Monday, September 17, 2018

An open letter to two Florida columnists

Their anguish over the death of another child “known to the system” is genuine.  I think they’ll also be open to some new ideas.

A little over a week ago, two columnists for the Tampa Bay Times, Sue Carlton and John Romano, wrote about still another death of a child “known to the system” in Florida.  Often, when that happens, I reach out to the journalists in a letter.  This time, I’m sharing that letter with everyone.
Dear Ms. Carlton and Mr. Romano:

            I am writing to you because you’ve both written columns about the tragic death of Jordan Belliveau, another child “known to the system” in Florida – apparently on the same day.  More particularly, I am writing because your columns were not the usual quick-and-dirty “Boy do I hate child abuse!” rants – the kind of column that is filled with scapegoating; the kind that’s really just a cheap and easy way to meet a deadline.  On the contrary, the anguish in your columns is real and you both seem seriously interested in answers.

            Indeed, I first got in touch with you, Ms. Carlton, after you wrote a brave, counterintuitive column on some of these very issues. That was in 2010, a time when Florida child welfare finally was starting to improve.  As you may recall, when I wrote to you then, I predicted a backlash against reform.  Sadly, that’s exactly what happened.  I did not predict that it would be led by the Miami Herald – and the editorial board at the Tampa Bay Times.  But that’s also exactly what happened.  So the need for bold, counterintuitive thinking is even greater now.

            I am using the open letter approach because you’re certainly not alone in agonizing over how to fix child welfare in Florida.  And I am hoping that your interest in answers includes a willingness to look past the usual failed solutions – just as you did, Ms. Carlton, in 2010. Because those “solutions,” and the false premises that underlie them, are a large part of what has gotten Florida, and much of the country, into this mess in the first place.

            Among those false premises is one that both of you mention in your columns.  That’s understandable, since it is probably the most common misconception in all of child welfare: The idea that family preservation and child safety are inherently at odds – competing interests that somehow have to be “balanced.” The implication, of course, is that if you leave a child in or return a child to a home where abuse or neglect has been alleged, that’s inherently risky. Keep the child in foster care and it may ruin his psyche, but at least he’s physically safe.

            That is not true. 

What I will argue in this long letter is that in the overwhelming majority of cases family preservation isn’t just more humane than foster care, it’s safer than foster care.  And the real reason for horrors such as the death of Jordan Belliveau has nothing to do with any supposed “policy of reunifying families at all costs” at Gay Courter, a volunteer “guardian ad litem (what most states call a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA)) claims in a Times op-ed column.

On the contrary, it’s almost always because of caseworkers so horribly overloaded with cases of children who don’t need to be in the system that they lack the time to properly investigate any case.  As a result, they make terrible mistakes in all directions.  Even as they take many children needlessly they leave others in, or return them to, dangerous homes.

            Those false premises are laid out most clearly in Ms. Courter’s op-ed.  Since I’ve followed Florida child welfare for about 30 years now, and NCCPR has issued reports on child welfare dating back to 2000, I am familiar with Ms. Courter’s work. I know that, like most people in child welfare, she has only the best of intentions. I also know that at least one of you has written admiringly about her in the past.  I, on the other hand, am that guy who keeps saying those terrible things about the whole approach to child welfare taken by the Times and the Miami Herald. I make no apology for that. When children’s lives are at stake - literally – good intentions aren’t enough.

The Times and the Herald didn’t make a good child welfare system bad. But they helped make a bad child welfare system worse – and they helped to halt and reverse what had been the first real improvement in that system in decades.  You are in a position to do better.  And if you are willing to reconsider old assumptions then you can help break the cycle of tragedy-investigate-repeat that Ms. Carlton aptly described in her column.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A lawyer on what standing up for “children’s rights” is really all about.

Crystal Baker-Burr is a lawyer for the Bronx Defenders. But before that, she worked for the Legal Aid Society Juvenile Rights Project representing children in child welfare cases.  

In a post for an outstanding blog called Rethinking Foster Care, she writes about some of the cases she’s seen – particularly cases involving when New York City's Administration for Children's Services abuses its “emergency" removal power. 

Here's how her column begins:

"Can I have that quarter?" Anita asked me, pointing to the change she found in the chair in the courthouse interview room. I asked her what she needed it for. "I am saving all the change I find on the ground and keeping it with me,” she said. “If they ever kidnap me and my brothers again, I can take a cab back home to mommy."

(And while you're there, you can click on the icon in the upper left corner to subscribe to get posts from Rethinking Foster Care by email.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Want to know how what Trump did to families at the border compares to how the foster care system works? Use this handy chart!

The Trump Administration policy of tearing apart families at the Mexican border brought home to many Americans the enormous harm done to children when they are taken from everyone they know and live.  It wasn’t long before people started to wonder: How different is that from what U.S. child protective services agencies – the agencies that investigate allegations of child abuse and put children in foster care – do every day?

We discuss the similarities, and the differences, in detail in this previous post.  But now we’ve added something else: This handy chart for easy comparison:

Monday, September 10, 2018

More evidence of racial bias in child welfare – and an ingenious new way to curb it

When writing about the racial bias that permeates child welfare, I often mention a study in which caseworkers were given hypothetical cases. Everything was identical except the race of the family.  The result: Children were assessed as being at greater risk when the family was identified as African-American.

That suggests one obvious way to curb racial bias.  Or maybe not so obvious.  Because it didn’t even occur to me until I saw this video, a TED Talk by Prof. Jessica Pryce, director of the Florida Institute for Child welfare at Florida State University:

She discusses an approach that stands the hypothetical on its head, and applies it to real cases: If caseworkers are biased when they know the race of the family, what would happen if they didn’t know?

The county-run child welfare system in Nassau County, on Long Island, New York, decided to try to find out.  As one top administrator told Prof. Pryce:

Child welfare is very subjective, because it's an emotional field. There's no one who doesn't have emotions around this work. And it's very hard to leave all of your stuff at the door when you do this work. So let's take the subjectivity of race and neighborhood out of it, and you might get different outcomes.

And another worker in the agency acknowledged that
 Once you hear certain towns, right away, automatically you think the worst of that particular community. And it’s probably about six towns that I can think off the top of my head that they think is like, “Oh my God.” So I think that the name and the address have a lot, and also the next part of it is the presentation of the [case]worker.

So Maria Lauria, Diretor of Children's Services in Nassau County came up with a practice known as Blind Removal Meetings.  It works like this: When caseworkers want to remove a child from the home, they first must go before a committee. 

But, as Prof. Pryce explains:

When they present to the committee, they delete names, ethnicity, neighborhood, race, all identifiable information. They focus on what happened, family strength, relevant history and the parents' ability to protect the child. With that information, the committee makes a recommendation, never knowing the race of the family.

Now, of course, there is an entire group within child welfare that insists that there is no racial bias in child welfare.  If that’s true, then, of course, Blind Removal Meetings should have no effect on removal decisions at all.  On the other hand, if there is racial bias then Blind Removal Meetings should lead to fewer removals of Black children.

Prof. Pryce has the results:

In 2011, 57 percent of the kids going into foster care were black. But after five years of blind removals, that is down to 21 percent.

So add Blind Removal Meetings to the huge pile of evidence that yes, there is a serious and real problem of racial bias in child welfare.

Limits of Blind Removal Meetings

There are some limits to this approach.

● In many big cities, almost every child removed is nonwhite, so, presumably, there’s no way reviewers won’t know that much about the family.

● The CPS agency has to be willing to get serious about workers not declaring cases to be phony “emergencies” and needlessly removing children on the spot – before anyone has a chance to review them at all.  In New York City, for example, that probably happens in nearly half of cases, and maybe more.

● Blind Removal Meetings curb bias at one stage of the process – the decision to remove a child from the home. They can’t curb bias in who gets called in to child abuse “hotlines” in the first place.

● Blind Removal Meetings can curb racial bias, but not class bias.  In the case example Prof. Pryce uses at the start of her talk, we don’t know the race of the family, but we know the family is poor.

But in places such as Nassau County, Blind Removal Meetings are one way to curb the needless removal of African-American children.  And there are plenty of places across the country like Nassau County.

Unfortunately, Prof. Pryce leaves one question unanswered: Who was it in Nassau County who first thought up this idea that now seems so obvious – but obviously wasn’t?  Someone really ought to thank her or him.  UPDATE: Prof. Pryce got in touch with me to let me know that, as is now noted above the idea originated with Maria Lauria, the county director of children's services. So, thank you Ms. Lauria.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Fox News and the Fox News of child welfare: We compare. You decide.

Once again, a blogger who used an ugly racial stereotype against an impoverished Black mother is showcased in the so-called Chronicle of Social Change

Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, is the Democratic nominee for governor of Florida.  Gillum is African-American.  He won an upset victory in a Democratic primary.  As soon as his Republican opponent, Ron DeSantis, found out who he’d be running against, he declared that Florida voters shouldn’t  “monkey this up” by voting for him.

The comment was widely called out for exactly what it was – a racist dog whistle. 

Of course, he made the statement on Fox News, and Fox News hosts rushed to defend him.

There are striking parallels between this incident and the behavior of the Fox News of child welfare, the so-called Chronicle of Social Change.

I refer of course to the infamous column in which the Chronicle’s one-time “blogger of the year,” Marie Cohen, used an ugly racial stereotype about a poor African-American mother.

I do not believe Marie Cohen – or Chronicle publisher Daniel Heimpel – is a racist. I am sure  both believe they are genuinely helping to “protect” children from child abusers.  But that doesn’t make the column any less ugly.  I’m sure a lot of people at Fox News sincerely believe they’re helping to “protect” America from illegal immigrants.  Good motives are no excuse for stereotyping or bullying.  Cohen’s column engaged in both.  And now, Heimpel is publishing Cohen again.

The column and the stereotype

In seeking to rebut a New York Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow”  Cohen implied that one of the parents  who told the Times about the needless removal of her children was wasting money buying sneakers – something that is never mentioned or suggested in the Times story itself.

I don’t know why Cohen brought sneakers into the discussion. I do know that there is a crude, pernicious racial stereotype that says African-Americans are poor because they waste money on expensive sneakers.
It’s a staple of right-wing rants on internet comment boards. In one such rant on Glenn Beck’s site, The Blaze, about “HOW TO PREVENT BLACK CHILDREN FROM GETTING MURDERED” (caps in the original, of course) a commenter writes: “#5 INSTEAD OF BUYING THEM EXPENSIVE SNEAKERS AND SMARTPHONES - BE A REAL PARENT.”

Heimpel, the Chronicle publisher, should have apologized for the column and attached an “editor’s note” disavowing it. Instead, he promoted it on his personal Twitter feed.

If anything, what Cohen and Heimpel did was worse than what DeSantis did. At least DeSantis picked on someone his own size.  Cohen used the stereotype against one of the most defenseless members of society, a low-income African-American mother whose only “crime” was daring to tell her story to The New York Times.  That isn’t just stereotyping.  It’s bullying.

The point is not that the mother should be immune from criticism by those who may disagree with what she did that got her into trouble with child protective services. The point is that there are ways to do that without stereotyping and without bullying.

The column was not Cohen’s only blunder on matters of race. In another column, she falsely claimed that the Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare had “quietly suspended its work.”  The Chronicle didn’t check the false claim before publishing it, and knew the claim was false for weeks before finally correcting it.

In still another, her defense of the use of “predictive analytics” in child welfare was almost identical to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s defense of stop-and-frisk.

In yet another column, Cohen complained that “As a social worker in the District of Columbia, I was subjected to multiple low-quality, heavy-handed trainings that tried to help me discover my hidden biases.”

Now, the encore

And now Heimpel, the self-proclaimed “child welfare expert” whose own extremist rhetoric includes dismissing concerns about racial bias in child welfare as a “panic” and suggesting that the spread of family preservation is analogous to cancer, has brought Cohen back for an encore.

She coauthors a column that tries to draw false distinctions between what Donald Trump and his administration did to children at the Mexican border and what child protective services agencies do all the time.  No, I will not link to the column because, though this column did not stereotype anyone, I try to avoid linking to people who have sunk to using racial stereotypes.  But their claim can be summarized as follows: When CPS does it it’s different because we mean well and we only take children from horrible abusers.  

It is reasonable to have a debate over the extent to which the two forms of tearing apart families are similar.  No one, in fact, claims they are identical – only that there are far more similarities than people such as Cohen – and Heimpel – want to admit.  What is unreasonable is including in the debate someone who previously invoked a crude racial stereotype and used it against a low-income African-American mother.  Once you do that you’ve crossed a red line – and journalists should recognize that line.

There are plenty of people who sincerely disagree with the analogy between what Trump did at the border and how the foster care system works who do not resort to racial stereotyping.  In fact, the Chronicle already had run a column by one such person, who attempted to make the same case as the Cohen column.  Since that author has not used racial stereotypes, I will link to it.

The Cohen column was redundant.  Perhaps Heimpel published it because he is such a fan of that point of view – and of his former “blogger of the year.”  Or perhaps he published it because what Trump did has indeed brought home to millions of Americans just how awful it is for children to be taken from their parents, and some of those Americans might indeed reach a conclusion the Chronicle doesn’t like: that U.S. child welfare agencies can and should take away far fewer children.

Other parallels to Fox News

This is not the only way in which Heimpel’s behavior mirrors that of Fox News.  In a recent post to this blog I wrote about how Trump has exploited the death of Mollie Tibbetts, allegedly killed by an undocumented worker, to push his agenda of fear and hatred toward immigrants.  As Columbia Journalism Review noted, the White House rushed out a video featuring relatives of people killed by undocumented workers – and, of course, Fox News was glad to amplify the message.

All of it was in support of the Big Lie of American immigration. Or, as CJR explained:

The president’s hardline immigration stance is grounded in the false belief that undocumented immigrants represent a clear and present danger to American citizens, and Tibbetts’s murder fits the narrative that has been a hallmark of Trump’s rhetoric since the first moments of his campaign.

(CJR should have said false claim – we don’t know if even Trump really believes it.)

The exploitation of the Tibbets case by Trump – and by Fox News - is very much like the way Heimpel exploited another tragedy, the death of five-year-old Jeremiah Oliver in Massachusetts, in support of the Big Lie of American child welfare – that family preservation is inherently at odds with child safety.

Heimpel co-authored an op-ed for the Boston Globe with Elizabeth Bartholet, one of the most extreme advocates of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, and a leader of a movement that denies the existence of racial bias in child welfare. Heimpel and Bartholet used the Oliver case to attack “differential response” an approach to handling child abuse allegations that has been found safe and effective in more than two dozen studies.

It would have been bad enough to exploit the tragedy had Oliver’s case actually been diverted to differential response.  But it wasn’t.  Heimpel and Bartholet admit this – in the fourth paragraph. Then, they argue, Trump-style, that it’s o.k. to exploit the tragedy because other cases that might be like Oliver’s might be diverted to differential response.

Just the kind of argument Fox News would love.

In recent months the Chronicle had tried to pass itself off as more mainstream – more Shep Smith, less Sean Hannity.  It even publishes dissent from its party line once in awhile, just as Fox News occasionally brings on a liberal pundit.  And because of all the cutbacks in newspapers, editors may find it tempting to reprint material that the Chronicle hands to them.

But any potential partner should understand: This is an organization that accepts, and condones racial stereotyping.  Almost everything it publishes comes with an agenda.  Until that changes, the Chronicle should be viewed as a conduit for extremism, not a news organization.  Just like Fox News.

Monday, September 3, 2018

NCCPR in Youth Today on the little law that couldn’t

The law is the so-called Child Abuse Prevention and Treatmente Act (CAPTA).  It codifies everything wrong with how we “fight” child abuse.

The idea of using CAPTA as the organizing framework for coping with child abuse, or even thinking about it, is absurd. And the notion that somehow a more powerful CAPTA with more money and more enforcement would somehow help children is profoundly dangerous.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Maine legislative committee opposes the worst of the LePage bills

Fool me once, the adage goes, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.  Maine journalists and lawmakers had been fooled into accepting massive removal of children to foster care during the 1980s and 1990s.  So far, they have not been fooled again.

UPDATE, August 30: But a majority of the full legislature was fooled.  The worst of the bills has passed.

A victory for Maine's vulnerable children:
Gov. Paul LePage's take-the-child-and-run agenda
suffers some setbacks in a legislative committee
(Photo by Gage Skidmore)
Updates added on August 30 are in bold.

On Monday this blog reported on the efforts of Maine’s Trump-before-Trump governor, Paul LePage, to destroy child welfare reforms that had made Maine a leader in reducing needless foster care and keeping children safe.

“By definition,” we wrote. “Children are defenseless.  Right now the Maine Legislature is their last line of defense against proposed laws that will make all of them less safe.”

Yesterday, some lawmakers showed signs that the Legislature will come through.  But ultimately, the legislature failed. 

The Health and Human Services Committee voted  against bills that would have de-emphasized family preservation and imposed criminal penalties on mandated reporters who failed to call in reports alleging abuse or neglect.  A third bad bill passed, but in modified form.  Under this bill, reports so spurious that they didn’t even meet the ridiculously low standards for “substantiation” by caseworkers would have been kept forever, to be used against families.  Now, if the bill passes, they’ll be kept for either three or five years (news accounts differ).

Even the bills that were opposed by a majority in committee still are scheduled for votes by the full Maine House and Senate tomorrow – so plenty could still go wrong.  And it did.  On August 30, the full legislature passed the bill undermining family preservation.

But what happened yesterday in committee reflects rare courage in a state legislature and rare insight from a state’s media. (On the part of lawmakers, it turns out, a bit too rare.)

The usual pattern is this: A child “known to the system” dies.  Politicians take advantage of the case to trash all efforts to keep families together and/or a major newspaper does big stories falsely scapegoating such efforts.  Lawmakers rush to outdo each other in looking tough on child abuse.  So they pass awful bills that start – or accelerate – foster-care panics – sharp, sudden spikes in needless removals of children from their homes. 

That does terrible harm to the children needlessly removed, and it further overloads the entire system so workers have less time to find children in real danger. In short, foster-care panics make all children less safe.

As in other states, Maine’s foster-care panic was kicked into high gear by two high-profile tragedies, the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy.  Gov. LePage immediately sought to exploit those tragedies to push his take-the-child-and-run agenda.

But Maine broke the mold two ways: First, the state’s journalists were not suckered.  Two of the state’s largest newspapers, the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News wrote editorials opposing the worst of the bills and reporters for both newspapers carefully examined all sides of the issue.  That probably helped lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee show the courage to put the interests of children first and oppose the worst of the bills.

And that record continues: Just this morning, the Bangor Daily News published a very good story about successful family reunification (though in one of the cases discussed in the story, involving a mother who was a domestic violence victim, it is likely the children never should have been taken in the first place).

Unfortunately, it wasn't enough.  Though the Portland Press Herald reports there was "vigorous debate" over the measure, a majority were suckered and voted for it.

Logan’s legacy

LePage is not the first Maine governor to embrace a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare.  It was the norm in Maine throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s; in fact, it probably was even worse then than it is now.  And it contributed to tragedy – a tragedy that some in public life in the state, and some journalists, still remember.

They remember Logan Marr – the little girl killed by her foster mother in 2001, a former child protective services caseworker for what was then the Department of Human Services.

They remember how Maine’s record for needlessly tearing apart families contributed to the tragedy and they remember how that led to the reforms that dramatically curbed needless removal of children and made all of Maine’s children safer – reforms that received strong support from editorial boards across the state.

Fool me once, the adage goes, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.  Maine journalists and lawmakers had been fooled into accepting massive removal of children to foster care during the 1980s and 1990s.  So far, they have not been fooled again. So now, the majority of Maine legislators have behaved shamefully.

The big bill is a mixed bag

Not all the news  was good even before the vote on August 30.  A governor and a state agency can hurt children in all sorts of ways without getting the legislature’s approval. Governor LePage and what is now the Department of Health and Human Services have done just that. Needless removals have been escalating for years, as they work to undo improvements that once made Maine a national model for child welfare reform.

And a big bill that got support in committee is a mixed bag.  The good news: It raises pay for frontline caseworkers. That’s good for the simple reason that they deserve it; being a child protective services caseworker is among the toughest jobs imaginable.  It’s also good because it will encourage workers to stick around, reducing the turnover that plagues CPS agencies.

But it also includes a provision hiring more workers and supervisors.  That won’t make things worse, but it won’t make them any better – not as long as LePage and DHHS are pursuing a take-the-child-and-run agenda.  All the new workers will be pursuing all the new cases – so at best the overwhelming workload will remain just as overwhelming, leaving Maine with the same deteriorating system, only bigger.

Maine’s best chance to actually improve the system comes next year. Due to term limits, there will be a new governor. The new governor should take a close look at how Maine went from a national disgrace in the 1990s to a national model ten years later, and follow that example.  Fortunately, thanks to some smart journalism and courageous lawmakers, even with the legislature's big mistake this week, it may not be as hard this time.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Remembering George Sheldon …

... Including the legacy the Miami Herald wants you to forget

George Sheldon
When former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, named one of the state’s most prominent Democrats, Bob Butterworth, to run the state Department of Children and Families, a joke made the rounds: “Nobody can fix DCF,” the joke went. “Now a Democrat will be blamed for the failures.”

Butterworth brought in another prominent Democrat, George Sheldon, to be his deputy. But if the joke was right about Crist’s secret plan, the joke was on him. Together, Butterworth and Sheldon engineered one of the largest transformations of any child welfare system in America. What was once the nation’s most prominent example of child welfare failure, became, relatively speaking, a remarkable success. 

When Butterworth left, there was speculation that Crist would never name Sheldon to the top job – after all, Crist had defeated Sheldon in two statewide election campaigns.  But he did.  And Sheldon expanded on the reforms begun under Butterworth.

During the Obama Administration, Sheldon became the nation’s highest-ranking official in child welfare, running the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services. While there, he championed real child welfare finance reform.

The term “hero” is overused.  So is the term “champion for children.” But they both apply to George Sheldon, who died last week at the age of 71. 

Reading the tributes to Sheldon it is striking how many of them come from former foster children.  They knew that, finally, they had a real friend in a position of power.

Sheldon’s greatest accomplishment

Sheldon moved aggressively to curb the use of psychiatric medication on foster children, and he prohibited the use of foster children in drug trials.  He championed “normalcy,” working to clear away the bureaucratic barriers that made it hard for foster children to enjoy the smallest pleasures in life, such as a sleepover at a friend’s house.  And Sheldon and Butterworth took DCF out of the bunker, opening records and speaking candidly about the agency’s failures.

But their single greatest accomplishment was this: Sheldon and Butterworth dramatically reduced the number of children torn needlessly from their families – and independent monitors found they did it without compromising child safety.  The dramatic transformation was featured in The New York Times.  

Yet this appears nowhere in the Miami Herald’s obituary for Sheldon. 

The obit is filled with warm reminiscences and wonderful stories, like this one, from former journalist Martin Dyckman, about Sheldon’s time in the Florida Legislature:

In the 1970s, when the Legislature passed financial disclosure laws, Sheldon often ranked dead last among his colleagues in the House. One newspaper led a story about the financial worth of lawmakers by noting that then-Miami-Dade Rep. Elaine Bloom disclosed ownership of a pure-breed dog whose declared worth was greater than Sheldon’s, Dyckman recalls.

But the obituary profanes Sheldon’s memory by leaving out entirely his single greatest accomplishment in Florida. In 2,000 words, reporter Carol Marbin Miller found no room to even mention his work to safely and successfully keep more children out of the chaos of Florida foster care.  But, of course, Miller has led a crusade against those changes. Now, she wants to pretend they never happened.

But they did happen.  And the best way to honor George Sheldon would be for the people of Florida to turn their backs on the Miami Herald’s fearmongering and demand that DCF return to George Sheldon’s vision of child welfare reform.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Exploiting tragedy to tear apart families: Did LePage learn from Trump or was it the other way around?


● Maine Governor’s child welfare proposals represent the triumph of fear and ignorance over proven success.  They will make all of Maine’s children less safe. 

● The Maine Legislature, children’s last line of defense against these dangerous bills, is scheduled to hold a hearing on them today.

What do Donald Trump and Maine Gov .Paul LePage have in common?
Among other things, a willingness to exploit tragedy to justify needlessly tearing apart families.

(Photos by Gage Skidmore)

An email roundup of media news and commentary from Columbia Journalism Review last week highlighted how Donald Trump has exploited the death of Mollie Tibbetts, allegedly killed by an undocumented worker, to push his agenda of fear and hatred toward immigrants.  As CJR noted, the White House rushed out a video featuring relatives of people killed by undocumented workers – and, of course, Fox News was glad to amplify the message.

All of it was in support of the Big Lie of American immigration. Or, as CJR explained:

The president’s hardline immigration stance is grounded in the false belief that undocumented immigrants represent a clear and present danger to American citizens, and Tibbetts’s murder fits the narrative that has been a hallmark of Trump’s rhetoric since the first moments of his campaign.

(CJR should have said false claim – we don’t know if even Trump really believes it.)

At almost exactly the same time, in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage -- often referred to as Trump-before- lying, racism, vulgarity and miscellaneous cruelty -- was announcing a series of measures to finish the job of undoing one of the nation’s most successful child welfare reforms.
Trump because of his similar penchant for

Like Trump, he invoked horror stories: The deaths of two children known-to-the-system, Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy.  And, like Trump, he invoked a Big Lie – this time the Big Lie of American child welfare, that family preservation is at odds with keeping children safe.

What the LePage Bills would do

Not everything in LePage’s plan is wrong.  He’s right to propose a pay raise for caseworkers and he wants to improve information technology.

But the major change proposed by LePage involves changing a single paragraph in state law.  It’s in the part where the legislature explains its intent. This section of law already accepts – in its very first paragraph – the false premise that family preservation and child safety are at odds.  LePage proposes to deemphasize helping families even further.

Other proposals encourage a massive increase in the reporting of false allegations and trivial cases, further overloading caseworkers.

So on balance, this package of bills represents the triumph of fear and ignorance over proven success.  It will make all of Maine’s children less safe. 

No system can prevent every child abuse tragedy. But Maine spent years transforming its system from a national disgrace into a national model – according to no less than Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which made the state’s reforms a finalist for its Innovations in American Government Awards. 

Now, Gov. LePage is trying to finish what he started years ago – taking a wrecking ball to what had been, relatively speaking, a model child welfare system, and leaving the rubble for the next governor to clean up.

Indeed, even the tragedies now in the news did not occur during the administration of former Gov. John Baldacci when the reforms were in effect. They occurred after the LePage Administration already had begun dismantling those reforms.

Gov. LePage is proposing to do to children in Maine what his idol, Donald Trump, did to children at the Mexican border – tear them needlessly from their families and wreak havoc on their psyches, or worse. And if anyone says “but this is different, we’re doing it to keep children safe” – remember, Trump said everything he did was in the name of safety. (See examples here  and here.  In fact, the LePage administration already is doing it, forcing children to spend their days in offices and their nights in hotels.

Here’s how some of the governor’s bills make all children less safe:

● They doom far more children to be consigned to the chaos of foster care.  Most cases are nothing like the horror stories.  Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.”  That’s why study after study after study has found that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care. 

● They doom far more children to endure abuse in foster care itself.  Most foster parents do the best they can for the children in their care.  But the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than generally realized and far higher than states admit in their own statistics – which involve states, in effect, investigating themselves.  Multiple independent studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.  The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.

The more that foster care systems are overloaded with children who don’t need to be there – as is happening already in Maine and will worsen if these bills become law – the greater the temptation to lower standards for foster parents and ignore warnings about abuse in foster care.

Forgetting the lessons of Logan Marr

If there is one state that should have learned that lesson it’s Maine – after the tragic death of Logan Marr.  And, of course Maine did learn the lesson – and crafted a child welfare system that dramatically curbed needless removal of children, with no compromise of safety.  During the Baldacci administration, the Maine system was among the best evidence in America that you can’t have child safety without family preservation.

In what is perhaps an all-to-fitting legacy, what Paul LePage is doing now is like spitting on Logan Marr’s grave.

Facts and evidence mean nothing to Paul LePage.  And, apparently, neither does child safety.  Because what LePage already has been doing, and proposes to make worse through this legislation, makes all Maine children less safe.

That’s because the real reasons for deaths of children “known to the system” almost always involve overwhelmed workers missing warning signs because they have no time to investigate any case properly.  For years, LePage has been overwhelming them even more.

Even without specific bills, LePage has sent his marching orders to DHHS, orders that boil down to “take the child and run.”  So workers are even more likely to make mistakes in all directions. With no time to investigate any case properly workers are more likely to take more children needlessly and also more likely to leave more children in danger.

That’s why the only child welfare systems in America that have ever succeeded in improving child safety are those that have done more to keep families together – as Maine did during the Baldacci Administration. In contrast, no child welfare system anywhere in America has made children safer by doing what LePage is proposing to do now.

And it’s not just the bill demanding that Maine further deemphasize helping families that endangers children.

● Add to it his bill criminalizing the failure of mandated reporters to report anything and everything. That means a lot of scared doctors and teachers, among others, will be calling in all sorts of cases they know are nonsense - because they’ll be afraid to do anything else. So caseworkers will be wasting even more time spinning their wheels. They’ll have even less time to make sound decisions – and even less time to find children in real danger.  And, by the way, there is no evidence that mandatory reporting itself improves child safety; and many one-time supporters of the practice have had second thoughts. [UPDATE, AUGUST 18: This bill was defeated in committee.]

● Now add his bill requiring DHHS to keep and use reports that don’t even meet the extremely low standard for “substantiation” under Maine law.  (Substantiation doesn’t mean a court made a decision after hearing all sides. It Maine as in most states it means only that a caseworker concluded there was slightly more evidence than not that some sort of abuse or neglect occurred. Unfounded reports do not even meet that standard.) 

The state’s press release says “keeping these records allows the department to determine whether the family has exhibited a certain history or pattern of behavior.” But it is far more likely to reveal only a “pattern” of being victimized by false reports.  The proposed law is an invitation to anyone with a grudge against a former friend, a neighbor or an ex-spouse: Just keep calling in false reports and eventually it will stick.

By definition, children are defenseless.  Right now the Maine Legislature is their last line of defense against proposed laws that will make all of them less safe.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

And now there are (at least) five: Still ANOTHER study confirms that, in typical cases, children do better in their own homes than in foster care

There are a couple of studies that I cite so often on this blog and elsewhere that I once suggested readers could run a betting pool to guess which paragraph would contain the reference.

They are the two massive studies of more than 15,000 typical cases conducted by MIT researcher Prof. Joseph Doyle.  The longitudinal studies compared children in typical child welfare cases who were placed in foster care to children experiencing the same sort of alleged abuse or neglect who were left in their own homes. 

The studies didn’t guess what happened to these children based on subjective assessments. And the studies didn’t track the children for just a few months or maybe a year or two.  These studies tracked the children all the way into late adolescence and young adulthood and looked at what actually happened to them.  Typically, on measure after measure, the children left in their own homes did better.  A second, even larger study, confirmed the findings.

That was a decade ago.  In all the time since, the study has remained definitive. Nothing has matched it for size, scope or rigor. The closest that foster-care apologists could come to finding a flaw is their claim that the studies didn’t follow young children.  (In fact, they followed children as young as age 5.)

So the only straw at which the foster-care apologists could grasp was the hope – with no evidence – that the results would be different for even younger children.

But that ignored still another study, (also discussed here) from University of Minnesota researchers.  Using different methodology and outcomes, but again tracking actual outcomes all the way into adolescence, this study looked at children who first entered foster care anywhere from birth to age 9.  This study also was an apples-to-apples comparison. The researchers  looked at children under comparable circumstances and it, too, found that the children left in their own homes did better.

OK, the foster care apologists might say, but what about just infants. If we limit the study to just infants will we get the results we want?  No. Not even when the infants are born with cocaine in their systems.

University of Florida researchers studied two groups of such children; one group was placed in foster care, another left with birth mothers able to care for them.  After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out.  Typically, the children left with their birth mothers did better.  For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.

None of these studies is perfect, of course. But compare the rigor of these studies to the best the foster-care apologists can come up with.

The latest study

And now comes study #5.  Unlike the others, this one concerns children in Finland.  Once again it directly examined comparable cases. Once again it tracked the children all the way to young adulthood.  And, like the Minnesota study, this one was limited to young children – ages 2 to 6.  Once again, the children left in their own homes did better.

The researchers note one point about their child welfare system that they seem to think might make it different from the one in the United States. They write:

…in the Finnish context, the main reason for placement is not abuse but some level of neglect or inability to care for the child as a result of parental poor mental health, financial difficulties or the accumulation of problems.

But in fact, those are the main reasons for placement in the United States as well.  And,  as this investigative report from Finland’s public broadcaster YLE makes clear, the Finnish system’s denial of due process and penchant for needless removal are depressingly similar to the American system.

The fact that researchers got these results in Finland is important for a very different reason: In America foster-care apologists constantly blame the rotten outcomes of foster care on the fact that the system is underfunded.  If only we had more money, they claim, we could fix it.

But Finland is a world leader in social welfare spending; by some measures it’s #1 in the European Union.  If money is the problem, then the results from Finland should be vastly different.  That they are not is still more evidence that foster care is inherently so traumatic for a child that it is fundamentally unfixable. 

(And, for the record, still another American study reached a similar conclusion. This one created a mathematical formula for how much better the awful outcomes for foster children would be if the system were magically made perfect. The answer: 22.2 percent.)

It is, of course, well worth trying to achieve that improvement.  And none of these studies suggests that no child ever should be taken from her or his parents. The horror stories are very rare but they’re also very real.  There are cases in which the trauma of removal, bad as it is, is less bad than leaving the child in her or his own home.

But the Finnish study is still more evidence that foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used much more sparingly and in much smaller doses than it is used in America today.  And the study is still more evidence that the only way to fix foster care is to have less of it.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

For the record: No, Los Angeles County does NOT have the nation’s largest child welfare system

No matter how many times the Fox News of Child Welfare says it does, it’s still not true.

I have previously noted the serious potential for harm caused by the slanted “journalism” practiced by the so-called Chronicle of Social Change – the Fox News of child welfare. Things like promoting a column using a vile racial stereotype to attack an impoverished birth mother, or the Chronicle’s cozying up to the group home industry. 

But there’s something else worth noting: A bizarre, if relatively harmless, obsession on the part of its publisher - and self-proclaimed "child welfare expert" -- Daniel Heimpel:  His demonstrably erroneous claim, repeated over and over, that Los Angeles County has the largest child welfare system in America.

It does not.

Even using Heimpel’s measure of choice, it does not. 

I have no idea why it matters so much to him. Sure, he lives in Los Angeles, but it’s not as if having a super-sized child welfare system is anything to be proud of. Yet Heimpel’s fervor about this runs so deep that less than a month after Chronicle’s editor John Kelly corrected the error, Heimpel repeated it, and seemed to double down on it. It’s been repeated in story after story ever since.  It’s reached the point where people in Los Angeles County child welfare are starting to believe it.

Does it really matter? Not nearly as much as the Chronicle’s other failings.  But if they can’t – or won’t – get something so basic correct, why should they be trusted on larger policy issues?

It’s big – but not biggest

The Los Angeles County child welfare system is very, very big. That makes sense given that Los Angeles County is very, very big. It’s likely that Los Angeles has the largest child welfare system run by a county or other unit of local government.  But in most of America, states, not individual counties, run child welfare. And it’s easy to forget that there are states that have many more children than Los Angeles County – so many more that it’s unlikely on its face that Los Angeles County would have a larger child welfare system.

TABLE #1: Sources are listed at the end of this post

So if you simply measure the system by the number of children it has the potential to be involved with, Florida and Texas (as well as Georgia and Illinois, by the way) all are bigger. (Other states with larger child populations are like California – individual counties run child welfare.)

Another approach is to use only measures that detail how often the child welfare agency actually intervenes in a family’s life.

This table offers several possible measures, including Heimpel’s choice, discussed below. Los Angeles comes out third in all of them:

TABLE #2: Definitions and sources are listed at the end of this post.

● Number of children who were subjected to child abuse investigations? Los Angeles is third,  behind Texas and Florida.

● Number of children in foster care? Los Angeles is third again, behind Texas and Florida.

But Heimpel offers an answer for this one, writing:

Los Angeles’ child welfare agency is the largest in the nation, serving more than 34,000 children, almost 21,000 of whom are placed in out-of-home foster care.

In other words, he simply combines the number of children in foster care and the number receiving “services” in their own homes.

There’s just one problem: Florida and Texas also provide in-home “services.”  And yes, they report doing it for a larger number of children than Los Angeles.

So in category after category after category – including Heimpel’s category of choice -- Los Angeles County, California is not the largest child welfare system in America.

Complicating things further: There is plenty of room for fudging some of these figures. For example, Texas coerces large numbers of children into kinship foster care placements without taking the family to court - and doesn’t count them in its statistics on the number of children in foster care.

And, of course, these figures say nothing about the rate at which these jurisdictions place children in foster care. One reason the Los Angeles system is so large is the simple fact that it takes away too many children.

The UN-correction

The Chronicle’s error actually used to be even bigger. A year ago, the Chronicle published this story which, in its original form, called the Los Angeles system the biggest in the whole world!  So I sent an email to Chronicle Editor John Kelly pointing out the problem. I’ve excerpted it here:

From: Richard Wexler 
Date: Thu, Aug 10, 2017 at 5:10 PM
Subject: Errors in the Charity Chandler-Cole story
To: John Kelly

I know it’s difficult for Heimpel & Co. to grasp that Los Angeles is not the center of the universe, but there is one blatant factual error in this story, 

Los Angeles County does not have the largest child welfare system in the world, or even in the United States.  The state-run systems in Texas and Florida both are larger, whether measured by the number of children living in those states or the number of children trapped in foster care in those states.  If you measure only by child population, Illinois and Georgia also are larger. …

Kelly corrected the text of the story and, after I sent a second email, he corrected the headline.

But while the Chronicle has never again called the L.A. system the largest in the world, in story after story the Fox News of Child Welfare has insisted it’s the largest in the United States.  The story citing the combined in-home and foster care numbers – published only a month after the Chronicle corrected the earlier story - seemed to be Heimpel’s way of doubling down.

That only made him doubly wrong.

It may not be true that everything’s bigger in Texas, but the child welfare system is.

Table #1: Sources:
Texas and Florida: Bureau of the Census, Current Population Survey, 2016: (Impoverished child data average the figures for 2014, 2015 and 2016); Los Angeles: Bureau of the Census, Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, 2016:

Table #2 Definitions and sources:
 CPS investigations are for the most recent 12 month period for which data are available; the other categories are snapshots of the number of children receiving services on the indicated date. 

Definition of in-home services: Texas: Children receiving Family Preservation Services, August 31, 2017; Florida: Children receiving in-home services and family support services, April 30, 2018; Los Angeles: Defined as “In-home Services” mostly “Family Maintenance Services,” August 31, 2017  Dates are the same for number of children in foster care.

Florida: Florida Department of Children and Families, Out of Home care and In-home services, DCF dashboard: Children in CPS investigations: Office Of Child Welfare, 2017 Annual Performance Report, Fiscal Year 2016-2017; Texas: Department of Family and Protective Services, DFPS Data Book:; Los Angeles County: Department of Children and Family Services, Out of Home care and In-home services: Child Welfare Services Data Monthly Fact Sheet, August – 2017 CPS investigations: California Child Welfare Indicators Project