Monday, December 17, 2018

Scandal at a New York RTC illustrates how Congress managed to make the plight of sex-trafficking victims even worse

The vastly overhyped “Family First Act” comes complete with a “presents for pimps” loophole.  That will encourage more tragedies like the one at Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls.

It’s always cause for celebration when a place that institutionalizes children is forced to close.  So tomorrow is a day to celebrate.  The residential treatment portion of Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls, an institution in Westchester County, north of New York City, is scheduled to shut down. 

But don’t celebrate too much. A new federal law actually makes it easier to keep such institutions going, and set up new ones.

The shutdown of the residential treatment portion of Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls won’t happen because the agency that runs it, the Jewish Board Family and Children’s Services, had a crisis of conscience. It will happen because the pressure from upset neighbors and state regulators became too much. What was upsetting them? Oh, just the usual: violence and sex trafficking.
The mere fact that an overwhelming body of research finds residential treatment to be a failure never seems to be enough in itself to shut these places down.  Neither is the fact that almost none of the young people institutionalized in such places really need to be there.  There is nothing an RTC can do that can’t be done better with Wraparound programs, in which all the help a child needs is brought into the child’s own home or a foster home.

Further evidence for this can be found just by looking at what was done when Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls was forced to start shutting down, a process that started nearly a year ago.  According to the Rockland / Westchester Journal News:

When it was announced Cedar Knolls would close, there were 54 youths staying there out of a capacity of 78. The youths were expected to go back to their families or be placed with foster families. The final six children are to be transferred a facility in New York City, a spokeswoman told The Journal News on Thursday. [Emphasis added.]

Which raises an obvious question: Why were they institutionalized in the first place?

Yes, most people who work in and run such places mean well. Their intent is to help vulnerable children and they've convinced themselves they're doing just that.  But the evidence says otherwise.

To really understand this story, it’s worth taking a trip through time.

1990: “Love knows no locksmith.”

The first time I read about Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls was when it and a sister institution, Linden Hill, were exposed as hellholes by New York Newsday.  It was 1990, and reporter Michael Powell found that the institutions were

plagued by violence, unchecked sex, and poor supervision. ...  Said one counselor: "They have lost sight that the program is no longer safe to kids.  It's outrageous."

When confronted, the institutions did what they so often do: They blamed the children.

In one case, a teenage boy with a history of aggressive sexual behavior allegedly forced a 14-year-old girl to have sex with another boy. The director of Linden Hill said the sex was consensual. “Do you set up a situation that is locked down or do you allow kids to try their wings?” he said.  “[You ask] how could it happen? Well, it’s almost inevitable. Love knows no locksmith.”

In a just world, the 1990 expose should have been enough to shut these places down. 

Unfortunately, a few years later, in spite of such high-quality journalism, it was New York Newsday that actually shut down.  Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls kept right on collecting hundreds of dollars per day per child to “treat” children, even though, as noted earlier, the evidence is overwhelming that residential treatment is a failure. 

2017: All those runaways

Twenty-seven years after that first New York Newsday expose, the young people at Hawthorne- Cedar Knolls were “trying their wings” once again – running away in massive numbers; massive as in 73 percent of them in a single year. 

The New York Times reported that though the institution supposedly was treating victims of sex trafficking, the fear was that the runaways were falling victim to sex traffickers.

Once again, the institution blamed the victims. The Times’ explained the supposed “dilemma” for such places: They can’t “treat” people who keep running away, but if you make it harder for young people to run, then the places become more like jails – and people who have been victims of sex trafficking shouldn’t be treated like criminals.

The headline on the Times story was: “How Do You Care for Sex-Trafficking Victims if You Can’t Hold On to Them?” But the story omitted the answer: You place them with people they want to hold on to – in other words, a family.  That, apparently is exactly what happened to most of the children at Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls, but only when the institution was pressured into closing.

Surely when 73 percent of the residents run away in a single year, it’s time to consider the possibility that the problem is the place they’re running from.

2018: A pipeline to prostitution

Now, the Times is back with a follow-up story.  The fears were correct.  As the story puts it:

On Thursday, the breadth of a pipeline carrying young women out of Hawthorne and into prostitution became clearer. Nineteen people were charged in a sex-trafficking ring that exploited young women and girls as young as 13 years old, federal prosecutors said.
At least 15 victims were in the child welfare system, including nine who were residents of Hawthorne, the prosecutors said. …
“These were especially vulnerable victims,” the prosecutor, Elinor L. Tarlow, said. “They didn’t have stable residences. They didn’t have family support. They didn’t have guidance.”
She said the accused traffickers capitalized on that vulnerability. “They approached victims as if they had a romantic interest in them,” she said. “They offered them a place to stay and then they pushed them into prostitution.” [Emphasis added.]

One wonders what that former director of Hawthorne’s sister institution might have said in response.

The good news: No one from Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls has been accused of being part of the alleged trafficking ring, or even knowing about it. The bad news: It all went on right under their noses.

As for all that violence reported back in 1990?  Well, let the Journal News tell you. This story about Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls and another RTC in the area was published last Friday:

Things got so bad at local residential treatment centers for troubled youth that town police were responding to incidents on the two campuses multiple times on the same day.
In recent years, more than one squad car had to be dispatched on each call because of the potential for violence, with about one-third of all Mount Pleasant police calls tied to the two facilities and its young residents.

The “presents for pimps” loophole

Anyone could have seen all this coming.  Predators go where the prey is.  The role of group homes and institutions in making sex trafficking easier has been documented over and over.

And that’s what makes the callousness and cynicism of America’s group home industry so breathtaking.  They used the desperation of Members of Congress to pass the vastly overhyped  so-called “Family First Act” to make tragedies such as this even more likely.

The law puts some very minor, easy-to-evade limits on when the federal government will help foot the enormous bill for institutionalizing children in group homes and residential treatment centers.

But the group home industry chafed at even these minor restrictions. So they added what should be called the “presents for pimps” loophole.  The spigot of federal dollars stays open for:

A setting providing high-quality residential care and supportive services to children and youth who have been found to be, or are at risk of becoming, sex trafficking victims

Never mind that such settings are probably the worst possible place for such children and youth.

The ugliness is on the inside

Even the Times accepted one time-honored ploy of children’s institutions everywhere. The latest story declares that

Hawthorne Cedar Knolls was on idyllic, green grounds. It was landscaped to give some peace and stability to the emotionally troubled teenagers who were placed there.

The Journal-News, which, in the past, has done some of the most sophisticated journalism in America on residential treatment, fell for it. They accepting an invitation last year for an “exclusive tour” of the place, and then wrote a story (with 25 photos) that begins:

Passing through the hallways, the residence areas at Hawthorne Cedar Knolls could be mistaken for college dorms.
Couches lining common rooms. Pastel-colored walls with busy bulletin boards. Phrases like "I am beautiful" scrawled on the chalkboard-like backs of bedroom doors.
It's a setting where young people are encouraged to be creative and grow. It's also a setting where they are offered help to handle the hardships that life has dealt them.

It’s all straight out of the group home industry propaganda playbook. They claim the very presence of their lovely landscaping creates a “therapeutic milieu.”  Except, again, there is overwhelming evidence that, no matter what the “milieu,” residential treatment doesn’t work.

The actual target of the “therapeutic milieu” is visitors.  It exists so the people who run such places can say: “How can you call us an institution? Look how pretty everything is – we’re so home-like.”  The milieu is intended to convince visitors that such places must be doing good things for children and couldn’t possibly be abusive.

Yes, the grounds of residential treatment centers often are pretty.  It’s their souls that so often are ugly.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Our outrage about what happened to Jazmine Headley’s baby should extend to the cases that are not caught on tape.

UPDATE, DEC. 16: The New York Times has a very good story delving into the details of what happened that day, and explaining where things stand now.  But I found this paragraph particularly striking:

Body-cameras worn by the officers recorded the guard telling Ms. Headley that if she did not leave she would be taken to central booking and the city’s child-welfare agency would take her son away, according to a person briefed on the matter.

Why is it that other government agencies that want to bully poor people always seem to know they can count on “child protective services” to do their dirty work for them?

There have been scores of stories such as this one about a case in which security guards for New York City’s public assistance agency and some New York City police officers were caught on video, endangering the one-year-old son of Jazmine Headley by prying him from her arms.

Here’s the tape, recorded by a bystander:

What crime had the mother committed? After waiting hours in an overcrowded office in Brooklyn that didn’t have enough chairs, she sat on the floor with her baby.

The mother has been jailed.  In an Orwellian twist, the charges against her include "acting in a manner injurious to a child.”  But, as Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, himself a former New York City police officer, said: “The mother didn’t endanger the welfare of a child. The actions of the [police] department endangered the welfare of the child."

New York City’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, was not involved in the initial incident – but, of course, they’ve been called in now to investigate. (Investigate the mother, that is, not the NYPD.) One would hope that ACS will have the decency to limit its involvement to offering the family voluntary help or, if it can’t muster that, at least stay the hell out of their lives and not make everything worse.

ACS does it, too

But ACS’ own track record is not reassuring.  ACS has a long, ugly history of abusing its own power to march into homes and remove children on the spot without so much as asking a judge first.  As is discussed in this previous post, just weeks ago ACS admitted that in hundreds of such cases a few days later, as soon as a judge holds a hearing, the judge orders the child sent right back home – much the worse for the experience.  That speaks volumes about how flimsy the grounds for the so-called "emergency" removal were in the first place.

But what are those removals like?  Presumably they vary enormously.  But, as it happens, a recent story on NPR’s LatinoUSA includes a description of an unnecessary non-emergemcy “emergency” removal in New York City. It bears a disturbing resemblance to what happened to Jazmine Headley’s son.  Listen at 18:30 in:

So, what is the difference between the case of Jazmine Headley’s son, which has so much of America outraged, and what child protective services agencies such as ACS do when they abuse their power to remove children in so-called emergencies? Sometimes, just the presence of a bystander with a cellphone camera.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Secrecy and arrogance breed a culture of lying in child welfare

The examples below do not mean that lying is rampant in child welfare systems.  But they illustrate a pervasive tolerance of whatever lying does exist.

There was an extraordinary moment in a courtroom in Houston in October.  A child protective services caseworker was asked about apparent inconsistencies in things he had said at a previous hearing on the same case.  He responded by asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.  He did it repeatedly.

Then the supervisor on the case testified. She did not take the Fifth.  But, as Keri Blakinger of the Houston Chronicle reports, she “drew incredulous looks in the courtroom when she so frequently claimed that she didn’t know, couldn’t answer or didn’t understand the question that [a lawyer] eventually asked if she had any knowledge that made her qualified to  make decisions.”

Judge Mike Schneider ultimately ruled that the children in this case should not have been taken away.  Indeed, the removal may have jeopardized one child’s heath.  Judge Schneider actually ordered the Texas child protective services agency to stay away from the family. And he ordered the agency to pay $127,000 to cover the family’s legal fees and other costs.

Judge Schneider branded the agency’s behavior “dishonest” and possibly “malicious.” He ruled the agency “abused the legal process” by deliberately filing pleadings that included “misstatements of fact” and “material omissions.” 

“It can be inferred from the context of [the caseworker’s] testimony,” the judge wrote, “that he invoked his Fifth Amendment [rights] …to avoid admitting to perjury.”  He ordered the child welfare agency to provide training to all staff “regarding the truthfulness owed to the court and the penalties for perjury.”

Yes, that’s right.  A judge found that CPS workers actually need to be trained to know they’re not supposed to lie in court.  And he’s not the only judge who’s felt the need to point that out.

Other examples

It would be bad enough were this the only such case.  In fact, it’s another example of a culture of lying that permeates the child welfare system.

● In Connecticut alone, between 2004 and 2007, two different judges blasted that state’s child welfare agency for misleading them in court.  One judge called a caseworker’s reports “disingenuous,” “misleading” and “intellectually dishonest.”  In another case the judge ruled that a caseworker deliberately distorted the facts of a case in order to persuade a court to remove a child. The judge found that the worker sought to “manipulate the facts” and “mislead the court.” Much as her counterpart in Texas would do years later, she urged the child welfare agency to explain to caseworkers the penalties for perjury.

● In 2016, a caseworker in California actually claimed what amounted to a constitutional right to lie.  The worker didn’t admit to lying – though a jury said she did – but when she was sued she argued she was entitled to immunity because she didn’t know that lying to a court was a violation of the family’s constitutional rights.  

Sure, there’s a California statute that says immunity does not apply to child welfare workers who, acting with malice, commit perjury and fabricate evidence.  And well, yes, the caseworker might have known it was immoral and unethical but, hey, her lawyer argued, that doesn’t mean she knew it was also unconstitutional.

Fortunately, the courts did not buy this. But what does it say about child welfare that a federal court actually had to explain to caseworkers that “There are no circumstances in a dependency preceding that would permit government officials to bear false witness against a parent.”

This tolerance, or worse, of lying, goes far beyond individual workers.

The Connecticut caseworkers were not sanctioned.  The worker in the California case actually was promoted. At one point she was training other caseworkers.  And that law that denies immunity to lying caseworkers actually was opposed by the California County Welfare Directors Association and the California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

In Texas, the child protective services agency did not penalize the caseworker who took the Fifth or the supervisor whose testimony sounded so much like Sergeant Shultz in Hogan’s Heroes.  

The agency declared: “Our actions in this case were appropriate.” They've appealed the financial sanction imposed by the judge.

And then, attorneys for the parents allege, it got worse.  They say an investigator for the County Sheriff’s office contacted them to tell them that “at least ten CPS workers up and down the foodchain” called to pressure him into bringing criminal charges against the parents. Both the CPS agency and the sheriff’s office deny it.

It’s not just the caseworkers

The culture of lying in child welfare goes beyond child protective services agencies.

A judge in Snohomish County, Washington concluded that the county’s Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program engaged in “the blatant withholding and destruction of evidence and … rampant continuing lying …”  The judge continued:

This was not just a lot of lying. It was lying with no concern that you were lying. It was lying with ‘I don’t care if I get caught.’ It was lying again and again and again after getting caught. It was lying under circumstances where it could be absolutely proven you were lying.

But what about judges themselves?

In order for the costs of a foster care placement to be eligible for partial federal reimbursement, a judge must check a box on a form certifying that the child protective services agency made “reasonable efforts” to keep the family together.  In Michigan, 40 percent of judges surveyed admitted to lying about this – they checked the “reasonable efforts” box even when they didn’t believe the agency had made “reasonable efforts.”  And that’s just the percentage who will admit it in a survey.

All of this is before we reach the common claims that may not quite be lies, but are blatant misrepresentations, such as assertions about the rate of abuse in foster care and due process. (There is way  more of the former and way less of the latter than people in the system claim.)

A hothouse for lying

Is child welfare’s culture of lying worse than that in other professions?  I don’t know. I certainly hope so – it would be depressing indeed to think that all professions functioned this way.  What I do know is that a typical child welfare system is a hothouse for lying – the conditions are perfect.

For starters, almost everything is secret.  Almost all the records are secret and in most states, so are the court hearings. (Texas is an exception; if not for that we might never have known about the case in Houston, and certainly wouldn’t have gotten such vivid accounts of what went on the courtroom.) 

The secrecy promotes a “veto of silence” that prevents this kind of lying from being exposed.  For most of the public and the media any parent whose child is taken away is presumed to be a “child abuser” – regardless of the facts of the case.  So who is going to believe a “child abuser”  over a caseworker, much less a CASA or a judge?

The very fact that CPS workers’ mission is so vital breeds an ends-justify-the-means mentality at best and a dangerous hubris at worst.  More than 25 years ago, a Florida caseworker allegedly told families “I have the power of God.”  The attitude boils down to:  We’re saving lives here, so what’s wrong with a little lying?  (Plenty, it turns out, as those cases in Connecticut, Texas and California make clear.  In all of those cases it was the children who suffered because of the lying.)

None of this means that lying is rampant in child welfare systems (though no family who has been  But there is a pervasive tolerance of whatever lying does exist.
lied about is likely to believe that it isn’t).

That can change, but only if we demand transparency from child welfare systems. That means a strong rebuttable presumption that all court hearings and most records are open.  But it also means we need to question our own preconceived notions about everyone in the system, and everyone caught up in it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A judge’s dissent exposes the contradiction at the heart of CASA

Were CASA’s slogan honest it would be: “The voice of white privilege in Court”

A publication on the website of the National Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Association says that the group was created to be the “child’s voice in court.”

Some local CASA chapters use “a child’s voice in court” as their slogan.

But a scathing dissent by a state supreme court justice makes clear that, in many cases, that claim simply is not true.

The dissent itself did not criticize CASA, but in the course of describing what a CASA does, and does not do, it exposes a misrepresentation at the heart of the program.

CASAs are overwhelmingly white overwhelmingly middle-class amateurs sent into the homes of people who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately of color.  The amateurs then tell judges what decisions to make and, to a frightening degree, the judges rubber-stamp the recommendations.  Yet, though CASAs almost always mean well, their only real “qualification” typically is their white, middle-class status.  So it’s no wonder a law review article aptly argued that CASAs  “give voice to white supremacy.”

The problems with this should be obvious – and I don’t just mean assorted scandals and other issues involving CASA chapters, which I’ve recapped here and at the end of this post.  

The largest, most comprehensive study of CASA ever done, a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, found that the group’s only accomplishments are to prolong foster care and reduce the chances that children will be placed with relatives instead of strangers – while doing nothing to improve child safety.  The trade journal Youth Today concluded that CASA’s efforts to spin the study findings “can border on duplicity.”

But all the while, CASA has been passing itself off as speaking for the child. Much of the time, it does no such thing. And that’s where the judge’s dissent comes in.

A case from Washington State

The case comes from Washington State and it involves the issue of when children should have a real voice in court – that is, a lawyer who will fight for whatever the child wants.  In Washington State appointment of such lawyers is discretionary.  In a recent decision the State Supreme Court upheld this arrangement.  But in a dissent, Justice Mary Yu argued that the state constitution requires that lawyers be appointed for all children in child welfare cases.

In the course of making her argument, she exposed a misrepresentation at the heart of CASA.

The mandate of a CASA is to advocate for whatever the CASA thinks is in the child’s best interests.  So if a child wants to go home and the CASA thinks it’s best for the child to remain in foster care (or vice versa) then the CASA actually would be violating Washington State law if she were “the child’s voice in court.”

The CASA is required to advocate for what she thinks is best even when that means effectively silencing the child.  And, it appears, that’s often what happens.

Justice Yu made that clear in discussing one of the cases on which the court ruled.  The child, known as E.H., is now about ten years old, more than old enough to make his preferences clear. His mother is in jail, but will be released next year. Justice Yu writes:

E.H.'s position was (and remains) directly at odds with the position of his CASA and the State: E.H. wants to reunite with his mother, while the CASA and the State argue that termination of parental rights is in his best interests. When the court denied appointed counsel … E.H. was erroneously deprived of his right to be heard.
Although E.H. cannot reunite with his mother right now, she is scheduled to be released in July 2019, when E.H. will still have almost half of his childhood ahead of him. In the meantime, he is in a stable placement with foster parents who are willing to serve as long-term guardians for him. He has maintained a close relationship with his mother, and she has made every possible effort to remain an important part of his life. …
E.H. thus has a clearly stated position favoring reunification, and there is no apparent reason why that outcome is not a reasonable possibility in accordance with the law of this state.
The trial court noted that the CASA, though "somewhat leery," reported E.H.'s stated position to the court in accordance with her statutory duty. … However, the position of the State and the CASA, that termination is in E.H.'s best interests, directly conflicts with E.H.'s stated desire to reunite with his family.
The CASA is required to represent and advocate for termination in order to comply with her statutory duties, but termination and reunification are mutually exclusive outcomes. … No one could possibly advocate for both at the same time. The CASA's assessment of E.H.'s best interests therefore make it impossible for her to represent his position.

It gets weirder.  Justice Yu points out that the CASA actually had a lawyer to argue for the CASA’s position – that E.H’s rights to his own mother should be terminated -- yet E.H. had no lawyer to argue for what he actually wants - reunification.

The usual defense

The standard answer from CASA apologists is that the CASA also is supposed to tell the court what the child wants – even when she advocates for the opposite.  And in this case the CASA did just that.

But I wonder how many people suggesting that is enough for children would say it was enough if they were on trial. 

Suppose you were accused of murder.  Your lawyer says to the judge: “Your honor, my client wants you to know he says he’s innocent – but I think he’s guilty as sin, and I’m going to devote all my energy in this trial to persuading you to throw the book at him!”

Anyone who considered that an adequate defense really would be not guilty – by reason of insanity.

Or, as Justice Yu put it: “reporting a child's position while strongly advocating against it does nothing to protect a child's right to be heard.”

She cites alarming data suggesting that’s what happens most of the time.  According to one study CASAs in Washington State presented actual arguments in support of the children’s position only 30 percent of the time.

And, Justice Yu noted, when a child has no one vigorously advocating for what she or he wants, it undermines the pursuit of that child’s “best interests.” In a reminder that should be heeded by judges across the country, she writes:

Trial courts cannot ascertain what is in the child's best interests by simply deferring to a CASA's … position. Courts must instead consider the positions of all the parties and reach their own conclusions.

So in addition to all the other failings of CASA, add the fact that National CASA and its chapters don’t dare even be fully honest about what they do.  A CASA is not a child’s voice in court.  A CASA is a CASA’s voice in court.  And that means, most of the time, a CASA is the voice of white privilege in court.

The trouble with CASA: A brief recap

There have been so many problems and, sometimes, scandals.  Here’s a list:

● There’s the study, commissioned by National CASA itself, that found the program prolongs foster care and reduces the likelihood that children will be placed with strangers instead of relatives – with no evidence that it improves child safety.

● There’s the conclusion from the trade journal Youth Today, that CASAs efforts to spin the study findings “can border on duplicity.”

● There’s the second study, done by a CASA, that also found CASA didn’t work.

● There’s the scandal surrounding the CASA program in Snohomish County, Washington, where a judge found “pervasive and egregious misconduct.”

● There’s the matter of the former CASA for that same program whose diatribe about the overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite parents the program sees would make Donald Trump blush.

● There’s the CASA program in Kansas that held a fundraiser that featured a blackface act.

● There’s the CASA program in California that fell apart over a simple request that volunteers be more diverse.

So it’s no wonder a law review article argues that CASA is “exercise of white supremacy.”

And see also our overview: The Case Against CASA.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Abuse of power: In New York City, hundreds of children thrown into foster care in so-called “emergencies” are sent back home within days or even hours – which almost always means there was no emergency

Removals that last a few days or less are long enough to traumatize a child but short enough to come up with better alternatives.

Family defenders testify before the New York City Council
about how the city child welfare agency abuses its power to
throw children into foster care in "emergencies."
Video of the full City Council hearing discussed below is available here. The good part starts at 2 hours 21 minutes in.

We all know the classic party line from child welfare agencies: Hey, they tell us, we don’t take children, a judge has to approve everything we do, so there’s due process for families.

As it happens, in a column for Youth Today last week, I just cited New York City as an example of why this isn’t true.  At a New York City Council hearing last week, the evidence that the claim is false became even more compelling.

In New York City, roughly half of all removals are done without any judge approving them first – not even at a so-called ex parte hearing where only the city child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, makes its case. The worker simply takes away the child on the spot. 

Nearly two decades ago, in a case brought by NCCPR’s Vice President, a federal appellate court found widespread abuse of the emergency removal power. But those abuses have continued under one ACS administration after another – causing enormous needless trauma for thousands of children.

The very act of taking the child first and going to court later further stacks the deck against families at that first court hearing.  That hearing usually is supposed to take place in roughly one to three days - though ACS has been known to stall. 

The number ACS finally disclosed

And that makes a number ACS finally owned up to this week even more shocking: For months, ACS said it just didn’t have a way to count how many times, at that first hearing, judges say, in effect: “This case is a load of b.s.” and send the child home – or ACS simply admits as much – or, more likely, comes up with some way to save face and let the children go home.

For an example of such a case, and how it traumatized the children, listen to thisexcellent documentary from NPR’s LatinoUSA – in particular the section that starts at 17:05 in:

But at a City Council hearing last week, ACS produced a number.  ACS says that in City Fiscal Year 2018 20 to 25 percent of “emergency” removals were such non-emergencies that the children could go home at that very first hearing.

That’s roughly between 370 and 460 children torn from everyone they know and love, not knowing what would happen next, enduring a trauma that, if a child is young enough, is akin to a kidnapping - only to find that, as soon as someone other than ACS itself looked at the facts, they could go right home again.

(In fact the number of needless “emergency” removals probably is a lot higher, given the low standard of proof required to hold a child in foster care and given one fact that never changes: Judges know that they can rubber-stamp ACS hundreds of times and, though the children may suffer terribly, the judge is safe. Overrule ACS once and have something go wrong and the judge’s career can be over.)

And if the harm to these children isn’t bad enough, think of all the time, money and effort wasted on these cases – time, money and effort that was, in effect, stolen from finding children in real danger.

Of course ACS Commissioner David Hansell wasn’t about to admit his agency was wrong to take away those hundreds of children.  According to a story in the Chronicle of Social Change,  Hansell said that, in most cases, at that first hearing

 “ACS has consented,” to a judge’s decision to return a child home — because, for example, a supervision plan had been put in place with the parents or other family members, or an order of protection had been approved against an abuser in the household.

But we’re talking about removals that often last a few days or less – that’s long enough to traumatize a child but short enough to come up with better alternatives – if you doubt it, listen to that Latino USA story. 

Even assuming the ACS caseworkers got the basic facts right – and that’s sometimes a stretch – consider the very example Hansell cites:

Instead of removing the child while awaiting that order of protection how about removing the alleged abuser?  There’s a mechanism for that: It’s called “arrest.”   There’s even a placement available: It’s called “jail.”

And if they really can’t do that, why not just post a guard outside the house until the order of protection is obtained?  Or move the entire family – minus the alleged abuser – to an undisclosed location for a few days? Instead, ACS chooses to punish the children with needless foster care. 

As Tehra Coles, litigation supervisor for parent defense at the Center for Family Representation, said at the hearing:

Many of the cases filed, in our view, did not need a court filing. Any risk to a child could have been mitigated by connecting the parents to needed services.

Is ACS backsliding on protecting children of battered mothers?

The hearing also raises new questions about how ACS is approaching cases involving domestic violence.

Hansell said that one reason for a big increase in court cases filed against families from 2015 to 2017 was “a sharp increase in the number of indicated investigations with domestic violence present in the home.”

That can mean a lot of different things.  But, thanks to another lawsuit (in which, again, co-counsel for the plaintiffs was NCCPR’s Vice President) it happens to be illegal in New York City, in fact in all of New York State, to take away children because they witnessed domestic violence – typically the father or another man beating up the mother.

That’s because all the inherent trauma of removal actually is worsened for the child if that child is being removed from a mother who was, herself, a victim of domestic violence.  Indeed, during testimony in the class-action lawsuit one expert said that, for the child this is “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”

Under past administrations ACS did fairly well in complying with the consent decree that emerged from this lawsuit.  Indeed, compared to much of the rest of the country, New York City was a leader.

But Hansell’s whole tenure at ACS has been marked by retreat from reform and dissembling about data.  His comment at the hearing raises questions about whether ACS is backsliding here as well.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Child welfare and Big Data: If you think using predictive analytics to screen babysitters is scary …

Leave it to good old American private enterprise to find a new, high-tech way to cash in on parerntal fears.  In a front-page story, The Washington Post reports that for just $24.99 a firm called Predictim will pressure any potential babysitter into giving the company permission to scour her or his social media feeds. (The applicant can say no, but then s/he’s a lot less likely to get hired.)

Then they funnel all the data through an algorithm that coughs up a series of “risk ratings” – on a scale of 1 to 5 – for everything from drug abuse to bullying or having a “bad attitude.”

Of course it’s all justified in the name of “child safety.”

“If you search for abusive babysitters on Google, you’ll see hundreds of results right now,” Predictim’s co-founder told the Post. “There’s people out there who either have mental illness or are just born evil. Our goal is to do anything we can to stop them.”

But the Post story points out: “Even as Predictim’s technology influences parents’ thinking, it remains largely unproven, largely unexplained and vulnerable to quiet biases…”

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy told the Post there is a “mad rush to seize the power of AI [artificial intelligence] to make all kinds of decisions without ensuring it’s accountable to human beings. It’s like people have drunk the digital Kool-Aid and think this is an appropriate way to govern our lives.”

But at least the sitters give their data to Predictim in a way that is voluntary – albeit hard to refuse - and the potential abuses are limited to whether a sitter gets a job.  It’s not as if some giant government agency is going to take data that recipients are forced to surrender, funnel it through an algorithm and use it against them to make life-and-death decisions about their families – well, except Pittsburgh, Pa. which already is doing it, and all the other cities and states that want to follow suit.

I refer, of course, to the use of “predictive analytics” algorithms to supposedly predict who is likely to  
be a child abuser – setting in motion the process that can lead to the child being taken from those parents and consigned to the chaos of foster care. In Pittsburgh, they’ve even considered assigning a secret risk score – sort of an invisible “scarlet number” to every child at birth, a number that then can come back to haunt the child when she or he becomes a parent.

Proponents offer up bland boilerplate about how they will never, ever abuse these screening tools and they’re always on guard for bias.  But somehow those pesky biases keep sneaking in. 

And you may be sure all the alleged safeguards will go out the window as soon as there’s a high-profile horror story case and, just like a marketer for Predictim, a politician demands that the algorithm be unleashed because “our goal is to do everything we can to stop them.”

So no, we can’t count on self-restraint to stop those in child welfare who have drunk the predictive analytics Kool Aid.  They can be restrained only by a public that realizes the bigger threat to the children isn’t Mom and Dad – it’s Big Brother.
For a more detailed discussion see our publication Big Data is Watching You and this article in Wired excerpted from Prof. Virginia Eubanks’ book, Automating Inequality.