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.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Foster care apologists shouldn’t have nuclear weapons

The likely next leader of the child welfare system in Pittsburgh co-authored an appalling defense of foster care. She’s also considering stamping a “scarlet-number” predictive analytics risk score on children at birth.

Allegheny County's predictive analytics algorithm operates
like an invisible "scarlet number" that can harm a child for life.

I’ve written often about the dangers of the latest fad sweeping through child welfare, “predictive analytics.”  The idea is to use an algorithm to predict which parents supposedly are likely to abuse their children. Proponents say it reduces human bias. In fact, it magnifies human bias and gives it a false veneer of objectivity.  It is the nuclear weapon of child welfare.

So it’s no wonder that the most prominent proponents of predictive analytics also are those who are most fanatical about wanting to tear apart more families – and often those most deeply in denial about the problem of racism in child welfare. The predictive analytics cheerleading squad is led by people such as Elizabeth Bartholet and Richard Gelles, and Gelles' principal disciple, Naomi Schafer Riley.

Indeed, it is very hard to find anyone who supports this kind of computerized racial profiling who is both a real advocate of family preservation and does not run a child welfare system.

For those who do run such systems, the temptation can be irresistible.  That brings us to Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County, Pa. That jurisdiction is the only one I know of where predictive analytics is up and running. (Similar efforts in Los Angeles and Illinois failed spectacularly.) The Pittsburgh experiment has been the subject of numerous gushy tributes from people like, well, Naomi Schaefer Riley – and one real critique, a chapter in Virginia Eubanks’ book, Automating Inequality, excerpted in Wired.

In Pittsburgh, when a call alleges abuse or neglect, an algorithm known as the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST) mines a vast trove of data on the accused and coughs up a “risk score” for the child.  Like an invisible scarlet number, the child will wear that “risk score” for life – even if the original report on the parents was false.

So when the child  grows up, if she herself becomes the target of a child abuse report, that high scarlet number from her childhood will count against her, making her look like a “higher-risk” parent – because supposedly, she was at “high risk” as a child.

The argument made by backers AFST boils down to this: Our system is run by really good people. Marc Cherna, the longtime director of the county Department of Human Services, has a solid track record for curbing needless foster care.  He has promised to use predictive analytics only in limited and responsible ways. In other words, you can trust him with nukes.

To which I and others have replied:

What about Cherna’s successor, and his successor’s successor? Any system that depends for success on the benevolence of a single leader with near-absolute power is too dangerous for a free society. Most of those pushing for the use of systems like AFST are nothing like Marc Cherna. On the contrary, they tend to be those most enthused about taking away more children and using algorithms to accomplish it.

Cherna’s likely successor is his deputy, Erin Dalton. She runs DHS’ Office of Data Analysis, Research and Evaluation. 

Predictive analytics is the nuclear weapon of
child welfare - and child welfare can't control its nukes
As Eubanks reveals in her book, Dalton is the author of an email disclosing that the county is considering introducing “a second predictive model … [that] would be run on a daily or weekly basis on all babies born in Allegheny County the prior day or week.” Such a model already exists — indeed it’s one of the models the designers of AFST proposed to the county in the first place.

In other words, Dalton is seriously considering a plan to stamp that scarlet number on every child in the county – at birth.  Once again, the response is assurances that, were this to happen, it would only be used to target prevention, not removal.

But now there is new reason to question such reassurances, and, indeed, any confidence that Dalton will act with restraint.  While I certainly wouldn’t call her enthusiastic about taking away children, she recently has shown herself to be far too sanguine about the harmful effects of child removal.

That is clear from a commentary she co-authored for the journal Pediatrics. (Other co-authors include Dr. Rachel Berger who runs the "Child Advocacy Center" at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.) The commentary puts her firmly in the camp of foster-care apologists, the people who desperately look for scholarly straws to grasp in order to refute the mountain of evidence that foster care often does enormous harm to the children it is meant to help.  I expect this from Naomi Schaefer Riley.  I did not expect it from Erin Dalton.

Dalton’s bizarre commentary is an attack on an innocuous little study. The study demonstrated that teenage mothers who give birth while already in foster care are far more likely to have the infants taken from them than teenage mothers who are not in foster care.  Half the teen mothers in foster care had their own children placed by age two.

The study’s conclusion is hardly radical: “More and better services are required to support these mothers and to keep mothers and children together wherever possible.” 

Dalton & Co. have several complaints about the study.  The study looked at just one jurisdiction and it’s in Canada, no less – the province of Manitoba - so it may not be representative.  Many of the children were taken at birth, they write, so maybe they were placed in the same foster home as their mothers.  But the authors of the study believe this was the case for only “a few” of the children – and the gaps they found in placement rates persist all the way to age 2.

But the most alarming part of the critique from Dalton and her co-authors is this:

The outcome measure selected for this study (placement of the infant into foster care) is not the most important outcome for children and young mothers. Avoiding unnecessary foster care placement is a worthy goal, but placement of an infant, a young child, or an adolescent mother in foster care is not a bad outcome per se.

That is dangerously wrong. Foster care is, in fact, a bad outcome per se, and everyone in child welfare is supposed to know it.

Foster care may, in some limited circumstances, be a less bad outcome than leaving the child in her or his own home. For that very reason, there are a limited number of cases in which foster care placement is essential. 

But it is still a bad outcome.  As I discussed in my previous post about foster care apologists, foster care sometimes may be the least detrimental alternative – a concept that should, by now, be Social Work 101.  The fact that a child welfare leader who has child welfare’s equivalent of the nuclear codes doesn’t get this is deeply disturbing.

And it gets worse.  Like Riley, Dalton and her colleagues desperately seek something to refute the massive, comprehensive studies showing that in typical cases, children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.  The studies, by MIT Professor Joseph Doyle, looked at what actually happened to more than 15,000 children, following them all the way into their late teen years and sometimes into young adulthood.

A reminder of what MIT Prof. Joseph Doyle's massive studies actually found

Dalton & Co. ignore those studies. Instead, they write:

The authors of several longitudinal studies suggest that under certain circumstances, foster care may result in better long-term outcomes than the outcomes of remaining with biological parents.

Leaving aside the use of the demeaning, dehumanizing term “biological parents” – suggesting people who are no more important to a child than a test tube, and leaving aside the fact that three studies barely qualify as “several” – the “longitudinal studies” cited are extremely weak.

As with the studies cited by Riley they depend not on what actually happened to the young people, as the Doyle studies do, but on subjective evaluations of children’s behavior, including evaluations by caretakers – creating significant potential for bias, or simply honest error.

One of the longitudinal studies didn’t have much longitude – it measured changes in three groups of children after only six months – and the three groups had a total of only 92 children.  The study authors themselves call it a “short-term follow-up,” yet Dalton and her co-authors try to use it to justify claims about “long-term outcomes.” 

Another study, again using subjective evaluations, involved only 30 children – from Israel. So now a study from Israel is cited by the same people who question the validity of relying on a study from Canada.

The third study also was a subjective assessment. It appears that the assessment took place only once, so it is unclear whether this study was “longitudinal” at all.  This study found that “maltreated children who remain with their birth parents have mental health problems at the same rate as maltreated children who are placed.” [Emphasis added.] Not exactly a ringing endorsement of foster care.

That is the “evidence” Dalton and her co-authors cite to justify this claim:

The assumption that reducing foster care placements always improves outcomes is not necessarily true and may be used to support policies that are not in the best interests of children.

No one claims that reducing foster care placements always improves outcomes. But it almost always   And that makes it entirely reasonable to worry that outcomes are worse for children of teen mothers when those children are placed in foster care.

As for “policies that are not in the best interests of children” what policies exactly do Dalton and her coauthors have in mind?  They never say.  The study they criticize calls only for “more and better services.” Surely they don’t want fewer and worse services.

And the very use of the phrase “best interests of the children” is another indication that child welfare in general and an agency Dalton is likely to run in particular are not ready for something as powerful and easy to misuse as predictive analytics.

I discuss why this seemingly benevolent and inarguable phrase is so harmful in this post, dealing with Maine’s governor, Paul LePage a kind of Donald Trump mini-me. Suffice it to say here that it is a phrase filled with hubris. It gives free reign to the biases of middle-class professionals – and the algorithms they create. The alternative construct, least detrimental alternative, was suggested in part for that very reason.

I expect no better from Paul LePage.  I used to expect far better from the system in Allegheny County, Pa.

The nuclear weapon of predictive analytics is far too dangerous to entrust to the field of child welfare. What we need to demand from child welfare is irreversible, verifiable denuclearization.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Child welfare in Maine: When anecdotes – and “whistleblowers” – collide

An editorial in the Bangor Daily News wisely
recommends rejecting Maine Gov. Paul LePage's
bad ideas. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Although Maine child welfare is careening full-speed backwards, Maine journalism about child welfare, fortunately, is not.  The editorial response to the bad ideas spewing forth from Gov. Paul “Trump-Before-Trump” LePage shows the same prudence and open-mindedness that helped reform child welfare in Maine after Logan Marr died.

On June 1, for example, The Bangor Daily News called LePage’s solutions “heavy handed and overly punitive.”  The editorial wisely urged rejection of LePage’s idea to impose criminal penalties on mandated reporters who don’t report their suspicions of abuse and neglect. 

As for LePage’s embrace of the Big Lie of American child welfare, the myth that child safety is at odds with family preservation, the Daily News reminded readers of what so many in Maine have forgotten:

The focus on family reunification came after the 2001 death of 5-year-old Logan Marr, who was suffocated by her foster mother, Sally Schofield, who prosecutors said wrapped 42 feet of duct tape around the girl’s head, suffocating her.

The editorial also pointed out that there is no need to change statutes to encourage a take-the-child-and-run approach, as LePage wants, because “Maine’s statutes on child placement already emphasize that a child’s safety is the ‘paramount concern.’”

But then the editorial veers a bit off course. According to the editorial:

Rather than rewrite the statute, it may be more effective to put measures in place to ensure that DHHS follows this directive. For example, whistleblowers have reported that some caseworkers are so intent on reunited a child with her parents that they are willing to overlook risk factors, like drug abuse. Changing this does not require a change of law; instead better training and support can change this practice.

There are several problems with this.

● Drug abuse sometimes is indeed a “risk factor” – but it is not cause for automatic confiscation of the child.  This is discussed in detail in this NCCPR column for the trade journal Youth Today.  The workers criticized by the “whistleblowers” may not be overlooking drug abuse or other risk factors, they may simply be weighing those risks against the enormous known risks of needless foster care, and reaching a conclusion the “whistleblowers” don’t happen to agree with.

Sometimes, as they attempt to balance the risks, the workers will get it wrong – in both directions. Assuming that the errors go only one way only increases the risk of harm to all vulnerable children.

● It’s a lot easier for white, middle-class professionals to “blow the whistle” than it is for those whose children have been needlessly taken – since they are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite.  There are plenty of poor people who would love to blow the whistle on how their children were needlessly taken, but they don’t know how to pull together documents and speak to reporters. And if their cases are still pending they often fear retaliation by DHHS.

Occasionally, you get a whistleblower who has both professional status and insight into wrongful removal.  Someone such as former Maine foster parent Mary Callahan, who led efforts to improve Maine child welfare after Logan Marr died.  Here’s how she blew the whistle.

And on those rare occasions when the long arm of DHHS reaches into the middle-class, those parents can blow the whistle. This recent example is especially worth reading in light of the fact that one of those who shares responsibility for this family’s pain also was a leading campaigner against the reforms that followed the death of Logan Marr.

Looking at the data

So what happens when anecdotes – and the experiences of whistleblowers – collide? That’s when it’s time to look at the data. 

As is explained in detail in this previous post, the data show that when Maine embraced family preservation it made children safer.  And the data from around the country show that the LePage take-the-child-and-run approach (whether it involves changing laws or “putting measures into place” at the administrative level) makes children less safe.

● And finally, no one has to tell DHHS to put “measures into place” to take away more children. I’ll bet it’s already underway – with a vengeance. Maine almost certainly is in the midst of a foster-care panic, a sharp, sudden increase in the number of children taken needlessly from their homes in the wake of a high-profile tragedy.

Of course that’s not what the editorial suggested should happen. On the contrary, the Bangor Daily News and other Maine newspaper editorials have gone out of their way to avoid pouring gasoline onto the fire of foster-care panic. That’s a good start, but more is needed.

Someone claiming that there exists a “practice” of ignoring “risk factors” doesn’t make it so.  Far more likely, overloaded workers don’t have time to consider those risk factors properly – so they’re making more mistakes in all directions, taking more children needlessly while leaving other children in danger in their own homes. Indeed, were DHHS actually to provide “better training and support” as the editorial suggests, it would result in fewer removals of children and more emphasis on family preservation – since that’s what makes children safer.

But obviously DHHS can’t be counted on to do that.

And that’s why even more is needed from the state’s most influential journalists. Refusing to pour gasoline on the fire is a good start, indeed it’s far better than the performance of journalists in many other states.  But what would really help is for people with influence to pour water on those flames - that is, demand a stop to the foster-care panic.

I hope they’ll do it before more children get hurt.

Monday, June 11, 2018

NCCPR in Youth Today: Child welfare policy on drug abuse lives at the intersection of ignorance and arrogance

Everybody knows it's a bad idea to leave children unsupervised at a dangerous intersection.

Unfortunately, that's how America's child welfare establishment has responded to the "opioid epidemic."  They've put our most vulnerable children at the intersection of ignorance and arrogance.

Read NCCPR's column in Youth Today

And for more on one part of the problem, child welfare's hostility to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction, see this excellent 2015 Pacific Standard story from Mais Szalavitz.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Child welfare in Maine: A response to institutional amnesia

Did a foster child’s plea to see her mother lead to her death?
The lawmakers - and most of the journalists - who remember
what happened to Logan Marr are not in government or
journalism anymore.
In the previous post to this blog, I summarized the story of five-year-old Logan Marr. She and her younger sister, Bailey, were taken from their mother in Maine, primarily because their mother’s poverty was confused with neglect.  They were placed with Sally Schofield, a foster mother who was, herself, a former supervisor for the Maine child welfare agency.

Logan tried to tell people she was being abused by Schofield – it’s even on videotape.  But the child welfare agency wouldn’t listen.

In January, 2001, Schofield dragged Logan to the basement and tied her to a high chair with 42 feet of duct tape. Logan died of asphyxiation. Schofield was convicted of manslaughter.  Last year she was released from prison.

Logan’s death helped lead to a surprising result: real child welfare reform. The state became a recognized national leader by emphasizing safe, proven alternatives to foster care.  

But, as I wrote yesterday, Maine has term limits, so the state legislators who were there when Logan Marr died, and who pushed for real reform, are no longer in office.  And between the passage of time – it’s been 17 years since Logan died – and the turmoil in the news business, almost all of the Maine journalists who covered the death of Logan Marr are gone.  So there is almost no institutional memory.

That has left the state’s “Trump-before-Trump” governor, Paul LePage, and his Department of Health and Human Services, free to run roughshod over the reforms and return to a take-the-child-and-run, pre-Logan Marr mentality.

Two documents to refresh memories

So today I’d like to introduce people who’ve never heard of Logan Marr to her and to her family. And I’d like to refresh the memories of those who have forgotten.  I’ll do that with two documents.

The first is one I’ve reprinted on this blog many times before. It is a letter that Logan’s mother, Christy, wrote to Schofield weeks before Schofield killed Logan. The letter originally was published in Logan’s Truth, independent journalist Terrilyn Simpson’s comprehensive account of the case.

The second document is one I didn’t know about until I started researching yesterday’s post. It’s from a story I missed when it was published a year ago in the Kennebec Journal. It’s by Betty Adams, one of the few reporters still around who covered the death of Logan Marr.

Adams wrote about Logan’s surviving sister, Bailey. At the time Bailey was 18 and a high school honor student.  It’s an extraordinary story about an extraordinary young woman. The story includes a link to Bailey’s full college admissions essay, in which she writes about the night her big sister died. It reveals, for the first time I know of, that it may actually have been a plea by Logan to see her mother that led to her death.


Dear Sally,
 My name is Christy. I'm Logan and Bailey's Mom. I'm writing this so you can know and understand my children. I thought I would let you know their likes and dislikes.
Logan - she likes butterflies, pizza (what kid doesn't?), flavored noodles, pitted black olives (she likes to put them on her fingers), white cheese, grape soda, Babes in Toyland (her favorite movie) the Cartoon Arthur. Logan's dislikes - peas, fish sticks, going to bed early, not picking out her clothes. Bailey's likes - her brown teddy bear blanket (she takes it everywhere, including visits), dry cereal, pitted black olives, cheese, eggs, cooked carrots.
Bailey's dislikes - having her poopie diaper changed (if you haven't noticed), someone taking her pacifier, fish sticks, someone feeding her (she likes to do it herself). Please ask [caseworker] Allison Peters what the kids are allergic to.
I don't blame you for not wanting me to know who you are, I will respect that. Regardless of what you have heard or read, I love my little ladies with all my heart. I have never hit, spanked or put my hands on my girls. I do respect my children. I'm not saying you would or wouldn't, but Please don't hit or hurt my children. The girls have already been through enough they don't need the added stress in their life.
Every night I look up at the sky about 7:45pm and say goodnight to my girls. In closing, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this. Please tell the girls before they go to bed I love them and give them a big hug and kiss. Thanks again!


I believe everyone has a certain person in their life that inspires them to live each day to the fullest. It is what makes them tick. A sole moment in time can be all it takes for a person’s view on life to change forever. Looking back into my own past, I can quickly identify who inspires and motivates me to live my life to the fullest. It is her, the one that I feel so close to me yet nearly impossible to reach. As much as I would love to feel her touch, I know she is in a place with no pain or suffering. She is the reason I wake up every day ready to fill my own shoes while attempting to fill a pair for her.
My memory of her does not deceive me. Fifteen years later, when I close my eyes at night, the nightmare is still the same.
“No!” shrieks a small, dark haired little girl, “I want to see my mumma!”
“For the last time, it is not going to happen” the woman insists while trying to stay calm. As if on cue, the lights above flicker, and the snow outside is still falling fast. A blood curdling scream starts coming out of the little girl’s mouth. Losing the calm demeanor she just had, the woman shakes her head with fury.
“Stop this now, I cannot handle this anymore!” the woman is screaming and shaking with anger.
I sit as still as possible on the soft run nearby not wanting to be noticed. Another scream is let out by the little girl, somehow this one is louder and more powerful than the previous. The woman stands up and forcefully grabs the child’s small, delicate wrist and pulls her towards the nearby door. Wide eyed, the child decides to stay quiet, but is still sobbing. The lights briefly flicker again. The woman opens the door, and leads the child down the stairs to the basement. I hear two sets of footsteps descend down, my heart is pounding. I am frozen in place. All is quiet at first, then a violent scream starts. It is heart wrenching. Finally, the saddest sound, one a wounded animal might make when it knows it is going to die. I hear the little girl’s voice for the last time, it is the word “help.” Everything goes silent, but it seems louder than the screams. Finally after some time, I hear footsteps coming back up the stairs, but this time it is only one set. A single tear falls down my face.
I wish I could say that this is just a nightmare that I am able to wake up from and have everything be all okay. Sadly that is not the case. This is a nightmare that I will have to live with awake or asleep for the rest of my life. I heard my older sister’s last words during one of Maine’s darkest moments on January 31, 2001. My five-year-old sister’s death became national news. Her story prompted Maine to reexamine many of DHS’s Child & Family Services policies. Our own foster mother murdered my older sister, Logan. Being the survivor of this horrid incident, I push myself to my limits and strive for excellence in everything for the both of us. I am not saying that any of this has been easy, but it has most certainly shaped me into the person I am today. I know that her life was taken away from her all too soon. This causes me to live each day of my life to the fullest. There are no guarantees in life, so I make the most out of the path I have been given. I do it all for Logan and me.