Even using a method that tends to bias findings toward removal, the study found a massive amount of needless intervention into the lives of families.
The findings were so striking that even the so-called Chronicle of Social Change, the Fox News of child welfare – couldn’t ignore them:
[A] study out of one of Florida’s most populous counties suggests that much of this new influx [of children into foster care] could be handled without the use of an out-of-home placement, and in some cases, without much child welfare involvement at all.
Broward County (seat: Fort Lauderdale) tested its current child welfare decision-making process against a predictive analytics approach, which relies on data collection and machine learning to predict likely future behavior. The study, conducted by a group of researchers and supporters of predictive analytics modeling, suggests that 40 percent of cases referred for either a foster care removal, intensive services or both could have been handled with less-intrusive options.
The Florida findings should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the foster-care panic that has engulfed the state for the past three years.
The study doesn’t break down what proportion of removals were unnecessary; the 40 percent figure is for all cases in which a court either ordered removal or the “services” for families, such as counseling and parent education.
But if even half - 20 percent - of the removals are unnecessary that’s more than 3,500 Florida children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love every year - shoveled into a system that churns out walking wounded four times out of five, and placed at high risk of abuse in foster care itself. Indeed, we’ve known for a long time that in typical cases children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.
All that misery is being inflicted on children because, three years ago, the Miami Heralddecided more children needed to be taken away – and because what passes for leadership at the Florida Department of Children and Families caved in to the Herald’s campaign to smear efforts to keep families together.
When "help" doesn’t help
There’s another important finding from the study: Providing the kinds of “help” that makes the helpers feel good – forcing parents into “counseling” and “parent education” - instead of giving families what they really need, usually concrete help to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty, can be worse than not intervening at all.
Again, no surprise. Advocates of family preservation have been making this point for decades. Now, even the CEO of ChildNet, the nonprofit in charge of providing the services in Broward County, agrees, telling the Chronicle:
“It might not be that my child was removed because I was bad parent, but that I’m homeless,” [ChildNetCEO Emilio] Benitez said. “If I lost my job, and I just don’t have stabilized housing, that doesn’t mean I’m a bad parent. But we almost always make them go to parenting classes.”
The one surprise in the study
But one thing is a surprise: Predictive analytics tends to magnify the biases of child welfare workers. If, even using predictive analytics, it’s clear that Florida is taking away too many children, the study almost certainly underestimates the extent of the wrongful removal problem. In other words, the study underestimates the harm that the Miami Herald and the weak-kneed leadership at the Department of Children and Families have done to children.