Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Why is foster care so easy and everything else so hard?

A Kansas City police officer, with a lot of backup, saves three children from needless foster care. But look what it took to achieve that result.

Gina English talks about the family whose poverty wasn't 
confused with neglect in this Kansas City Star video.

On one level this very good story, written by Cortlynn Stark, an intern for the Kansas City Star, is inspiring. On another level it’s frustrating. And and on still another it’s outrageous.

On June 28, at about 2:00 a.m. Kansas City police Sgt. A.J. Henry found a Chantre Russ and her three children, ages 4, 2 and 7 months, sleeping in a parking lot stairway.  They had arrived on a bus from California. The family had to leave that state after the father of the oldest child was murdered.

Sgt. Henry took out his phone and made a call – but not the one you might expect. 

He did not call Missouri’s child abuse “hotline” to have child protective services rush out and throw the children into foster care.  Instead, even though it was 2:00 a.m., he called Gina English. She’s the Kansas City Police Department’s Social Services Coordinator – a job that exists only because of grants from a private foundation.

The inspiring part

Sgt. Henry wasn’t going to let these children be thrown into foster care. “It was not going to happen on his watch,” English said. “That family was not going to be separated.”

And it wasn’t. But oh, what it took to achieve that result. 

The story goes into great detail about all the different people who had to be contacted and mobilized just to keep the children in this one family out of foster care: The people who came up with car seats for the children, the officers who pooled their own money to get the family a hotel room, the groups that supplied diapers and baby wipes. As the story said:  “Support from across Kanass City poured in…”

It all happened just in time. Ms. Russ was on the verge of calling child protective services on herself.

The frustrating part

This amazing collective effort is the part of the story that’s inspiring. Here’s the part that’s frustrating:

I’m sure this isn’t the first time Sgt. Henry, Ms. English and others have extended themselves for families this way.  But no one can sustain this kind of collective ad hoc volunteer effort for every family who needs it.  So it’s frustrating that this risks becoming one of those feel-good stories that warms our hearts about the family that was helped, as we forget all the others who are not.

Nationwide, multiple studies have found that 30 percent America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents had decent housing.  So I hope readers, and other journalists, who see this story will remember the thousands of other families, just like this one, whose children are in fact torn from their parents every year because their parents lack housing.  And I hope they will realize that those children suffer the same sorts of trauma as that endured by children taken at the Mexican border.

The outrageous part

The part of the story that’s outrageous can be boiled down to a single question:


Why is foster care so easy, while everything else is so hard?  Why does it take foundation grants and police chipping in their own money and this enormous collective effort to do what’s right and keep one loving family together, while doing what’s wrong – consigning children to the chaos of foster care -- takes little more than a phone call? 

The technical answer has to do with arcane child welfare funding formulas that reimburse states for a significant share of the costs of foster care in many cases, while providing far less to keep families together. (And by the way, the grossly overhyped Family First Act would do nothing for the family in this case – the kind of concrete help they need isn’t covered.)

The larger answer is that foster care is easy and everything else is hard because so much of America wants it that way.  Foster care is easy and everything else is hard because so much of America hates poor people in general and nonwhite poor people in particular.

That leaves good people like Sgt. Henry, Ms. English and the others who banded together in this case to do the best they can, largely on their own.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Demonized in absentia: What The Nation got wrong about child welfare and opioids

There is a lot that is good in The Nation’s cover story “Lessons from the Opioid Epidemic: How public schools have become the safety net of last resort for traumatized children.”  The story, by Associate Washington Editor Zoë Carpenter, makes clear that the “root causes” of everything that has gone wrong are poverty and unemployment.  The story decries, albeit briefly, the lack of drug treatment.  The story even acknowledges some of the failings of previous journalism on similar issues.

Unfortunately, they learned the wrong lessons
But, in many ways, a publication that ought to know better has perpetuated stigma and stereotype,
and contributed to the dominant false narrative in American child welfare: that increases in foster care are inevitable because of opioids.

In fact, foster care is not increasing because of opioids. Foster care is increasing because of child welfare’s typical, knee-jerk, take-the-child-and-run response to opioids.

The story describes the effects of opioid abuse on children in one of the states where the problem is worst: West Virginia.  In particular, as the subtitle suggests, it focuses on the daily work of teachers in poor rural communities who try to help children affected by parental drug use.

The story makes the now-obligatory nod to the excesses of “crack baby” coverage in the 1980s and how that stigmatized both the children and their parents. But while the story goes to great lengths to avoid similarly stigmatizing children, it does almost nothing to counteract similar demonization of their parents.  

The parents are silenced

That’s because the voices of those parents are silenced.  In more than 5,000 words, we hear from children, from teachers, from counselors, from grandparents stepping in to provide kinship foster care, from law enforcement from emergency room doctors and on and on.  Not one of those 5,000+ words comes from a parent. That leaves everyone else to paint a picture of them. So they are demonized in absentia.

● The story is filled with anecdotes about the trauma inflicted on children by their parents’ drug use. The anecdotes are not hype. There are times when drug use inflicts exactly this kind of trauma on a child. But while the story does not overtly condemn the parents for it, it is still implied that all children whose parents use drugs inherently suffer this kind of trauma.  And that is not true.

● That false impression is reinforced by that total absence of  parents’ voices.  There are no voices from parents such as this one. We don’t even hear from former foster children such as the young woman, now a social worker herself, who wrote in Teen Vogue about how she never should have been taken from her parents; parents who were heroin addicts.  These perspectives contrast sharply with the “master narrative” of most coverage of child welfare and substance abuse, a narrative largely accepted in The Nation’s story.

So a grandmother raising her grandchildren says “We do our best to give them the best. But no matter what we give them, we can’t give them what a mom and dad who truly loved them could have given them.”

Do these children’s mom and dad not love them? We don’t know. We never hear from them.  But that kind of characterization certainly fits the dominant media stereotype of parents who “choose drugs over their children” (which, if one believes addiction is a disease, is like saying parents “choose cancer over their children).

And, indeed, according to the story, “Several [teachers] spoke resentfully about adults who, they felt, chose drugs over their kids’ well-being.” The closest thing to a dissent was from a teacher, whose own son has a serious drug problem, who said: “after a while, it’s not a choice,” [emphasis added].

Even the section decrying the lack of treatment options implies that few of these parents would take advantage of treatment anyway.  The story quotes an ER doctor who says: “It’s really sad.  We get a few that actually, legitimately want help …” [emphasis added].

● The trauma anecdotes are reinforced by a long, detailed discussion of Adverse Childhood Experiences – the various traumas that can scar a child for life.  There is much about the trauma inflicted by lives of uncertainly for children still living with their own parents.  There is much about how even seemingly small traumas can have big consequences. But one of the biggest traumas of all, the trauma of being removed from parents, is viewed as harmful – but inevitable.

Taking questionable numbers at face value

So, citing a local television news story as documentation, The Nation tells us:

There are 6,300 children in the foster-care system in West Virginia; nearly half were separated from their parents because of substance misuse.

That’s wrong for several reasons.

● The figure really means only that for about 3,150 children a caseworker checked a box on a form alleging substance misuse – often the easiest way to get a judge to rubber-stamp removal.

● Substance misuse can mean anything from parents overdosing in front of their children to a mother smoking marijuana to ease the pain of labor.  And, in the case of opioids, children often are taken from parents using medication, such as methadone or buprenorphine that is prescribed as part of their treatment plan.

● Most important, The Nation is accepting the conventional wisdom that the only answer to substance misuse by a parent is taking away the child.  There is no mention of states, such as Connecticut, where the child welfare agency does not view removal as inevitable, and is pioneering better alternatives.

With enough therapists ...

So The Nation focuses on the need for help to ease the trauma of separation after the fact, instead of questioning why all this separation is happening in the first place.  The story leaves the impression that if we just send in enough therapists the wounds inflicted on the children by the separation from their parents will all be healed. Surely what’s happening at the Mexican border should have debunked that myth once and for all.

● Similarly, the story is filled with references to children in foster care because a parent is in jail.  Yet   (The only reference to the possible misuse of incarceration is a throwaway line suggesting, correctly, that this is a problem in predominantly African-American inner-city neighborhoods. The possibility that it also could be a problem for poor whites in rural West Virginia goes unexplored.)
the story never asks if these parents should be in jail.

In short, there’s almost nothing wrong with what’s in the story – the problem is all that is left out.

So the story concludes that, in the community at its heart, “they need access to doctors and treatment centers, to jobs that don’t leave them with broken bodies. They need funding for teachers, for classroom supplies, for counselors.”

At no point does the story actually say foster care is the solution.  But the story gives no hint that foster care is part of the problem, either.

The Nation could have learned a lot from the far better reporting done by a small newspaper in Montana, The Missoulian, and a team of remarkably talented journalism students.  For one thing, they decided that parents with substance use problems actually were worth talking to.

The Nation story notes the common claim that this drug plague is being treated with more sympathy because it has a whiter face.  But while that may be true in some quarters, there is little evidence to support that claim in child welfare.  On the contrary, child welfare systems are jerking their knees in response to opioids the same way they did in response to crack – by rushing to tear apart families.

And The Nation doesn't seem to have a problem with this.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The new leader of Tampa’s embattled child welfare agency is already living down to his reputation

In a column for Youth Today last month, I wrote about how the state’s own “Peer Review Team” report found that in metropolitan Tampa, Florida, far too many children were being needlessly taken from their parents and consigned to the chaos of a foster care system so awful that some of them were literally parked all day in a convenience store parking lot.

Chris Card discusses his agency's "corrective action plan" in
a story from WFLA-TV
In a follow-up column for this blog I noted that things are only likely to get worse. That’s because of who has been chosen as head of “community-based care” for Eckerd Connects, the embattled agency that’s sort of in charge of child welfare in the region.  Eckerd chose Chris Card. Card has a long, ugly history of supporting a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare.

I concluded that column this way:

Granted, a primary tenet of the family preservation movement is that people can change. But does Chris Card want to change?

Unfortunately, it looks like the answer already is in: No, he doesn’t.

The answer came in a story in the Tampa Bay Times. (As usual, the Times was playing catch-up to WFLA-TV, which had the same story days earlier.) It concerns the “corrective action plan” Card’s agency has to submit to the state.

The Times story finally mentioned the “Peer Review Team” report’s findings about the high rate of removal in Hillsborough County - while failing to mention that the report said this high rate of removal was unnecessary and illegal.  Then the story quoted Card, who declared:

Just because we’re taking more kids into care doesn’t mean that’s wrong necessarily. 

And the fact that a team of your own “peers” said it’s not only wrong but illegal?  Well, who cares, right?

Card’s statement suggests that the parts of the “corrective action plan” about doing more to keep families together are just b.s. to placate state officials.

This would be disturbing at any time.  It’s especially now, when all over America, what Donald Trump is doing to children at the border has professionals speaking out about the catastrophic effects of tearing apart families. 

Yes, the motives are different.  I think Chris Card has the best of intentions.  But that’s not good enough – because regardless of the motive, the effects on the children are the same.

If anything, the Tampa Bay Times is worse.  In an editorial, the Times, as usual, resurrected the Big Lie of American child welfare, suggesting that family preservation and child safety are at odds and that, if not for the Times’ eternal vigilance the Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy will rise up and leave children in danger.  Or, as the editorial put it:

While Hillsborough may have tilted too far in some cases toward removing children from their parents, it will be equally important not to over-correct and leave children in dangerous situations in the name of keeping families together at virtually any cost.

So, let’s review. Children are literally being parked in cars. The state’s own report says there is widespread needless illegal sundering of families. An infant in Hillsborough County was taken from his mother solely because the mother was poor – and then died in foster care.  And all you can do, Tampa Bay Times, is dredge up that Big Lie about advocates for family preservation supposedly out to keep families together “at virtually any cost.”

Donald Trump would be proud.  

The editorial caricatures anyone who wants to keep families together in Tampa in the same way Trump says anyone who wants to keep families together at the border supports “open borders” and gang violence.

In fact, family preservation isn’t just more humane than foster care. For the overwhelming majority of children it’s also safer than foster care. And the more you overload your system with children who don’t need to be there, the less time workers have to find children in real danger.

So here is the one-point “corrective action plan” I wish someone would impose on Chris Card and the Tampa Bay Times editorial board:

Make them sit in a room and listen to the audio of desperate children crying for their mothers and fathers at a detention center on the border. Then make him listen again.  And again.  And again.  Until, finally, it sinks in that the children needlessly and illegally torn from their families in Hillsborough County, Florida, every day, shed the same sorts of tears for the same sorts of reasons.  And finally it sinks in that their casual dismissal of the problem of needless removal is adding to the terrible harm already done to the vulnerable children of Hillsborough County. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Paying the price of foster-care panic in Upstate New York

There's a court hearing scheduled for today in Rochester in a case where the real solution is: Go away and leave this family alone.

[UPDATE, JULY 2: The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports that the case is likely to be dismissed - but not before harassing the family some more. Because child protective services agencies can never, ever just admit they were wrong, the parents are going to be forced to take "parenting classes" when they return to Tennessee.]

Clarissa and Ryan Webster (Photo from the Gofundme page
created to help pay their legal expenses)
There’s a hypothetical example I often use when illustrating the fact that even determining responsibility for a child’s death is surprisingly subjective.  It goes like this:

Early one Sunday morning, a young child finds a way to unlatch the back door while his parents are asleep. He wanders off, falls into a body of water and drowns. Accident or neglect? If the body of water is a pool behind a McMansion, it probably will be labeled an accident. If it’s a pond behind a trailer park, it probably will be labeled neglect.

I’ve previously written about a real-life case that parallels this hypothetical almost exactly – and how child protective services made everything worse.

A far less tragic real-life version of that hypothetical is playing out right now in the Rochester,  New York, suburb of Irondequoit.  It’s far less tragic because the child is not only alive, she is entirely unhurt – physically.  But she and her siblings probably suffered emotional trauma, not at the hands of the parents, but at the hands of child protective services.  Because of where the children wound up, the trauma is not as great as that being inflicted on children at the border by Donald Trump.  But it is equally unnecessary.

It’s happening in a county where child welfare is careening full-speed backwards under the “leadership” of a county executive whose interest in children appears confined to what will score her the most points politically.

Here’s what happened, according to a page established by the family’s Nashville, Tennessee-area church to raise funds for their legal defense:

Ryan [Webster] and his wife, Clarissa (who is currently 22 weeks pregnant), and their 5 children recently traveled to Rochester, NY [from Tennessee] for the purpose of selling their converted school bus (RV) to a family friend who needs a mobile residence in order to help take care of her mother who is receiving aggressive cancer treatment.
They arrived in Rochester after an exhausting two-day drive (with Ryan driving the bus and Clarissa driving the van full of children) on Thursday evening, June 21. The following morning (Friday, June 22), their youngest child woke up abnormally early and got out of the bus while everyone else was sleeping. She wandered over to a neighbor’s front yard. The neighbor, not knowing who their daughter was, contacted the local police.

According to the news accounts, the parents also called police as soon as they realized their daughter was missing.

Here’s what should have happened next:

1.      1.  Police return child.
2.      2. Parents thank police profusely.
3.      3.  Everyone goes on their way.

And that almost certainly is what would have happened had the child wandered away from a McMansion in one of Rochester’s more affluent suburbs, such as Brighton or Pittsford.  Conversely, had this family been Black, what ultimately happened to the children probably would have been far worse.

In the middle of the child welfare bias scale

But this family falls somewhere in the midrange of the child welfare bias scale: Not well off, but white.

To police, the living arrangement they originally encountered probably looked like the functional equivalent of that hypothetical trailer park.  It probably didn’t help that the children are homeschooled – and there is a bias against homeschooling among many in child welfare.

So even though the police themselves think what happened in this case was an unfortunate accident the couple were arrested on misdemeanor charges of “child endangerment” and all of the children are now in the legal custody of Monroe County Child Protective Services.

Fortunately, they were not placed with strangers. According to updates on the fundraising page, thanks to a massive outpouring of support, including one testimonial after another from members of the family’s church, the entire family initially was allowed to move in with the friends to whom they were planning to sell the bus. Those friends who, remember, already have to help a seriously-ill relative of their own, were required to keep watch over Ryan and Clarissa at all times.  Then custody was transferred to Ryan’s parents. 

As the Websters themselves have written: “We are not insensible to how much of a blessing it is to be allowed to be with them, when many others who are wrongly accused are not so fortunate.”

A court hearing is scheduled for today, and I think the chances are good that the family will be reunited.

So, no problem right?  It was just an abundance of caution, right?  After all we have to “err on the side of border security” – oh, sorry, I mean “err on the side of the child” don’t we?


The way to err on the side of the child in cases such as this is to leave the child, and the family, alone and go away. The intrusion of police and child protective services on this family, turning their lives upside down and questioning the children will leave psychological scars .  They are likely to wonder if they police will come back again – and take them away. The consequences probably won’t be “catastrophic” as one professor of pediatrics described what’s happening to the children at the border, but they may well be serious.

Playing politics with children’s lives

Monroe County Executive
Cheryl Dinolfo
It is likely that part of the reason this trauma was inflicted is because the family happened to be in a
county where the county executive is playing politics with children’s lives.

There was a high-profile child abuse death in the Rochester area last year, and ever since County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo has been running around trying to show everyone how tough she is on child abuse. (In Upstate New York individual counties run child welfare.) There is almost certainly a foster-care panic underway, with more children needlessly investigated and removed from their homes.

Earlier this year, when the county was awarded a grant to replicate a high-quality model of family defense, a model that improves the safety and well-being of children – at no cost to the county - she stepped in and refused to let the county office of public defender accept the grant.  Then she canceled the county’s differential response program, even though more than two dozen studies across the country have found this approach to be safe.

But the children of Ryan and Clarissa Webster aren’t the only ones who have suffered.  Other children are suffering, too. We just don’t know who they are. While child protective services, the police assorted lawyers and the courts are tied up wasting all this time, money and making the trauma for an innocent family worse, what Monroe County child in real danger is being missed?


In one sense, things might have been better had this happened in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County Pa. But in another sense, it probably would be much worse.  My guess is that  had this happened in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County, the child welfare agency never would have taken custody.  Allegheny County has a good record of resisting foster-care panic.

On the other hand, the report alleging child abuse would have gone straight into the massive database Pittsburgh uses for its child welfare “predictive analytics” algorithm, the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST). It doesn’t matter that the report was false. Previous reports, whether true or not, are a key factor in raising the “risk score” coughed up by AFST and stamped on a child like an invisible “scarlet number” if anyone ever reports these parents for alleged child maltreatment again. The fact that the referral came from law enforcement might raise the risk score still further.

That would make it more likely the children would be removed, and kept in foster care for a long time.

And from that moment on, the children would be labeled more likely to mistreat their own children when they grow up – because they had been the subject of a report alleging child abuse when they were growing up, and that is a “risk factor.”

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Why is Tampa, Florida child welfare probably going to get even worse?

Because one of the biggest cheerleaders for one of the worst leaders in modern child welfare history is now in charge of making it better.

It was WFLA-TV, not the Tampa Bay Times that exposed the chaos engulfing
Hillsborough County child welfare, including foster children forced
to spend their days in cars at a convenience store parking lot.
In a column for Youth Today on June 21, I discussed a report blasting the child welfare system in metropolitan Tampa, Florida, for tearing apart families needlessly – and illegally. The report, commissioned by the state child welfare agency itself found that workers  are doing this, in part, because they are so afraid of being vilified by the Miami Herald and/or the Tampa Bay Times if they leave a child in her or his own home and something goes wrong.

This has plunged the entire child welfare system in Hillsborough County into chaos, complete with children being literally parked - forced to spend days and sometimes nights in cars in a convenience store parking lot, as revealed by WFLA-TV, which has beaten the Times on this story over and over again.  Of course, the overload also has made it even less likely that caseworkers will find children in real danger.

Unfortunately, one of the key steps taken since the crisis emerged is likely to make things worse.

It has to do with that time honored practice in child welfare, the Ritual Sacrifice of the Agency Chief.

In Florida, much of the responsibility for child welfare rests with private “lead agencies” These “lead agencies” have huge contracts to sort-of oversee child welfare in their regions. (I say “sort-of” because so many different groups have responsibility for different parts of the system that it’s not clear if anyone actually is in charge.  A cynic, or just someone familiar with Florida child welfare, might conclude that the system was designed for easy buck-passing.)

The lead agency for Hillsborough County is Eckerd Connects.  They got the contract after high-profile tragedies prompted the state to oust the previous “lead agency,” Hillsborough Kids, in 2012.

Now, of course, with Eckerd Connects having made everything worse, that agency is being threatened with losing its contract.  So they replaced their chief of community-based care. But she was replaced by a questionable choice.  Eckerd has now put in charge of an agency that holds far too many children in foster care* someone who built his career cheerleading for taking away too many children.

They’ve brought in Chris Card, whose track record includes formerly serving as CEO of Hillsborough Kids – the lead agency that Eckerd Connects replaced. (He was not their CEO at the time Hillsborough Kids lost the contract.)

But the connection to Hillsborough Kids is not the reason this choice is so problematic.

Difficult as it may be to believe at the moment, there was a time when Florida child welfare was even worse than it is now. It was run by the single worst leader I’ve ever encountered in child welfare anywhere in the United States.  It was run by someone who set off the largest single-year foster care panic I’ve ever seen anywhere in the United States.  It was run by a former judge named Kathleen Kearney.  Kearney was appointed in 1999 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in the wake of a high-profile child abuse death.  In her first year, the number of children taken from their parents in Florida skyrocketed by 50 percent – because that’s what she wanted.

That’s not because she was ill-motivated. On the contrary, I view her as a tragic figure in child welfare precisely because she truly believed that this kind of confiscation of children would protect them.  It backfired so badly that Florida became the national model of child welfare failure, generating headlines across the country. Full details are in NCCPR’s reports on Florida child welfare.

The Kathleen Kearney fan club

But Kearney did have her fans.  In fact, one of the leaders of the Kathleen Kearney Fan Club was Chris Card.  At the time he was running one of the first experiments in child welfare privatization, in Sarasota.

Even as Florida was careening into chaos, in March of 2000, Chris Card was still cheerleading. Here’s what he said:

Under the leadership of Gov. Bush and Judge Kathleen Kearney … Florida is now in the beginning stages of a full-fledged reform of the child-protection system. ... With [the governor's] significant financial commitment and the changes in policy and law that make the focus of the system 'child safety,' we ought to be shouting from the mountain tops!

Not only did Card gladly buy into the  Big Lie of American child welfare, that child removal equals child safety,  he went on to demean efforts to keep families together. Here’s what he told the Tampa Tribune in 2002:

When you go into their living rooms for the first time, they say, “Get out of my house.” We've implemented some voluntary programs for people and tried to prevent the abuse from happening. To think that's going to make a dramatic difference is a tough sell.

In fact, a variety of voluntary programs have made a dramatic difference all over the country.  For starters, if the person at the door isn’t from an agency that wants to take children away, families are more likely to say “come in” instead of “get out of my house.”

But Card backed his ugly words with action. When he first came to Hillsborough County to run Hillsborough Kids, he quickly canceled contracts for programs to help keep families together.

When Card resigned from Hillsborough Kids in 2005, a story in the St. Petersburg Times (as it was known then) reported:

Board members of Hillsborough Kids also have been asking Card to work to reduce the number of children in Hillsborough County who have been removed from their homes and placed in various types of foster homes. A DCF report issued late Tuesday says the agency should have done a better job in this area.

(The story does not appear to be available online.)

You can read more about Card’s track record in this excerpt from our 2002 report on Florida child welfare.

So now, with Hillsborough County taking away children at the highest rate in Florida, even as Florida tears apart families at a rate above the national average, and with the state’s own report condemning the high rate of removal and calling it illegal, are we really supposed to believe that the best person to turn this around is – Chris Card?

Granted, a primary tenet of the family preservation movement is that people can change. But does Chris Card want to change?

*-Eckerd would argue that the high rate of removal is not their fault. They don’t make initial decisions on removal because Hillsborough is one of a handful of Florida counties where sheriff’s deputies do the child abuse investigations. But the state report noted that part of the reason the deputies take so many children is they have no confidence in Eckerd’s in-home services.  And, as the lead agency, Eckerd has the most influence in the system. Eckerd could educate the deputies about the harm of removal and press the department not to take so many children needlessly. They also could press the courts to return children they thought the sheriff’s deputies had removed needlessly. Chris Card is, at best, an unlikely choice for such tasks. 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Still another way Donald Trump uses the child welfare establishment playbook

Last week, I wrote a post about the similarities – and the differences - between what the Trump Administration is doing to children at the border and the routine operations of American child protective services agencies.

Well, now we can add another item to the “similarities” list.

Faced with enormous public criticism of his family separation policy, Trump did the only thing he could do: He invoked horror stories; the extremely tragic – and extremely rare – cases in which undocumented immigrants killed people.  He did it because it’s all he’s got.  The data show that undocumented immigrants are, in fact, less likely to commit all forms of crime, less likely to commit violent crimes and less likely to commit homicide than native-born Americans.

How do those urging child protective services agencies to tear apart even more families justify their demands? They invoke horror stories; the extremely tragic – and extremely rare – cases in which children “known to the system” are killed by their parents. They use these horrors to panic us into supporting the massive needless removal of children in cases that are nothing like the horror stories. 

They do it, of course, because it’s all they’ve got.  The data show that, for the overwhelming majority of children, family preservation is not just the more humane choice, it’s also the safer choice.

This isn't the first time Trump's rhetoric and that of his key advisers has borne an eerie similarity to the way those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach talk about child welfare. But it's the first time they all were talking about the same thing: taking children from their parents.

Still, Trump hasn’t quite mastered the rhetoric. If you really want people to support tearing apart families you have to be sure to call it “erring on the side of safety.”

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Race, class, child welfare and Donald Trump: A more honest answer for a foster parent’s daughter

I struggled for a long time with how to write this earlier post to this blog, about the big differences – but also the big similarities – between what Trump is doing to children at the U.S. -Mexico border and what the American child welfare system does every day.

The differences: Almost everyone in U.S. child protective services means well and some of the children they take really need to be taken.

The similarities: Targeting poor people and people of color, targeting children of domestic violence victims, doping up children on potent, sometimes dangerous psychiatric drugs, lack of due process.

And, most important, the simple fact that, for a young child, what one professor of pediatrics called the “catastrophic” impact of separation is just as great no matter why the child was taken away. Yes, there is a big difference between misguided zeal and a policy of pure evil.  But for the children, the consequences are the same.  They shed the same sorts of tears for the same sorts of reasons.

Perhaps I still wouldn’t have published the post had I not seen people trying to draw sharp, and false, distinctions – as in this op-ed for The New York Times written by Jeanine Cummins, a former foster parent. 

There is much that is good in her commentary. She writes with great empathy about the enormous trauma experienced by foster children placed in her care.  Her description of that anguish is remarkably similar to what a foster parent for children taken at the border said happened to the children in her care.

But then comes the part where Cummins writes about how upset her own 7-year-old daughter became when she saw how much the foster children in her home were traumatized. She writes:

My older daughter began having nightmares that “the people” would take her away from us and give her to another family. She was inconsolable. “If it could happen to them,” she asked with the cleareyed logic of a 7-year-old, “why can’t it happen to us?”

I tried telling her that it happens only to parents who don’t, or can’t, take care of their children. It happens only when parents aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do.

Now, Cummins writes, Trump has proven this isn’t true:

I told my kids this kind of separation happens only to children whose parents don’t do the right thing. But now it’s happening to people who are behaving exactly as good parents should. … Now I understand that it’s not always merit-based, who gets to keep their kids and who doesn’t. It can be arbitrary — a matter of unlucky geography — even in 2018, even in the United States of America.

My daughter was right to be afraid.

The problem with that, Ms. Cummins, is that “this kind of separation” has always happened to “people who are behaving exactly as good parents should…”  And it’s not just a matter of geography. It’s much more a matter of race and class.

Cummins’ daughter was too young for the honest answer to her concern.  But were Ms. Cummins to answer honestly, she’d have to say something like this:

Don’t worry, dear. We’re white and we’re middle-class. They almost never take children from parents like us.

NCCPR in Youth Today on forced, illegal separation of children from their parents - in Florida

Young children torn from their parents, sleeping in a different bed every night. Families torn apart needlessly - and illegally -- over and over again.  But this time it's not the U.S.-Mexico border.  This time it's Florida.

Who says it's illegal? A report commissioned by the state itself.

Why is it happening? In part because caseworkers are terrified of "media consequences" if they leave a child in her or his own home and something goes wrong.

Details in NCCPR's latest column for Youth Today

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

DONALD TRUMP'S CHILD HOSTAGES: What Trump is doing to migrant children is nothing like what the foster-care system does – except when it is.

Photo by Gage Skidmore
UPDATE, JUNE 26: See also our follow-up post here and another here.

● The number of children separated from their parents at the border since April is almost equal to the number taken by U.S. child protective services (CPS) every three days.  

 ● Yes, there are differences:  The people at CPS almost always mean well.  And some of the children taken by U.S. CPS agencies really needed to be taken.  But many more didn’t.

● For a young child, no matter who takes him away and no matter what the reason, the trauma is the same.  We inflict that trauma needlessly over and over.  Now that we’re finally facing up to that needless trauma at the border, shouldn’t we face it, and stop it, wherever it occurs?


“I’m sorry!  I’m sorry!  I’m sorry!”

The cries of the three-year-old girl filled the night.  She didn’t know what she’d done wrong, but it must have been something awful – how else to explain why a big man in a uniform had just wrenched her from her mother’s arms and was carrying her away into the night?

Her five-year-old brother thought the same thing: I’ve been a good boy, he said, so he should be able to go home.

This didn’t happen last week at a detention center on the U.S. – Mexico border.  The man in the uniform was not a Border Patrol agent.  It happened many years ago in California.  The man in the uniform was a sheriff’s deputy taking away children in response to what would turn out to be a false allegation of child abuse.

The story of the little girl crying “I’m sorry!” is the story I used to conclude my book, Wounded Innocents.  I closed with that story because the cries of that little girl were the cries of almost every young child taken from a parent, no matter where it happens, no matter why it happens.

Now, suddenly, thanks to Donald J. Trump, such stories are all over the news.  Now everyone, it seems, is speaking out about the horrible effects of tearing children from their parents.

What separation does to children

“This is what happens inside children when they are forcibly separated from their parents,” begins a story in The Washington Post:

Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites — the little branches in brain cells that transmit mes­sages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and — especially in young children — wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.
“The effect is catastrophic,” said Charles Nelson, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School. “There’s so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.”

But people do it all the time.  In fact, it happens more than 270,000 times a year. We just don’t usually notice.

The number of children the Trump Administration admits to tearing from their parents at the border since April – about 2,300 – is nearly as many as the average number U.S. child protective services agencies take away from their parents every three days. 
But are there really parallels to what Trump is doing and to the American child welfare system? Is it fair to suggest such parallels?  The answer, I think, is no.  And yes.  And sort-of.  And sometimes.

Where there is no comparison

Let’s start with where any such comparison is unfair.

Kellyanne "alternative facts" Conway.
(Photo by Gage Skidmore)
● What Trump is doing is a cold, calculated act of hostage-taking. Administration officials have said as much. They are using these captive,caged children  as bargaining chips to get the immigration law they want.  No one is even pretending that these actions are meant to help the children. (Well, no one but Kellyanne “alternative facts” Conway who seemed to suggest as much on Meet the Press on June 17.)

So on one level a comparison is unfair to the people who work in child protective services agencies, to hundreds of thousands of foster parents, and even to many of the people who staff group homes and institutions.  I think many of them get it wrong. But most of them are trying to do the right thing.

● The level of sheer cruelty on the part of Trump and those doing his bidding is so mind-boggling that drawing an analogy to the routine workings of child protective services in 21st Century America risks being seen, mistakenly, as minimizing what is being done to children at the border. 

● The number of children who really needed to be torn from their parents by Donald Trump and those acting on his behalf is exactly zero.  The number of children who need to be taken from their parents by child protective services is not zero.  Even if the number of children taken away each year could be cut by two-thirds to three-quarters – and I think it could – that still would leave tens of thousands of times when child protective services agencies do the right thing when they take away a child. In those cases, even the enormous trauma of removal is less than the trauma of remaining in their own homes.

Where a comparison is valid

● Some might argue that what Trump is doing is different because there is no due process for the families at the border. The children are simply seized on the spot; the family gets no hearing and no lawyer. In some cases, the children just disappear, and no one seems to know where they are. Is that identical to what happens when CPS takes a child? Of course not.  But there are more parallels than people in child welfare want to admit.

For starters, CPS workers and/or law enforcement can and do act like the border patrol in the sense   That’s what that deputy in California did all those years ago. Yes, there’s a hearing, anywhere from a few days to a week or more later. And sometimes there is a lawyer.  Occasionally, there is high-quality defense counsel and genuine due process. So sometimes, it’s very different from what’s happening at the border.  But most of the time, it’s an overwhelmed, unprepared lawyer who just met her or his client in the hallway just before the hearing.  Similarly, one could argue that child welfare is different because we have a law requiring child welfare agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together.  But that law routinely is broken with impunity.
that they can and do seize children entirely on their own authority.

So here’s the difference: In the case of what Trump is doing there is no due process.  Most of the time, when child protective services does it there is the Potemkin Village version of due process.

Charles Loring Brace
● It’s worth remembering that the American child welfare system as we know it today actually began as an assault on immigrant families.  The system is rooted not in benevolence but in bigotry. It began with the Donald Trump of his day, a 19th Century Protestant minister in New York City named Charles Loring Brace. He so hated and feared New York City’s Catholic immigrants that he set up an entire system of so-called “orphan trains” to take away their children and ship them off to farms in the south and the Midwest. Many of the children were not orphans. Some were treated little better than slaves.

● Child welfare also was used in an attempt to effectively eradicate the one group of Americans who are not immigrants or their descendants – Native Americans.  First, Indian children were confiscated and consigned to hideous orphanages in a systematic attempt to, in the words of the head of one such school, “kill the Indian, save the child.” Melissa Harris Perry called the orphanages an “explicit cultural extermination mission.” 

That didn’t stop a century ago. A successor policy with similar goals, this time involving the forced removal of Indian children for adoption by white families, lasted until the late 1960s.  Even now, the federal law to prevent such abuses from happening again, the Indian Child Welfare Act, is under constant attack from latter-day successors to Charles Loring Brace.

● The parallels are not just historic. Racial bias pervades American child welfare today. That bias is compounded by the arrogance of many in child welfare who insist that their field is so special and they are so wonderful that such bias does not even exist.  When a New York Times story called foster care the new “Jane Crow,” the story wasn’t talking about the Mexican border, it was discussing the system in New York City.

● Just as rich people don’t have to flee their countries on foot to reach the U.S. border, rich people are not targeted by child protective services.  The system regularly confuses poverty with neglect and tears children from their mothers’ arms because those mothers are poor.  It doesn’t do it with the same malicious intent, but that’s no comfort for the child.

Taking children from battered mothers

● Among the targets of the Trump administration: migrants seeking asylum after fleeing domestic violence in their home countries. In other words, the Trump policy calls for tearing apart families where the mother’s sole “crime” is to be a victim of domestic violence.  That one is standard operating procedure in some American child protective services agencies right now.  It took a class-action lawsuit to curb it in one state – that leaves 49 where the children of domestic violence victims still can be fair game.

Read the stories of some of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit (for which the co-counsel was NCCPR's Vice President) and see if they sound any different from the stories we’re hearing now at the border.

● The conditions in which children are held can be appalling.  Think holding children in cages is unique to the current crisis? Hardly.  Year, after year after year, American journalists expose hideous conditions in group homes “residential treatment centers” and other institutions used by American child protective services agencies. Sometimes, they’re even literally parked in cars. There is an entire industry of parking place shelters that actually claims it’s a good idea to place children in their institutions right after they’re removed from their homes.

In an otherwise excellent story, the Associated Press declared that “…the nation’s child welfare system ended the use of orphanages over concerns about the lasting trauma to children…” But they didn’t. They’ve just been rebranded.


Here’s what Matt Smith and Aura Bogado the Center for Investigative Reporting just reported concerning the immigrant detention system:

President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy is creating a zombie army of children forcibly injected with medications that make them dizzy, listless, obese and even incapacitated, according to legal filings that show immigrant children in U.S. custody subdued with powerful psychiatric drugs.

And here’s what an investigation of the California child welfare system by Karen de Sa, then with the San Jose Mercury News (and now continuing her excellent work at the San Francisco Chronicle) found in 2014:

With alarming frequency, foster and health care providers are turning to a risky but convenient remedy to control the behavior of thousands of troubled kids: numbing them with psychiatric drugs that are untested on and often not approved for children.

Yes, a foster family is the first choice when American CPS agencies intervene, but some young children continue to be institutionalized.  And placing a child in a foster home, even a very good one, doesn’t erase the pain.  Some of the children separated at the border are, in fact, in foster homes. They are still in anguish.  “The first few nights, he cried himself to sleep,” the foster mother of one such child told The New York Times. “Then it turned into ‘just moaning and moaning.’”

“Home-like” is not the same as home

To the extent that any good may come from this horror it’s the simple fact that journalists may be waking up to the fact that separation of a child from a parent is an inherent trauma; period, end-of-story. 

This can be seen by the fact that journalists and others finally are refusing to be suckered by what a shelter happens to look like.  Over more than 40 years I’ve read scores of treacly stories about group homes and shelters which go on and on about how great they look, as though somehow that’s a substitute for love.  Inevitably, in these stories, someone says “How can you call us an institution? We’re so home-like!”

This Washington Post story started out exactly the same way; but then veered off in an entirely different and far more accurate direction, describing the torment of children who were not comforted in the least by the pretty surroundings.  The Times story about the child in a good foster home made the same point. Finally, it seems, we’re learning the difference between “home-like” and home.

For the infant or young child suddenly taken away by a stranger, it doesn’t matter if the stranger works for child protective services, a local sheriff, or the Border Patrol.  It doesn’t matter if the reason she was taken is that her mother just crossed the U.S. border after fleeing poverty and persecution abroad, or if the mother is an impoverished American citizen struggling here at home, or even, research tells us, if the mother has a drug problem.

For the child, the trauma of removal is the same.

Their heart rate still goes up. Their body still releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones still can start killing off dendrites.  And in time the stress still can start killing off neurons and — especially in young children — wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain. 

In short, the effects are catastrophic.

Surely if you’re going to inflict that much catastrophe on a child, you’d better be damn sure that what you’re taking the child from really is worse, and there is absolutely nothing less traumatic that you can do instead.  Child protective services agencies flunk that test every day.

ProPublica has published audio, smuggled out of a detention center. The children are crying for their mothers and fathers.

All over America, in foster homes, group homes and institutions, American children taken from their parents by American child protective services workers are crying the same way.  Some of them probably are calling out “I’m sorry!  I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

It would be ironic if it was the sheer evil of a policy enacted by Donald J. Trump that finally made us really listen – and do something about it.