Monday, December 23, 2019

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending December 23, 2019

This edition is devoted entirely to following-up the outstanding Kansas City Star series on the harm of foster care.

● The Star has a round-up of reaction from public officials and others. Many public officials tried to deflect from the heart of the problem by focusing on one noncontroversial solution. After all, no one is against spending more to provide better educational opportunities to foster children. But it’s hard to take advantage of those opportunities if you don’t have a real home.  Much more promising is an effort by Iowa’s public defender, Jeff Wright, to expand high-quality defense for families, so children don’t have to endure needless foster care in the first place.

● NCCPR has an op-ed column in the Star about the one person who understands exactly how to fix the problems the newspaper exposed: A Kansas City police officer.

● And in The Appeal, Vaidya Gullapalli, senior legal counsel at The Justice Collaborative, links the Star findings to other stories showing the racial and class bias in the system.  

Sunday, December 22, 2019

NCCPR in the Kansas City Star on foster care tragedy

With its series “Throwaway Kids,” The Kansas City Star has raised the bar for journalism about child welfare all over America. The very fact that reporters Laura Bauer and Judy L. Thomas had to begin their search for answers in America’s prisons speaks volumes about how we destroy children in the name of “saving” them.

Fortunately, the person who knows best how to fix it is right in Kansas City. He is Sgt. A.J. Henry of the Kansas City Police Department.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending December 17, 2019

● Of course the most important news was the outstanding series, “Throwaway Kids” from the Kansas City Star.  I have a blog post on it, with links to the stories.  And one of the reporters on the series, Laura Bauer, was interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition.

● Echoing the Star’s findings, the nation’s top child welfare official, Jerry Milner, spoke of the confusion of poverty with neglect at a conference in Mississippi. The Jackson, (Miss.) Free Press has a report.

● The New York Daily News has an excellent op-ed column from Michele Cortese and Tehra Coles of the Center for Family Representation. It explains why New York City needs to build on the success on its model of family representation by making lawyers available to families as soon as they are under investigation by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services.

● NBC News and the Houston Chronicle have another strong follow-up to their series on the devastation done to families when “child abuse pediatricians” get it wrong. One doctor has a solution that’s simple, sensible and would only be resisted in a field as arrogant as child welfare. They resist even though, as this doctor notes, “When we get this one wrong, you take a kid away from a loving family, and a caretaker goes to jail.”

● The American Bar Association publication Child Law Practice Today has a guide to help practitioners deal with Race and Poverty Bias in the Child Welfare System.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The journalism of child welfare at its best

Photo by Nightryder84

When reporters for the Kansas City Star wanted to know what happens to former foster children, they began in the most logical place: Jails.

He still has the last name of a woman who adopted him in grade school — then gave him back.
From the time he was 3 until he turned 14, Dominic Williamson was bounced to 80 different foster homes. When he turned 18, he found himself alone and homeless, and resorting to a life of crime.
Now, at 20, he has a home more permanent than any he’s ever known.
The Hutchinson Correctional Facility in Kansas.

Those words begin an extraordinary six-part series published Sunday by the Kansas City Star.

We’ve all heard about the foster-care-to-prison pipeline.  Just two months ago, Prof. Vivek Sankaran wrote a powerful column about a former client of his.  He was a bright, engaging little boy when his aunt first asked child protective services for some help. Instead, CPS threw him into foster care, moved him from home to home, group home to group home, until he had no ties to anyone who loved him.  You can probably guess where he is now.

But Star reporters Laura Bauer and Judy L. Thomas wanted to know more.  How often does foster care lead to prison?  What about other outcomes?  How did these youth get funneled into the foster-care to prison pipeline in the first place?  And, most important, how can we do better?

6,000 inmates respond

So they devised a questionnaire and asked state prison authorities to cooperate.  Twelve states took part; 6,000 inmates filled out questionnaires.  That formed the basis for a series that, though published by a regional newspaper, is national in its scope and, I hope, its impact.

Of course not every former foster child winds up in prison; though the percentage who do some prison time is alarming. And, as one advocate told the Star: “We are sending more foster kids to prison than college.” (In fact, it’s not even close.)
The link to one part of the series aptly sums up a crucial finding: Former foster kids blame a system they say took them from their homes for being poor

Much of the story focuses on MichelleVoorhees:

“Just because their family doesn’t have the means to take care of them doesn’t mean that you should just sever that bond,” said Voorhees, 28, who had two stints in foster care. “So many of these problems truly do stem from poverty.”
“There’s all this money to pay to foster homes and all this money for adoptions and what-not,” she said. “I don’t understand how there is so much funding to rip us away, but no funding to keep us there.”
Bauer and Thomas write that Voorhees

often thinks of how life could have been different if she were able to stay with her mother for all of her childhood. To know that she was always safe and loved.
“Had my mom just had a little bit of help, had she had enough money to buy her own vehicle, had she had enough money to relocate herself from an abusive situation, had she not had to have been dependent on men in the first place for any kind of financial stability, I don’t believe that she would have made some of the decisions that she made,” Voorhees says. “I don’t believe that she would have struggled as a mother, because my mom is a good mom.”

Read the story to see how Voorhees’ life actually turned out, thanks to the best efforts of the child welfare system to “save” her from her mother.

And you can see her story in this video:

“The animus against poor families…”

And, of course it isn’t just Voorhees.  From the story:

Many prison inmates who completed The Star’s survey said they believed they were removed from their homes because of poverty. They said their families would have been stronger with a little support. …
One inmate in the Upper Midwest said he went into foster care after being molested by a babysitter when he was 10.  “They did not have to take me out of my home,” he wrote on the survey. “We were poor and couldn’t afford a lawyer.”
An inmate from Hawaii said when she was moved into foster care, she felt like she lost her identity. “I felt abandoned not just by my parents but by the same system that was created to protect,” she wrote. “The whole foster care system needs to be broken down, reconstructed on the principle of Children first Family is Everything.”

Plenty of experts backed up the youths’ perceptions:

“This country has a hesitation for providing anything that looks like welfare to families,” said Clark Peters, a professor of social work at the University of Missouri. “So it is really the animus against poor families that drives this. …”

Amazingly, even the group that calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR) agreed.  The story quotes the group’s Litigation Director:

“Often, vulnerable poor families don’t have the money or the power to push back against government intervention,” said Ira Lustbader, an attorney who has spent the past two decades representing children nationwide in class action lawsuits. “Families are ripped apart for poverty and not abuse.
“There are deep biases at play in government intervention. And judgments made that are based on perceptions of poverty and race play out horrifically for too many families.”

The tragedy, however, is that CR does have the money and the power to push back against needless removal, but for decades it has failed to use that power. In fact, its lawsuit settlements sometimes have made the problem worse.  So now the question is: Will CR back up the words with a change in its approach to litigation?  Kansas would be a good place to start.

Making a crucial connection

Of course not every example in the Star series involved wrongful removal.  The series also describes cases in which the initial removal was absolutely essential, yet the system still failed.  But the Star stories make a vital connection between these failures that most other stories miss:

Kids who could have stayed in their homes take up beds in good foster homes that are needed for severely abused and neglected children whose safety is in jeopardy. Because of that, kids from Oregon to Florida and states in between are forced to sleep in child welfare offices or homeless shelters.

As it happens, Oregon and Florida have been two of the states where the failure to make this connection has had the most severe consequences. 

Just last week, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) produced an excellent, thoroughly reported, searing expose about the harm done to children shipped by the Oregon child welfare agency all over the country to facilities run by a for-profit McTreatment chain.  But the story never mentions the key reason it keeps happening: For decades Oregon has torn apart families at rates well above the national average. And for decades, Oregon media have largely, though not entirely, ignored that fact. (OPB has actually done better than most on this point; but still it rarely gets a mention.) 

In Florida, the Miami Herald itself not only failed to make the connection, it set off a foster-care panic that reversed reforms and made the entire system worse.

The Herald’s approach further opens the spigot on the foster-care-to-prison pipeline.  The approach by most journalists in Oregon does nothing to close the spigot.  The Kansas City Star breaks new ground with a systematic look at how the youth come out at the other end.

Getting the most from the stories

            After three or four stories nonsubscribers to the star are likely to hit a paywall.  But you can get a one-month subscription for $1.99 or a day pass for only 99 cents. I know the hassle of signing up is more of an issue than the cost, but it’s well worth it.

            If you must stop at only three stories I recommend (of course) the one noted above, which documents unnecessary removal and the confusion of poverty with neglect, the first part of the series, which presents an excellent overview, and the one called “A daughter, a foster care child, an inmate: Crystal Smith’s letter to her mom.”

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

NCCPR News and commentary round-up, week ending December 10, 2019

● In Los Angeles, grassroots family advocates are fighting back against a system that tears apart families at one of the highest rates among America’s big cities. The Chronicle of Social Change reports on a protest that “Targets a Sky-High Foster Care Removal Rate in L.A. County.”

● Two major stories on the same theme: going beyond reforming child welfare and, as Erin Miles Cloud puts it in The Scholar and Feminist Online, moving “Toward the Abolition of the Foster System”

Cloud writes:

In many liberal circles, it is no longer considered radical to acknowledge the connections between mass incarceration and chattel slavery – or to call for abolition. Thanks to the hard work of Black women and popular books, documentaries, and articles on the topic, more and more people in the United States are coming to understand the government’s continuing role in institutionalizing Black bodies for profit and are rejecting reforms that cede more power into the carceral system.

Less frequently discussed, and less well understood, are the connections between the foster care system and the systems of oppression that have historically impacted Black people in the United States. There are no popular documentaries about how violent family separation, toxic stereotypes about Black maternal unfitness, and financial incentives for dismantling Black families are shared features of chattel slavery and the modern foster care system. Nor is there the same degree of media scrutiny of the disproportionate percentage of Black families controlled through the foster care system as there is of the disproportionate control of Black bodies through the criminal legal system. Nor is there political discourse on what it would mean to abolish the foster care system. …

And, on this edition of the Intersectionality Matters podcast, Kimberle Crenshaw raises many of the same issues with Prof. Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania (and an NCCPR board member). The portion about foster care begins at 15:01.

● Two weeks ago I wrote about a judge in New Orleans who’s driving the child welfare establishment crazy – by following the law.  Now Prof. Vivek Sankaran has some thoughts on something else this judge is doing that all judges should do.

● With the wave of recent stories about the harm done to families by some “child abuse pediatricians” you might think you’ve seen it all.  But wait ‘till you read this story from Daphne Chen of the Gatehouse Florida Newspapers – it’s extraordinarily powerful and worth reading to the end.  It also includes this video of “one of the most powerful figures in the child welfare system along Florida’s Gulf Coast” – a child abuse pediatrician – explaining her approach to her job:

● Also: Mike Hixenbaugh of NBC News reports on some of the hundreds of additional families who came forward after seeing the joint NBC News / Houston Chronicle series on this topic. 

● The New York Civil Liberties Union came up with a splendid way to illustrate how bias makes its way into predictive analytics algorithms – in child welfare, and many other fields. I have a blog post about it.

● And in Philadelphia Weekly, I look at lessons to be learned (second item down after clicking this link) from their excellent three-part series about the abuses of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services. The rate of child removal in Philadelphia is even higher than the rate in L.A.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Predictive analytics in child welfare – and elsewhere: A brilliant lesson in understanding algorithms and bias

Are you sufficiently connected to your community?  A simple six-question test might give you the answer.

At least that’s what participants in a forum organized by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund were told on Saturday.

The multiple-choice questions included: “Of the people you call regularly, do you have their phone numbers memorized?” “Do you know the names of your neighbors?” and “Are you on a first-name basis with your local bodega owner?”

Here’s the full list:

 Later we learned that each time we checked the first box we got 20 points, the second box, ten points, and the third box zero points.

Then we were told that any total under 80 points meant our ties to the community were insufficient.
Then we were asked what we thought of the test.  Watch the discussion that starts at 18:24 on this video:

Of course this was not a real test. Instead, as the audience quickly realized, it was a brilliant illustration of the biases that permeate seemingly “objective” algorithms.

And that’s when the designers of the “test,” Toni Smith-Thompson, Daniel Schwarz and Nicole Triplett, of the New York Civil Liberties Union posed this question:

Or, I would add: What could it mean for your life if a government agency wanted to use this test to decide if you’re likely to abuse your child?

No, child welfare isn’t better

Of course those pushing “predictive analytics” algorithms in child welfare say, in effect, we’re better than everybody else, so naturally our algorithms are better, too. (It’s another example of a distressing arrogance in the field, much like when some in child welfare say the field is magically immune from racial bias.)

But if you’re really better, then you don’t have to mislead anyone about your algorithm. With that in mind, let’s review what’s happening in Pittsburgh, home of the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST), the predictive analytics algorithm that supposedly solves the problems of all the other algorithms. 

There are two versions of AFST. The first is used to guide decisions concerning who should be investigated as a possible child abuser.  The second, discussed in more detail below, is even more pernicious.

The algorithms produce a “risk score” – an invisible “scarlet number” that can haunt a child and family for life. The higher the number, the greater the supposed risk.  So consider how the claims of AFST proponents stack up against reality:

They claim: Unlike for-profit firms that sell “black box” algorithms in which the way the risk is calculated is not disclosed, AFST proponents say, in effect: We are transparent, we tell everyone what data points are used in our algorithm.

In fact: They don’t tell us how these data points are weighted, or even if they count for or against a family.  That’s like giving people a recipe that lists the ingredients but doesn’t say how much of each to use.

They claim: An “ethics review” found that our algorithm is so wonderful it would be unethical not to use it.

In fact: There is such an “ethics review.” But one of the reviewers is a faculty colleague and co-author of papers with a designer of the algorithm being evaluated.

Also, the review’s claim that AFST is ethical was predicated in part on it not being applied to every child at birth.  But now, behold the second version of AFST: They’re about to apply it to every child at birth.

They claim: Even though version 2 will be applied to every child at birth, that’s o.k. because participation is voluntary.

In fact: Consent is assumed unless you specifically opt out – and you only get, at most, two chances to do it – if you happen to notice those fleeting opportunities when they arise during the stressful, sleep-deprived first days after your child is born.

They claim: The every-child-at-birth algorithm guards against bias by including only databases that potentially could include anyone regardless of income.

In fact: The weasel-word in that claim is “potentially.” The databases will include use of homeless services, and involvement with juvenile justice and child protective services systems. You don’t see a lot of rich people turning up in those systems.

They claim: The every-child-at-birth algorithm will be used only to target “prevention” services.

In fact: That’s true – for the moment. But once they have the data there is nothing to stop them from changing their minds – say, after a high profile child abuse tragedy.

The simple fact that the proponents of Pittsburgh’s predictive analytics algorithms keep trying to mislead us as they sell their product tells you everything you need to know about the quality of the product.

There's more about predictive analytics in child welfare in our report Big Data is Watching You.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending December 3, 2019

The latest edition of Children’s Bureau Express, a monthly publication from the Department of Health and Human Services is devoted to the need to “Stop Confusing Poverty with Neglect.”  This time, those aren’t my words. They’re the words of the head of the Children’s Bureau, Associate Commissioner Jerome Milner, and his Special Assistant David Kelly. They write:

[A]s a field, we seem quite comfortable with very small, incremental improvements and minor tweaks to the way we operate—tweaks that often benefit the operators more than those living the experience; tweaks that may not result in noticeable improvements in the way children, youth, and parents experience the system at all; and tweaks that are not likely to mitigate the need to enter the system.  We have to be honest in examining why we allow this to be so.

They conclude:

Committing to a system that takes on poverty-related neglect in humane and effective ways … requires a willingness to rally around families that are vulnerable and struggling with poverty, rather than judging them, labeling that vulnerability as neglect, and pathologizing them.

● Last week’s round-up noted some excellent reporting from the online news site Carolina Public Press about the “hidden foster care” scandal in North Carolina. I’ve taken a closer look at the scandal, and its implications for the rest of the country in this blog post.

● There were two stories last week about how the child welfare system’s attempts to punish poor women hurt their children:

A Philadelphia Inquirer story is aptly summed up by the headline: “Silenced by fear:
Women of color are less likely to get treatment for postpartum depression because they fear they’ll be judged too quickly or harshly by child welfare services. Research shows those fears may be justified.”

And, from ABC News: “Pushed into the shadows: How punishing pregnant women for opioid use leads to more birth complications.”

● The online news site VT Digger reports on a second major lawsuit filed by parents whose children were wrongly taken:  “Larry Crist, executive director of the Vermont Parent Representation Center, said the lawsuit mirrors ‘hundreds’ of other cases he’s seen where parents in Vermont are accused of abuse and their children are taken from them without any evidence.” More such suits are likely. 

● In an op-ed colum for The Hill Prof. Shanta Trivedi writes that

Family separation among migrants has been a front-and-center campaign issue for the Democratic candidates … Many of the candidates also are tackling criminal justice reform, recognizing that the criminal system also separates millions of children from their parents. But with the exception of Julian Castro, not a single Democratic contender has a plan for the other form of family separation that also impacts hundreds of thousands of American families every day — foster care.

● With the problem of false allegations against families by “child abuse pediatricians” much in the news, WFTS-TV in Tampa-St. Petersburg looks at the problem in Florida.

● In an important analysis for the social justice think tank Political Research Associates, Heron Greensmith finds the through-line that leads from Indian boarding schools to orphan trains, to Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA): How Child Welfare Serves as a Tool of White Supremacy.

● The use of child welfare systems to try to destroy the culture of indigenous peoples is not unique to the United States.  But while in the U.S. the minimal protections afforded Native Americans through the Indian Child Welfare Act are under attack, in Canada the debate revolves around how much to pay First Nations in reparations.

● And finally, on this day after #GivingTuesday a reminder: There’s still time to support the small, all-volunteer organization that brings you this summary, and much more.  How much more? Just ask someone who probably wishes we’d go away.  Or consider going directly here to donate online.

Thank you.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Lessons from the hidden foster care scandal in North Carolina

Cherokee County, NC Courthouse

Lesson #1: It’s probably happening in your community, and it should be a scandal there, too.

There is quite a scandal in the child welfare system in Cherokee County, North Carolina.  But where to begin?  How about with the first few paragraphs of this September 11, 2019 story by Kate Martin of the nonprofit news site, Carolina Public Press:

The State Bureau of Investigation is continuing to look into possible felonies at Cherokee County’s Department of Social Services, nearly a year and a half after its investigation began.
Current and former workers of Cherokee County’s DSS office, including former director Cindy Palmer, are under investigation related to removing children from parents without judicial oversight using a document called a custody and visitation agreement or CVA. Social workers at the office did so for more than a decade, according to testimony in court last year.
Whether the agents are now looking at related issues that have come to light in recent months remains unclear.
Although suspended as director in March 2018, Cherokee County DSS rehired Palmer as the office’s business officer in June 2018, and she continues in that role despite the ongoing criminal probe.

The reason we all should be paying attention is simple: Some of the things exposed in Cherokee County first by investigative reporters for the Associated Press and now by Carolina Public Press are highly unusual – at least I hope they are.  But at the heart of the scandal is a practice that goes on all over America.  And the real scandal is that only in North Carolina is it being treated as a scandal. 

  There are many names for the practice in question: shadow foster care, the foster care Twilight Zone, blackmail placements, and hidden foster care.  Whatever you call it, it is a system that rivals in size and scope the open, relatively above-board foster care system – but with even less due process and less accountability.  I’ve written about it in general and I wrote about the North Carolina scandal when it first broke well over a year ago.  But much has happened since.

How hidden foster care works

            It works like this: A parent is told at a minimum:  We’re going to take your children away and place them in foster care with strangers. In some cases they’re told: We’ll also separate them from each other and place them far, far away. You can go to court and try to get them back but, well, good luck with that. Good luck even visiting them.  Then they offer the alternative: Just sign this little piece of paper in which you “voluntarily” agree to have us place the children with someone nearby – usually a relative.

            Of course no lawyer for the family ever looks at that piece of paper first, or explains to the family their rights.  The parents’ only explanation of what the piece of paper means is what the caseworker tells them it means. And while many of these placements are theoretically short-term, in some of the North Carolina cases these agreements effectively involve signing away rights to a child forever.

            As I said, it happens all over the country. But only one state child welfare agency has aid the whole thing is illegal: North Carolina. (North Carolina is one of the states in which counties run child welfare and the state social services agency has some oversight.)  Even in North Carolina, it’s not clear if the state would have acted had the practice not been exposed in a major national news story by Associated Press reporters Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr. Since then, Kate Martin of Carolina Public Press (CPP) has been following up aggressively. 

The timeline

            Here’s what happened and when, based on news accounts:

            October, 2017: A state Department of Health and Human Services team conducting a routine review discovers that plenty is rotten in the County of Cherokee Department of Social Services.  A memo obtained by Carolina Public Press nearly two years later reveals what the state examiners believed to be widespread falsification of records involving contact between child welfare caseworkers, birth parents and foster children.

            The memo also states that terminations of parental rights “are pursued very quickly with little or no engagement with parents.  It is hard to believe with the lack of engagement and documentation that TPRs are even granted.”

            There is no indication that they also discovered the use of hidden foster care at this time.  But, it appears the state did very little about what it did discover.  The Cherokee County district attorney told Carolina Public Press she was “flabbergasted” she was not notified at the time about what might be criminal activity.

As CPP put it: 

Although the DHHS memo expressed concern about records falsified by duplicating other records, it focused not on potential criminal fraud or violation of families’ rights, but on DSS funding and destabilizing DSS child placement actions: “These records are tied into funding. A parent’s attorney could get ahold of these records and make an argument to have the kids returned home.”

            December, 2017: A local attorney, Melissa Jackson, discovers the use of hidden foster care in Cherokee County while representing a father coerced into “voluntarily” signing a so-called “custody and visitation agreement.”  As the Associated Press would later report:

Soon after Jackson exposed the practice, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services sent an “urgent” letter to county agencies on Dec. 20, 2017, warning that “facilitating the completion of private custody agreements” without court oversight “falls outside of both law and policy.”

            If the state did anything else at that point, there is no public indication of such action.

            December, 2017: Jackson and attorney David Wijewickrama sue Cherokee County on  behalf of parents whose children were taken using CVAs.  They are seeking class-action status.

            Early March, 2018: The state asks Cherokee County for a “corrective action plan.”

            March 14, 2018: With Jackson’s client prominently featured, the AP story exposing Cherokee County’s system of  hidden foster care is published.  The story reveals that the practice dates back at least to 2007 and may involve hundreds of families.  Exactly how many is unclear because former Cherokee County DSS attorney Scott Lindsay said at court hearings that many “files are missing.”

At about the same time, District Judge Tessa Sellers rules that CVAs violate state law, the state constitution and the United States Constitution.   According to the ruling:

The CVA is the product of both actual and constructive fraud on behalf of the Cherokee County Department of Social Services, it’s agents and Attorney Scott Lindsay and director Cindy Palmer.

            March 16, 2018: Now the state is really interested, and, apparently, concludes that a “corrective action plan” is not enuogh. After the scandal makes national news, the state announces it will temporarily take over the child welfare functions of the Cherokee County Department of Social Services.  The takeover begins three days later.

            At about the same time the county district attorney – who only learned of the scandal by reading the AP story – asks the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing.

            March through June 2018: Though the state is taking over the child welfare functions, the county DSS still is overseen by a local Board of Social Services.  The Board holds what is apparently an unusually large number of special meetings. But we don’t know exactly what happened at all of them – because, Carolina Public Press reveals, the minutes are missing.  We do know, however, that Lindsay’s replacement as DSS attorney, David Moore, said Palmer may have lied under oath.

April 2018: The Board of Social Services suspends Palmer, with pay.  She is replaced with an acting director.  Moore tells the board Palmer should not be allowed to return.

May, 2018: The position of business officer for Cherokee County DSS becomes vacant. Palmer had held that job before she was named director. 

            June 11, 2018: Palmer resigns as DSS director.

            June 11, 2018: Palmer’s interim replacement hires Palmer to be the DSS business officer – the job Palmer held before she became DSS director.

            June 12, 2018: DSS attorney David Moore resigns.

            July, 2018: Cherokee County DSS receives a bill of $3,311.87 for document shredding services covering the period mid-June to mid-July, 2018.  The highest previous monthly total since November 2017 was $367.76, in May.  In November and December, 2017, the bills were $90.17 per month. 

            Or, as Carolina Public Press put it:

The DSS agency in early 2018 also started a curiously timed massive shredding campaign, which went into high gear after Palmer returned to the agency in June 2018. The effort was supposedly designed to create urgently needed space and did not touch child welfare documents, which DSS had been ordered not to destroy. But a year later, the space remains unused. Whether any additional child welfare documents went missing remains uncertain.

            October, 2018: The state Deparemtent of Health and Human Services ends its direct control over child welfare in Cherokee County.

            November, 2019: The State Bureau of Investigation’s findings concerning CVAs, and possibly other issues, are now in the hands of the state Attorney General’s office.  CPP reports that “Palmer, and possibly others, remain under criminal investigation…” by that office.

            And a new problem has been discovered: The county and the state have had to repay the federal government more than $247,000 in federal foster care funds to which they were not entitled “after mistakes by social workers and their supervisors.”

Monday, December 2, 2019

On Giving Tuesday: Want to know how effective NCCPR is? Just ask someone who probably wishes we’d go away!

This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared on Giving Tuesday in 2018.

Of all the journalists who have covered child welfare, few are more keen on pushing a take-the-child-and-run approach than former Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf.  The issues with Therolf’s work at the Times were so serious that even someone who used to be an ideological soulmate  found serious problems in story after story.  The crescendo of criticism was such that LA Observed, a Los Angeles news site that closely tracks area media, took notice.

Then, just as he was leaving the Times, Therolf demeaned the work of Black scholars while cheerleading for those who insist that child welfare is magically immune from racial bias.

So, on this Giving Tuesday, who better to turn to for a testament to the power and influence of NCCPR – right?

Not that he offered such a testament on purpose, of course.  I’m sure he didn’t even realize it.

In November, 2018, Therolf was able to get a sugar-coated version of his L.A. Times-style reporting into a national magazine. (I’m not going to link to it, but you can use the quote below to Google it if you are so inclined.)  After noting how horror stories about deaths of children “known to the system” can drive increases in foster care, he discusses one of the very few cases in which it worked in reverse:

Logan Marr, a 5-year-old girl from Maine [had] been removed from her home by the state’s grossly interventionist child-protective-services agency. In a gruesome twist, Logan was placed in the custody of a former caseworker, who disciplined her by gagging her with duct tape and leaving her in the basement, where she died.

The case became the subject of a PBS documentary, and media attention made Logan a symbol of child-protective services’ overreach. The pendulum swung, and the United States saw a nearly 25 percent drop in the number of children in foster care from 2002 to 2012. [Emphasis added.]

Therolf never mentions which organization drew all that media attention to the case of Logan Marr. He probably doesn’t know.  It was, of course, NCCPR.  We’re the ones who told producers for Frontline about the case. That's one reason why you’ll find an NCCPR op-ed on Frontline’s website for the programs. 

It was NCCPR that focused the discussion of this case, in Maine and nationally, on the fact that Logan was taken because her family poverty was confused with neglect.  And it was NCCPR that shifted the focus from the usual calls for tougher licensing standards and more visits to foster homes to the real issue: Maine was taking away far too many children.  There’s a detailed discussion of what we did and how we did it here.

Some caveats: We didn’t do it alone. It wouldn’t have been possible without activists in Maine led by a fed-up foster parent.  Although one probably shouldn’t say this in a fundraising pitch, the attention we drew to the case of Logan Marr was not solely responsible for that big drop in foster care.  But it helped.  Something else we probably shouldn't say in a fundraising pitch: It's also true that, now that NCCPR has more limited resources, there's been backsliding in Maine child welfare.  But even now, it's a better system than it would have been had there been no NCCPR.

NCCPR has changed the very language of the child welfare debate.  We put the phrase foster-care panic, into the child welfare lexicon. And as the family preservation movement has grown, and as more and more advocates have realized the importance of changing child welfare systems by changing public perceptions, NCCPR has become a key resource for other advocates, providing the data and studies to back up what they see every day on the frontlines.

We never charge for this technical assistance - because the organizations fighting this fight at the grassroots level need every penny they have to keep up that fight.  But that, of course, is why we need donations from those who can afford to give.

There’s more about  our successes across the country here – including testimonials from child welfare leaders and journalists who actually like our work.

And best of all, we do it on a shoestring.  Now that the entire staff (that’s me) is volunteer, all we need is a few thousand dollars a year for things like the phone bill, office supplies, purchasing overpriced studies (like the one that led to this) from scholarly journals, and – ideally – some travel to meet with journalists and local advocates.  But the very fact that we need so little makes it easy for people to assume someone else will do it.  Unfortunately, if everyone thinks someone else will make those few donations ...

There are a lot of places well worth your support on this Giving Tuesday – but very few where a small donation can get so much done.

Thank you for your support.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

NCCPR News and commentary round-up, week ending November 26, 2019

● Have you heard about the judge in child welfare cases who actually follows the law? The child welfare establishment is throwing a fit.  The Washington Post wrote about the judge. I have a blog post about her, with a link to the Post story.

● I’ve written before about hidden foster care – a massive, parallel system of child removal in which parents are coerced into “voluntarily” giving up their children to relatives with no court hearings or due process protection of any kind. (The threat: Do this “voluntarily” or we’ll throw the children into foster care with strangers.)  In many places, this is standard operating procedure and no one in “the system” bats an eye.  But things have been different in North Carolina.  After the Associated Press exposed the practice in one county, the state took over the system in that county.  Days after the AP report, a judge found the practice unconstitutional. She also found that the coerced “voluntary” agreements were “the product of both actual and constructive fraud …”  Now there’s a civil lawsuit, and the possibility of criminal charges against county child welfare officials.

We know all this because of some outstanding reporting by Kate Martin of the nonprofit news site Carolina Public Press.  This story outlines the scope of the problem. Then came stories about missing meeting minutes, massive document shredding, an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation, delays in state action, allegations of falsification of records, allegations of lying under oath, and on and on.  You can find those stories here and here.

But they leave one question unanswered: Why haven’t the abuses of hidden foster care prompted the same aggressive response anywhere else?

● On the Rethinking Foster Care blog, Georgia attorney Emma Brown-Bernstein writes about a case in which a homeless mother made the terrible mistake of asking the state child protective services agency for help to find housing.  Instead, Brown-Bernstein writes, the child was removed “because his family was homeless and no one could help the family obtain housing. That’s it.”  A trial court rubber-stamped the removal, but the state Court of Appeals unanimously overturned it. “This choice cannot be the only one we have,” Brown-Bernstein writes. “Sending children to foster care because their parents cannot find a house not only undermines families but, as the Court of Appeals reminded us … also runs afoul of the law.”

As you read about this one case, it’s also worth remembering: Multiple studies find that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if the families had decent housing.

● Two stories have nothing to do with child welfare – and everything to do with child welfare: WNYC Public Radio’s On The Media, has an excellent interview with Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction – about how, in field after field, supposedly objective algorithms turn out to be biased.  Guess who’s on the losing end every time.  And it’s hard to imagine anything that could be easier to keep free of bias than determining creditworthiness.  It should be a matter of pretty basic math. Yet somehow, the algorithm Apple and Goldman Sachs came up with to set credit limits on their fancy new credit card wound up allegedly discriminating against women.

All of which is all the more reason to be worried when a child welfare agency starts trying to use predictive analytics algorithms to figure out things that are vastly more complicated – such as predicting who supposedly is likely to abuse a child.  In Allegheny County, Pa., they’re about to start trying to slap risk scores on every baby at birth.  In Talk Poverty, Elizabeth Brico has a story about how they’re doing it.  And I have a blog post about it here.

● In New York State, both the city Administration for Children’s Services and the state agency that oversees it were doing their usual song and dance before a state legislative committee: Of course we want fewer children in foster care, they say, just give us more money to inflict more “counseling” and “parent education” on families as we keep them under our thumb and everything will be fine.  But, as this story in the Chronicle of Social Change makes clear, there are signs lawmakers aren’t buying it anymore. They understand the real solution is giving families the tools to fight back from the moment agencies such as ACS enter their lives.

As Emma Ketteringham of The Bronx Defenders told legislators:

When you’re hungry, and you don’t know where you are going to sleep, and your children were taken in the middle of the night — therapy’s not going to fix the situation … We have to back up and really explore how we respond to families that struggle … because of poverty and because of structural racism.

Monday, November 25, 2019

A judge in child welfare cases is actually following the law. The foster care establishment is throwing a fit.

Judge Ernestine Gray

The full Washington Post story discussed in this post is available here.

            Imagine if the presumption of innocence that is, at least in theory, at the heart of the criminal justice system were turned upside down.  Suppose everyone hauled into court was presumed guilty – and had to prove their innocence.

            As a practical matter that upside-down burden of proof is how the child welfare system works.  Only instead of calling it “guilty until proven innocent” it’s sanitized behind phrases like “err on the side of caution.”  But there is nothing cautious about tearing apart a family. When done needlessly, it is a profoundly reckless act that endangers not just the mental health of children but often their physical safety as well.

            One judge in New Orleans, Louisiana, Ernestine Gray, understands this. So she has decided to actually apply the law.  She’s demanding that the state child protective services agency, the Department of Children and Family Services, actually show evidence that a child would be unsafe in her or his own home.  The judge also is putting into practice the stated values of the child welfare system itself.  After all, how many times have we heard people in that system say: “We never take away children because their families are poor” or “We only use foster care as an absolute last resort.”

Because Judge Gray is practicing what the system only preaches, between 2011 and 2017 the number of children in foster care in metropolitan New Orleans fell by 89 percent.  There is no evidence this has compromised safety – and a key child safety measure has improved.

            Since this is exactly the way they say it’s supposed to work, the child welfare establishment in New Orleans is thrilled with Judge Gray, right?

            Of course not!  The child welfare establishment is throwing a collective fit – appalled that families no longer have to prove their innocence.

            I learned all this thanks to a very good  in-depth story in The Washington Post by  Richard A. Webster.  Though I take issue with some of Webster’s premises, the story was a thorough, open-minded account by a reporter who took pains to reach out to all sides.  While that should be the norm, in the journalism of child welfare, it’s still more of an exception.  So my concerns notwithstanding, first I want to thank Webster for trying to uphold the highest standards of journalism.

What the story reveals

            So much is revealed by this story, often unintentionally, that it’s worth examining in detail. I’ll begin with how Webster frames what the judge is doing:

While many judges often err on the side of caution, placing children into state custody until all of the facts can be sorted out, [Judge Gray] moved in the opposite direction.

            In fact, as I noted above there is nothing cautious about what those other judges are doing. Because of everything we know about foster care, and the extensive research comparing outcomes for children placed in foster care to children left in their own homes in typical cases, (discussed in more detail below), we know that “placing children into state custody until all of the facts can be sorted out” is a profoundly reckless act, deeply harmful to children.  (It is, however, the most cautious approach judges can take to protect themselves.)

Now let’s turn to the heart of the criticism of Judge Gray’s decision to follow the law. Webster writes:

In New Orleans, however, child advocates reacted cautiously. In the collective fervor to remedy the system, they fear the lives of hundreds of boys and girls are being endangered by returning them to families in chaos.
Virtually no data are available to allay their concerns.

            Whenever I read something like that, I am reminded of what I was told by the head of an adoption agency – yes, you read that right – when I was a reporter 40 years ago: “The burden of proof should always rest with those who think children don’t belong with their families.”

            So what is crucial here is that there is absolutely no evidence to support these so-called “child advocates’” concerns. They are just standard child welfare establishment fear-mongering. 

            The only data available suggest that child safety has improved.  Webster writes:

Championing New Orleans’s low numbers is problematic. … The only available metric is whether a child reenters the system at some point.
By that standard, Gray’s strategy is working. The city’s reentry rate of 7 percent is slightly lower than the statewide average, according to DCFS. But everyone, including Gray, concedes that is an imperfect data point for measuring success. It requires a child to be re-victimized and for someone to notice the abuse or neglect and again contact protective services.[Emphasis added.]

First, championing New Orleans’s low numbers is only problematic in the world of guilty-until-proven-innocent.  What cannot be legitimately championed is high numbers of removals, since there is no evidence that this improves child safety.

The measure of foster-care recidivism – the term for the data the story cites – can be problematic, but not in a way that invalidates its use to compare jurisdictions.

That’s because while it is true that no jurisdiction will discover every case of reabuse, there is no reason to think that the same statewide agency that trains workers the same way will detect a lower proportion of reabuse in New Orleans than elsewhere. So as a method of comparison within a single state agency, it is valid.  And it is one data point more than those who prefer a take-the-child-and-run approach have got.

The harm of foster care

Webster does better than most reporters in pointing out something else: the mass of data we have on the harm of foster care. But he adds some premises that should be questioned:

Few disagree that the system is severely broken nationwide because of decades of mismanagement and inadequate funding. Instead of protecting children, it often traumatizes them further. They have poorer outcomes in education, employment, housing and early pregnancy, studies show. By 17, more than half will have been arrested, jailed or convicted, according to a University of Chicago study.

He’s right about the data, but the implication is that if only the system got more money and were better managed then these outcomes would change.  They would – but not by much.  One study, which found that in later life only one in five former foster children was doing well, also tried to calculate what would happen if the foster care system were made perfect.  Their conclusion: Outcomes would improve – by 22.2 percent. 

So instead of churning out walking wounded four times out of five a “perfect” foster care system would churn out walking wounded three times out of five.

Notice also the phrase “traumatizes them further.”  That assumes all foster children were traumatized in their own homes.  What Judge Gray understands is that sometimes the children are not traumatized until they are placed in foster care.

But the most damning evidence isn’t included in the story (not on purpose, I’m sure Webster just didn’t know about it).  That evidence comes in the form of  the many studies, including two that are massive in size and scope, that directly compare the outcomes in typical cases for children placed in foster care and comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes.  Over and over these studies find that the children left in their own homes typically do better.

So, in fact, there isn’t just one data point – there’s a mass of comprehensive research showing that Judge Gray’s approach is better for children.

In contrast, Judge Gray’s critics have no evidence that her approach (also known as following the law) is dangerous for children. In fact, it seems, they don’t even have a horror story! (If they did, I’m sure they wouldn’t have kept it secret.)  They don’t have one yet, that is.  Sooner or later there is a horror story in every system. And if Judge Gray is still on the bench (she’ll reach mandatory retirement age in a year) you may be sure she’ll be scapegoated, notwithstanding the fact that jurisdictions that tear apart vastly more children have the same sorts of horror stories.

Gray understands all this. As the story notes:

The greatest threat of harm for most of the children who appear before her, [Gray] stresses, is being unnecessarily removed from their families.
“Foster care is put up as this thing that is going to save kids, but kids die in foster care, kids get sick in foster care,” she said. “So we ought to be trying to figure out how to use that as little as possible. ...”

Here again, Judge Gray has the data on her side. Study after study reveals rates of abuse in foster care far higher than shown in official figures, which involve agencies investigating themselves. The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.

As the ironies pile up …

But now, back to Judge Gray’s critics:

Chabre Johnson remembers the “revolving door” she saw while a DCFS child welfare specialist. She and colleagues would respond to calls, discover evidence of either abuse or neglect, and remove children, only to take them home a few days later because Gray decided the case they’d built didn’t pass muster.

            The ironies abound here.  First, recall how in almost every story that even slightly criticizes child welfare decision-making someone will say: “We can’t remove children on our own, a judge has to approve everything we do.”  Too often, reporters believe it.

            Well, now the cat is out of the bag. Johnson admits that she and her fellow DCFS workers routinely removed children on their own authority – traumatizing them with a foster care placement that Judge Gray realized – days later - was unnecessary.  (This is not unique to New Orleans, of course.)

            But wait, it gets better. 

In most jurisdictions, judges routinely approve child protective services agency decisions. Then the agencies say they must be right because those wise, independent judges are constantly approving what they do.  But behold what happens when one judge starts wielding a gavel instead of a rubber stamp.  Suddenly judges don’t really know anything!  Or as Johnson put it:

 “A lot of times it was infants and babies being returned to the home. It got frustrating …The people making the decisions are not the ones going into these homes putting their lives in danger. They’re not the ones sitting outside of these homes waiting for police officers.”

            And then there’s this, a constant theme among Judge Gray’s critics:

Child advocates say the drastic reduction in foster care would make more sense if it came with greater resources to support struggling families — for mental health care, substance abuse treatment, case management or housing assistance — but that’s not the case.  
Paulette Carter, president of the Children’s Bureau of New Orleans, said it takes at least a month for the organization to line up services. And the answer isn’t just a couple of parenting classes. In the vast majority of cases, the issues that led to a child being removed from a home take months, if not years, to resolve.

            This is a classic example of a provider pathologizing families because that bolsters the provider’s prestige and self-image.  This was perfectly explained decades ago by Malcolm Bush in his book, Families in Distress:

The recognition that the troubled family inhabits a context that is relevant to its problems suggests the possibility that the solution involves some humble tasks … This possibility is at odds with professional status. Professional status is not necessary for humble tasks … Changing the psyche was a grand task, and while the elaboration of theories past their practical benefit would not help families in trouble, it would allow social workers to hold up their heads in the professional meeting or the academic seminar.

What makes Judge Gray such a threat to the child welfare establishment is the fact that she understands this.  Again, from the story:

In cases of abuse, she said she does not hesitate to remove children, but that is not the norm. More than 85 percent of foster children in Louisiana are removed from their homes due to neglect, which is defined as a parent’s failure to provide food, shelter, clothing, supervision or medical care, to the point where the child’s safety is at risk. In many cases, Gray thinks, DCFS investigators mistake poverty for neglect.
“No food in the house? Send them to the food bank rather than taking [their children] into care,” she said.

            Once again, Judge Gray has the evidence on her side, including the numerous studies documenting the transformative power of cash.

            But even in those cases when more than a little cash really is needed, the very fact that there is a readily available dumping ground for children – foster care – means there will never be any pressure to actually provide those additional services. Those who say: “Wait for the ‘services’ before we curb needless foster care” are really saying: “Wait forever and never curb needless foster care.”

            And finally:
 [Judge Gray] won’t speculate on whether her approach could serve as a model nationally.

            Then allow me: YES!!!!

One key factor, she offered with a laugh, is having officials who are not afraid of negative publicity or losing elections.

            She’s right again.  One reason New York City now has a model system of high-quality family defense is because, nearly 20 years ago, judges actually admitted rubber-stamping removals even when they didn’t think the city’s child protective services agency had made a good enough case – because they were afraid of landing on the front page of a newspaper if they sent a child home and something went wrong. 

            In New York City, these judges are appointed by the mayor.  And at roughly the same time, when two judges tried to do what Judge Gray is doing, the mayor at the time refused to reappoint them.

            What was that mayor’s name again?

            Oh, yeah. Rudy Giuliani.