching for eight weeks.

According to a very good story by Donna St. George in The Washington Post:  

The teacher said the first-grader’s father protested her removal. “The climate they’ve created is just horrendous,” she said, noting that young children expect physical contact. “Are you not going to hug a 4-year-old who is crying?”
It happened during the 2015-2016 school year.  This year, the Post reports, things are much worse.  Nearly 850 school district employees have been put on “administrative leave” because of some kind of allegation of child abuse – a 1,000 percent increase over two years before.  School staff are terrified, and even some members of the Board of Education worry that a “culture of fear” will drive the best teachers to seek employment elsewhere. The sheer volume of absences has disrupted the education of thousands of students.  And, of course, teachers are likely to fear showing any kind of normal affection for students.
The child abuse paranoia machine has struck again – and once again, it is harming children in the name of “protecting” them.

While the behavior of school district officials has been awful, at least they might be able to claim they didn’t know better. Notwithstanding their good intentions, there is no excuse for the Washington, D.C. “Children’s Advocacy Center” to encourage this kind of paranoia – but that’s what they’ve done.

It began with a real horror story

What prompted all this was the kind of thing that usually cranks up the paranoia machine – cases of child sexual abuse that were very real and very serious.  In the Prince George’s County case, they involved a school aide, Deonte Carraway. He was arrested in February, 2016. A year later he pled guilty to sexually abusing 12 children. He told children as young as age 9 how to perform sex acts, then he videotaped them.  He also coerced the children into sending him nude pictures. Police believe at least 23 children were victimized.

There had been other cases in recent years, and the school district had come under fire – and at least one lawsuit – for failing to properly detect and investigate sexual abuse by school staff.

Unfortunately, the reaction to these horrors was not to adopt prudent, sensible policies and urge people to report when they had reasonable cause to suspect abuse. No, the reaction was what we have seen so often in the past: Demands that anyone and everyone report anything and everything – and a paranoid response to those demands.

The Post reports that the response led to cases such as these.  According to the story:

● One teacher in Prince George’s County was escorted out of her school this spring after being accused of making an offensive remark in class.  … [She says] she did not make the comment and the job limbo has been tough. She gets paid, like others on leave, but waits at home — reviewing her teaching materials, reading journal articles, trying to keep her mind in the game. “I want to be teaching,” she said.
●A counselor said he was accused of failing to report a physical exchange between a student and staff member in the cafeteria. But he says he had not witnessed the incident or been at school that day. Placed on leave in January, he said he was cleared at an April hearing, but has still not been called back to work. … He said he worries about his students, some of whom he’s heard were suspended or expelled. He said he wants to be back at work.
●A retiree working as a substitute teacher said he was placed on leave last fall for tugging on a third-grader’s hoodie as he sought to keep her in line in the hallway. He has been out more than six months. “I cannot fault them for trying to help children who need protection,” he said. “But they’ve gone overboard in the other direction.”

As for the teacher who dared to kiss a child on the head, apparently she didn’t learn her lesson. She was placed on leave again this year, this time for supposedly “not following proper procedures when she reported seeing another staff member grab a student by the shirt and shove him.”

This time she was kept away from teaching for most of the school year.

And if the harm to students and teachers isn’t enough, consider the expense to taxpayers and the waste of money that could have been used to actually educate students: So far this school year, the district has spent $10 million paying staff it won’t allow to work – up from $650,000 two years ago.  They also have to pay substitutes, of course, but, district officials say, they’ve cut those costs -- by doubling up classes and getting non-teachers to fill in.

The Post notes that of the 840 reports referred to child protective services, 90 percent were so absurd that they did not even meet the minimal standards needed to start an investigation. So the one bit of good news here is this: The deluge of false and trivial reports probably did not wind up overloading child protective services workers – though we don’t know if it caused any delays or other errors at the county’s child abuse hotline.

Enablers of panic and paranoia

Is there anyone who really would encourage this kind of panic and paranoia?  Sadly, yes. They are people who, like so many in child welfare have the best of motives. But they really ought to know better. 

I discussed this in a post I wrote more than a year ago. That post was a response to this essay by the Michelle Booth Cole, director of “Safe Shores” Washington’s “Children’s Advocacy Center.”  The essay begins with the Prince George’s case and two other horror stories from around the nation.

From these horrors Cole leaps to the conclusion that you should report someone to child protective services, or the police, anytime “you just get the feeling that something’s not right.”  Cole wrote that she can’t understand why a student would ever be allowed to be alone with a teacher or how there could possibly still be places in schools “where no one can see what’s going on.”

As I wrote last year, we probably allow such things 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 that was just the beginning. Cole even advocated the dangerous practice of distracted driving.  She wrote:

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 also took issue with Cole’s approach in general:

[F]rom 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 that, of course, was long before the Post wrote about the paranoia in Prince George’s.)

When liberals abandon our principles

Even more alarming, Cole got a lot of support from people who consider themselves liberals.

The same people who are furious when an airline passenger is hauled off a plane because someone “just got the feeling that something’s not right” when she heard the passenger speaking Arabic, have no problem applying the identical “feeling-that-something’s-not-right” standard when the issue is child abuse. The same liberals who are appalled by revelations concerning government spying on individuals see no problem with turning our schools into models of domestic surveillance.

It’s one more example of the extent to which some liberals will abandon everything they claim to believe in – and sound remarkably like Donald Trump or Kellyanne Conway -- when someone whispers the words “child abuse” in their ears.

At one point in her essay Cole writes: “Imagine what the world would look like if we did everything we could to keep kids safe?” [Emphasis added.]

Well, now we don’t have to imagine. It would look like the public schools in Prince George’s County, Md.  So it would look pretty damn ugly.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Tweeting out the horrors of child welfare

Want to tell a story on Twitter in more than 140 characters? You do it by replying to yourself, creating a "thread" of tweets.  This tweet is the first in such a thread. Click on it to get to the entire thread by attorney  Nnennaya Amuchie about how the criminal justice system and the child welfare system combined to traumatize a family:

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Four years trapped in foster care – because Iowa DHS didn’t like Mom’s housing (and other horrors of Iowa child welfare)

Nothing better sums up the state of Iowa child welfare than one sentence buried amid the 2,500 words of a Des Moines Register story Sunday:  A child is trapped in foster care for four years because her mother “only had an efficiency apartment.”

In a classic example of the vicious, lets-bash-those-“bad-parents”-no-matter-how-much-we-hurt-kids-in-the-process mentality that permeates the Iowa system, the state Department of Human Services punished a child for four years because Mom couldn’t afford a one-bedroom apartment.

And it’s hard to imagine anything that better explains the fact that Iowa actually spends a lot on child welfare, but gets horrific results than the fact that helping Mom pay for that one bedroom apartment would have cost vastly less than four years of foster care.

Sadly, this is not unusual.  Nationwide, 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents had adequate housing. In Iowa, which takes away children at one of the highest rates in the nation, the proportion almost certainly is even higher.

Reading between the lines

There are other messages between the lines in the Register story, almost all of them dismal.

● Iowa is almost certainly in the midst of a foster-care panic, a sharp, sudden surge in children torn needlessly from everyone they know and love.  That often happens when child abuse deaths are in the news, as they are now in Iowa. The fact that, in this case, the children who died were children who had been adopted by their foster parents doesn’t matter. 

According to the tortured logic of Iowa DHS, when two children placed in foster care die in their adoptive homes (and a third suffers horrific abuse before escaping) the solution is to place more children in foster care.

● The Register story implies that the panic is inevitable – after all, more people are reporting alleged abuse and “more children are being found to be abused” so it stands to reason there are more children who need to be taken, right?


For starters, this leaves out the fact that, even before any current panic, Iowa has been tearing apart families at a vastly higher rate than most of the nation (more on that below). But also, when high-profile cases are in the news, and anyone and everyone is being urged to report anything and everything, what you get is a massive increase in false reports, usually by well-meaning people who suddenly decide that, say, a neighbor’s behavior just might be suspicious.

Child welfare agencies with strong leadership don’t give in to this.

That’s the lesson from Pennsylvania, where individual counties run child welfare.

When that state experienced a similar surge in reports after the sex abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky (who, by the way, was a foster parent), the system in Philadelphia (the Iowa of big cities – it’s long taken children at a rate far above the rate in most major metropolitan areas) did indeed see an increase in removals.  But Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County did not – because the reformer who has run that system for decades understood that most of the new reports were false – and he refused to tolerate a foster-care panic.

Iowa is an extreme outlier

● Foster-care panics cause enormous harm to children in any state.  They are worse, of course,  in a state that starts out tearing apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation.  The Register mentioned in passing that Iowa removes children from their homes “at a higher rate than most other states…” but that’s an understatement.  Iowa is an extreme outlier.

● The Register story claims that some groups want to keep more children “found in risky situations” with their parents or relatives. That’s true.  But we don’t just want to do that and go away.  We support safe, proven alternatives that remove the risk instead of the child.

Foster care, on the other hand, with its high rate of abuse and enormous inherent emotional trauma is most definitely a “risky situation.”  In fact, for the overwhelming majority of children the overwhelming majority of the time family preservation is the safer choice. (And, for the record, an efficiency apartment is not a “risky situation” to begin with.)

● The story also implies that the fact that there is far more abuse in foster care than suggested by Iowa’s official statistics is merely the claim of one former foster child.  On the contrary, it’s what we know from one major study after another.

Iowa makes way too much use of “shelters”

● Still another shocking fact about Iowa child welfare emerges from the story – with no apparent recognition of just how shocking it is: the extent to which Iowa relies on what is, by far, the worst option for children, institutionalizing them in “shelters.” 

The San Francisco Chronicle is only the latest in a long line of newspapers to expose the horrors of such places.  But more important, even when there is no actual physical abuse, the very existence of this sort of placement is barbaric – shelters are that harmful to children. That’s why states such as Alabama and New Jersey have sharply – and successfully - restricted their use.  (One small bit of good news: The Alabama child welfare leader who implemented the curbs on shelters and other successful reforms, is Paul Vincent, who’s been hired to assess the situation in Iowa.)

Much the same is true of “residential treatment” – another option that has been found harmful in study after study – and again, there are far better alternatives. Details here. (See especially the All Purpose Foster Care-Industrial Complex Excuse Checklist on Page 3, which has responses to all the nonsense one typically hears from shelter directors.)

● Almost everyone in child welfare pays lip service to “prevention.” You never hear anyone say “boy, if there’s one thing I hate it’s prevention!” But usually, it’s the wrong kind of “prevention.” There’s a very good chance that the mother who lived in that efficiency apartment was forced into “counseling” and “parent education.” That probably made it that much harder for her to search for what she really needed – better housing and the job necessary to afford better housing.

There is a difference between prevention that involves making the helpers feel good and actually providing what families need. There’s more discussion of this here.

● Even worse, the new director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, Jerry Foxhoven, says he won’t even bother trying to get the federal government to change financial incentives that encourage foster care and discourage better alternatives.  In fact, Foxhoven can barely manage even the usual lip service. From the story:

Foxhoven says he does believe in the concept that "it's a lot easier for everybody to buy smoke alarms than fire trucks." But, he added, "you still need fire trucks."

Unfortunately, in child welfare, the “fire trucks” too often are like the kind in the science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451.

Turning adoptive parents into second-class parents

● Democrats in the legislature aren’t helping. They, too, are ignoring the elephant in the room – Iowa’s obscene rate-of-removal, focusing instead on scapegoating foster parents who happen to be homeschoolers and demanding “medical check-ups” for every child in foster care and every child receiving an adoption subsidy.

Of course there already are requirements that foster children get medical check-ups.

When it comes to adoptive families, what the Democrats really want is another chance for  government to spy on families.

The time to make sure an adoptive placement is safe is before it happens.  Something that could be done fairly easily were Iowa not rushing to tear apart families, creasing pressure for quick-and-dirty slipshod adoptive placements.

The whole point of adoption is that the adoptive parent is the child’s parent, period. When you make adoptive parents second-class parents, subject to any form of restriction or oversight that does not apply to every other parent you undermine the emotional security of the children – and providing that kind of security is the whole point of adoption. Otherwise, it’s just another word for foster care.

And why, by the way, should this extra government scrutiny be limited to adoptive parents who get subsidies, as Democrats propose?  Are they presumed to be worse parents than wealthy adoptive parents who don’t need such assistance? Or is it just that receiving a government benefit somehow is supposed to give the government extra leverage to invade family privacy. 

If that’s the case, then please feel free to do this – just as soon as you also pass a law requiring government audits of how we older Americans are spending our Social Security checks.

The bigger danger is in foster care

● And finally, the Register takes pains to point out that most children “known to the system” who are harmed are not foster children who were adopted by their foster parents.  That leaves the false implication that abuse in foster care is extremely rare and it’s birth parents who are the real danger.

But the reason a majority of children “known to the system” who are hurt are hurt in their own homes has nothing to do with comparative danger and everything to do with the immutable laws of mathematics: The majority of Iowa children who are abused are abused in their own homes because, despite the best efforts of the Iowa Department of Human Services, the majority of Iowa children still live in their own homes. Proportionately, there is every indication that foster care is more dangerous – for all sorts of reasons, including foster children abusing each other.

And even were it not so dangerous in terms of abuse and neglect, the trauma of placement itself is so great that two massive studies of more than 15,000 typical cases found that children left in their own homes typically fared better than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

None of this means no child ever should be taken from her or his parents.  But it means you’d better be damn sure that the child really is in so much danger at home that foster care is a less harmful alternative. 

For starters, Iowa DHS could stop taking away children when they deem a parent’s apartment too small.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

When Children Must Be Saved from Their Saviors

Back when cases involving missing children – many of them runaways from foster care – were making headlines in Washington, D.C., Marie Cohen rushed to try to shift responsibility from a failing foster care system. She told us to be sure to remember that a majority of missing children in the District of Columbia “are fleeing their own homes, not foster care.”
That’s a testament not to the success of foster care but rather to the immutable laws of mathematics. Despite the best efforts of those pushing endlessly for a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, a majority of children still live in their own homes, so those will be the homes from which a majority of runaways run.
To get a sense of the extent to which foster care is a horror show for District children, one needs to look at the proportion of runaways from their own homes and from foster care. Foster children represent less than one percent of all D.C. residents under age 18.  Yet they represent ten percent of the missing children.

This is not exactly a testament to the success of foster care.
In fact, in another column Cohen herself recites a litany of what she deems horror stories about D.C. foster parents she encountered.  Well, not quite a litany – she cites three examples. From there she tells us “many” foster parents “siphon off” money meant for their foster children and that she had to “parent most of the youth in my caseload because their foster parents did not do so …” [emphasis added].

But sweeping generalizations based on horror stories are no more valid when aimed at foster parents than at birth parents. And even if, in fact, systematic research reveals a widespread problem of D.C. foster parents in it for the money, the likely cause would be an anomaly. Unlike most the country, D.C. has a history of paying foster parents way too much.

The Real Horrors are Revealed by Data

The real reasons to worry about needless foster care are the studies showing abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes – a problem illustrated in tragic detail this week by the Arizona Republic – and the studies showing that the inherent trauma of foster care placement is so great that, in typical cases, children do better when left in their own homes. (If anyone conducted a betting pool to predict the paragraph in which I would cite those studies this week, congratulations to those who chose #7.)

Oddly, having spent most of this particular column trashing many foster parents, Cohen suggests that, somehow, if you put foster parents together in one place and call it a “foster care community” everything will be fine. She does not explain how these communities will have only the good foster parents she wants, and not the bad ones she condemns.
Or we could just do what Cohen always recommends: Institutionalize the children! Because if an institution’s own website says it’s wonderful, who cares about the research proving this is the worst possible option – or about all those scandals over the tendency of institutions to turn into hellholes – the most recent examples exposed in Philadelphia in April and in California in May.

Of course, institutions do have one big advantage: All the children are in one place. That is not an advantage for the children; on the contrary, the problems with putting a whole lot of young people who may have serious emotional problems in the same place right at the age when they are most vulnerable to peer pressure should be obvious.
But it’s a great advantage for caseworkers who might be upset about what an imposition it is upon them to have to spend time in a motor vehicle with the children one is supposedly helping, or even, declares Cohen, saving.
As she has before, Cohen complains about driving foster children. In the course of listing some of the things that prompted her to quit her job as a caseworker she writes:

Things that I did that the foster parents were supposed to do included: take my clients to the doctor, the dentist, and the therapist. Talk to their teachers. Pick them up from school when they were sick. Wait with them for hours at the emergency room.

I’m sure that, as she sat beside frightened, vulnerable foster children she’d taken to the E.R., Cohen tried to hide how much she resented having to be there. I hope she succeeded.
Extra time spent with foster children, wherever it may take place, could be viewed as a gift, not a burden. It’s a chance to talk to a foster child without interruptions, truly get to know her or him and, maybe, discover new ways to help. The same is true of chances to talk to foster children’s teachers.
There are times when parents really are horrible and children really need to be saved from those parents. There are times when foster care really is the least detrimental alternative. But everything from the mass of research to the foster children who vote with their feet tells us that, sometimes, what children really need is to be saved from their saviors.

New column: When children must be saved – from their saviors

Imagine for a moment that you’re a foster child. You’ve already suffered trauma, either because you really were abused in your own home, or because you were needlessly taken from everyone you know and love. Now, for some reason, you’ve been rushed to the emergency room. Your caseworker took you there. She’s sitting next to you during the long wait.  And she resents every minute of it. 

I’m sure the former caseworker who actually wrote about this tried to hide her feelings from the children. I hope she succeeded.