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.”