Sunday, March 24, 2019

Does child welfare have a “Max 8” problem?



A story on NPR Friday about the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max 8 planes begins this way:

The investigation … points, for the moment, at software. There’s evidence that a program called MCAS pointed the planes’ noses down repeatedly without pilots even knowing, ultimately leading to the deaths of hundreds of people.

The story then discusses our increasing reliance and, perhaps, overreliance on software without even knowing how the software works.

The story concludes with a warning from Prof. Eben Moglen of Columbia University School of Law, described by NPR as an advocate for “software transparency.”  Says Prof. Moglen:

Even if you didn’t think this had anything to do with politics, it is still true that systems that don’t explain themselves to the human beings who interact with them are dangerous.

Child welfare, of course, has everything to do with politics.  And the latest fad in child welfare is “predictive analytics,” in which child welfare agencies use software that’s supposedly able to predict who is likely to abuse a child.  The many problems with this are summarized here.  But one of those many problems is the fact that the software is – secret.

In most cases, the algorithms are created by for-profit companies; so, obviously, they don’t want us to know what goes into them.  But even the wildly overhyped model in Pittsburgh, where they’re constantly bragging about transparency, isn’t nearly transparent enough.

In Pittsburgh, they’ll gladly tell you the list of items the algorithm considers.  That means at least we can see how often they are actually measuring nothing more than the likelihood of being poor – what Prof. Virginia Eubanks, author of Automating Inequality, calls “poverty profiling.” But they won’t say how the various items are weighted. 

This would be bit like a hypothetical executive for a hypothetical aircraft manufacturer telling a pilot: “So, Captain, at certain times the software on this new plane will affect the position of the nose – but we won’t tell you when it kicks in, and we won’t tell you if it pushes the nose down or pulls it up.”

Whatever one may think of what Boeing did or failed to do, no one is suggesting they did anything like that. It would be preposterous.

So why isn’t it considered preposterous in child welfare? 

It should be. Because systems that don’t explain themselves to the human beings who interact with them are dangerous.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

From Oregon’s Senator Soundbite: Tweets full of statistics abuse about Oregon foster care


It seems Oregon State Sen. Sara Gelser, who’s done so much to make Oregon’s bad child welfare system even worse, didn’t like being called out about it on this blog yesterday.  But even if every statistic she cites in a series of tweets this afternoon is accurate, they show only that Oregon’s rate of child removal has declined from horrendous to merely egregious.

Gelser’s tweets about entries into foster care offer pretty pictures – but no actual sources for the data.  So, for example, there is no way to be sure that the data conform fully to requirements of the federal database to which states have to report entries into care.  Also, Gelser compares entries only to total child population.  A fairer comparison compares entries to the number of impoverished children in each state.  (Oregon does badly either way – but even worse when you factor in poverty.)

The most recent data released by the federal government show that when poverty is factored in, Oregon tore apart families at a rate more than 40 percent above the national average in the year ending Sept. 30, 2017.  I did a back-of-the-envelope extrapolation from the extremely limited data Gelser provides, an extrapolation that gives Oregon’s Department of Human Services the benefit of the doubt. I found that, even if Gelser’s figures are correct, Oregon is still tearing apart families at a rate roughly 25 percent above the national average. (Anyone who wants to know the basis for the estimate is welcome to email me.)

When compared to total child population, Oregon was “only” about 12 percent above the national average in 2017 – so you can see why Gelser doesn’t want to use the more valid comparison that factors in poverty. Gelser then claims that in calendar year 2018 this version of the rate of removal declined to “only” eight percent above the national average (actually it’s probably more like nine percent).

But this isn’t the only way Gelser was selective in the figures she presented. She neglects to mention that a large part of the 2018 decline simply reversed significant increases in 2015, 2016, and 2017 – when Gelser herself was demanding ever more coercive intervention into families and confusing child removal with child safety.  (These data can be found by following this link and scrolling to the bottom of the page.) So now, apparently, Gelser wants to take credit for starting to solve a problem she did so much to worsen in the first place.

Disingenuous use of data on abuse in foster care


In a post to this blog last November, and elsewhere, I explained why the one sure way to know someone in child welfare is being disingenuous is if they try to get you to believe that official figures concerning the rate of abuse in foster care bear any resemblance to reality.  Study after study after study shows that they don’t.  And that should come as no surprise, because the official figures involve agencies investigating themselves.

So guess what Gelser uses to claim that abuse in Oregon foster care has declined: Just what you’d expect.

And finally there is the item discussed in yesterday’s post to which Gelser has offered no response: Why did she press full-speed ahead with her successful effort to kill differential response even after independent evaluators found that it was safe?

Still, the news isn’t all bad.  The first step toward solving a problem is admitting you have one.  And Gelser now admits that Oregon’s rate of removal is “still too high.”  If only she’d own up to her own role in keeping it too high.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Oregon’s child welfare director wants to institutionalize five-year-olds!


Some of the “littles,” as Marilyn Jones so cloyingly calls them, could wind up in “repurposed” juvenile jails.

 
How Oregon tries to "fix" foster care
(Photo by Tpapi)

In December, 2016, I wrote a post for this blog called Fixing Oregon foster care becomes a pathetic game of whack-a-mole.

I described how an expose of abuse in foster care by the alternative weekly Willamette Week whacked the state into raising standards for foster homes.  So the state wound up warehousing foster children in offices and jails.  So -- whack! -- a child advocacy group brought a lawsuit to prohibit the practice.  The Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) settled.  And children promptly wound up warehoused in hotels. So –whack! – there was another lawsuit, and another settlement.

I discussed how this would keep happening until the state faced up to the real problem: Oregon tears children needlessly from their parents at a rate far above the national average.

Now, more than two years later, behold! The Oregonian reports that the foster children are back in juvenile jails. But this time there’s a twist.  They’ve repainted the cinderblock, added some pretty pictures and slapped new labels onto the jails – so now, the Oregonian tells us, they’re “repurposed juvenile jails” [emphasis added].

The Oregonian story then tells us that

Critics question whether former jails are the right place for foster children.

‘Ya think???

The story goes on to note that

for many, such placements mean moving far from their home communities, switching to unfamiliar and sometimes segregated foster-child-only schools and losing the chance to live in the care of a parent figure instead of a rotation of shift workers. … Nationally the movement in child welfare is away from caring for children in institutional settings, which research has shown yields poorer outcomes.

But once again, as with every other story I’ve seen in the Oregonian over the past several years, this story makes no mention of the root cause of this pathetic game of whack-a-mole: Oregon’s obscene rate of child removal and the failure of state government, the state legislature, and almost all of the state’s media to confront it.

The one thing that’s changed – for the worse


But one thing has changed.  It used to be that state child welfare officials would say that of course it’s terrible to institutionalize kids, but they would claim they have no choice because of a “shortage” of foster parents.  That’s not true – Oregon does not have too few foster parents, Oregon has too many foster children.

But leave it to Oregon Child Welfare Director Marilyn Jones - the poster-adult for child welfare mediocrity to suggest something even worse.  Jones is now saying that no matter how many foster parents Oregon recruits they will never be capable of caring for all the children who are now institutionalized, and even more need to be institutionalized in the future.  So either Jones has an astonishingly low opinion of Oregon foster parents or Jones is clueless about best practice in child welfare.

When Jones says Oregon should institutionalize more children, she’s not just talking about teenagers – though that’s bad enough.  Jones told the legislature she wants more beds to institutionalize children as young as five – children she cloyingly refers to as “the littles.”  Calling for institutionalizing five-year-olds should, in itself, disqualify someone from running a child welfare system.

Indeed just this week, Oregon Public Broadcasting told the story of exactly the sort of child Marilyn Jones wants to give up on and institutionalize – and how this child, age 9, was kept safely in his own home with intensive home-based services.  Of course this happened in Tennessee, not Oregon.  (The OBP story also broke the mold for the state’s media – it actually zeroed-in on the problem of Oregon’s high rate of tearing apart families.  OPB is the only media organization in the state to bring this up fairly regularly.)

But then, I suppose one should not expect any better from someone like Marilyn Jones, who has also justified sending children to an Iowa institution alleged by an independent advocacy group to be rife with abuse.  (And, I suppose one should not expect any better from someone like Jones who doesn’t even seem to know that Oregon is a bigger state than Iowa.)

Others who share responsibility


But Jones and her colleagues in DHS management are not the only ones to blame for this mess.

● Almost as culpable is State Sen. Sara Gelser. Oregon media seem to believe no child welfare story is complete without the obligatory quote from Gelser.  But Gelser has made the crisis worse by promoting hype and hysteria over high-profile tragedies and undermining what little DHS has tried to do to curb needless foster care. 

Gelser was the major force behind legislation that killed Oregon’s “differential response” initiative – either without waiting for or simply ignoring the final results of a comprehensive independent evaluation. (The evaluation is dated June, 2017, the bill passed in early July of that year.) According to that evaluation:

our analyses find no evidence that DR [differential response] undermines the safety of children in Oregon. [Emphasis in original.]

The evaluation found that families receiving a “differential response” intervention were significantly less likely to have another substantiated report of child abuse than a matched comparison group of families who got a traditional Oregon child protective services investigation.


Pretty institutions don’t work either


Even now, Gelser seems unaware of the fact that institutionalization simply does not work. Her comments suggest that she would be just fine with institutionalizing children if they just made the places really pretty – so they didn’t look like jails – and the people running them used all the right buzzwords, like “trauma-informed.”

So when Gelser then tells OPB that she’d like to do more about prevention (but notice it’s only the non-controversial net-widening primary prevention to which everyone pays lip service) it should be taken with more than a grain of salt.  OPB also reports that

It’s time, Gelser said, for the state to figure out how to find the appropriate place for the state’s most vulnerable children.

Actually, it’s time for Gelser to figure out that the appropriate place for a large number of those children is their own homes.

[UPDATE, MARCH 23: Gelser has responded to some of the above.  You can read all about that here.  But she still has not explained why she did so much to kill "differential response" even after the independent evaluation found it was safe.]

The whack-a-mole lawsuits



● The organizations that brought the whack-a-mole lawsuits – the one that said you can’t use jails and offices, but didn’t mention hotels, and then the one that said you can’t use hotels but was silent about “repurposed” jails -- also share responsibility.  Since the lawsuits never addressed the high rate of removal, DHS was never forced into the one solution that would really work: Taking away fewer children, thereby opening places in good foster homes for all the children who really need them.

The Oregonian reports that

The no-hotels settlement was supposed to get more children and teens who’ve been removed from their families into the family-like settings that experts and Oregon’s foster children’s bill of rights say gives them the best chance to flourish.

But having already seen that the lawsuit against keeping kids in jails led to keeping kids in hotels, how could they have possibly believed that stopping DHS from warehousing children in hotels wouldn’t wind up sending them right back to jails – albeit “repurposed” ones?

● Most of the state’s media also share responsibility – especially the Oregonian, which for years has chosen to ignore the state’s outrageous rate of child removal.

If most Oregonians think, mistakenly, that all parents who lose their children are sadists, brutes and/or hopeless addicts; if most Oregonians mistakenly confuse child removal with child safety; and if most Oregonians think that there are no options other than recruiting more foster parents and dumping five-year-olds in “repurposed” jail cells – it’s because that’s the story the Oregonian and most other Oregon media keep telling them over and over and over. (Again, OPB is something of an exception.)

If most Oregonians don’t know about the real rate of abuse in foster care, and if most Oregonians don’t know about the mass of research showing that, in typical cases children do better in their own homes even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care, it’s because the Oregonian and most other Oregon media don’t mention those details.

If “repurposed” doors on “repurposed” jail cells start slamming behind five-year-olds anytime soon, primary responsibility rests with Marilyn Jones.  But Sen. Gelser, the lawyers who brought the whack-a-mole suits, and the Oregonian all will have helped to put those five-year-olds in those cells.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Philadelphia DHS Excuse Machine never stops


Well, Philadelphia DHS is nothing if not predictable.

In an op-ed column about the appalling allegations of widespread abuse of youth at the Glen Mills schools exposed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center wrote that “The abysmal failure of local and state child welfare agencies to scrutinize the Glen Mills program … is simply inexcusable.”

The locality that sent more youth to Glen Mills than any other is, of course, Philadelphia.  And that means as Commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, Cynthia Figueroa had a responsibility to know what was happening there.  So did her predecessors who also allowed children to languish at Glen Mills.

I tweeted Levick’s quote with this comment: So why do I have the feeling this won't stop @PhiladelphiaDHS commissioner @cynfigueroaf from coming up with all sorts of excuses?”


And sure enough, yesterday, Philadelphia DHS took an old standby from child welfare and applied it to juvenile justice, tweeting:

Actually we don't make placement decisions for juvenile justice involved youth.

What they mean, of course, is that judges make the final decision. That’s the same excuse they use for Philadelphia’s obscene rate of tearing apart families and throwing children into foster care.  But in both cases, we all know who those judges are listening to.

Indeed, if DHS were not so influential, how could it possibly issue the statement cited in this news story, under the headline “Philly DHS pulling clients from Glen Mills Schools.” 

The response from Figueroa: Her agency didn’t write the headline.

O.K. Then how about this story from KYW Newsradio, in which you can actually hear Figueroa take responsibility for placements at Glen Mills:


In the story, Figueroa can be heard, loud and clear, saying:

We're not going to reopen intake and I think there's a clear necessity to review whether we'll ever be able to send kids there again. [Emphasis added.] 

Does “we” not include you, commissioner?


The city is pulling its boys after an Inquirer investigation revealed widespread abuse and attempts to cover it up, Human Services Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa told the newspaper.

From the same story:

“It’s heartbreaking. It was a very hard read,” Figueroa said. She had recently received promises of change from Glen Mills, and expected to resume sending boys there as of two weeks ago. [Emphasis added.]
 Instead, the 51 Philadelphia boys remaining at the school will go back before a judge to be placed elsewhere. Some will go to other schools for court-ordered boys, while others will be enrolled in alternative programs that allow them to stay in the community.

An earlier Inquirer story, about an earlier incident of abuse at Glen Mills, which prompted Philadelphia to stop sending boys there, included this:

Figueroa said this was the first time the city had suspended intake at Glen Mills since she took office in 2016.

Why does DHS want it both ways?  Because they want credit for stopping the practice of sending youth to Glen Mills without being blamed for the fact that they allowed children to stay there year after year after year.

Figueroa wants everyone to know how heartbroken she is about the Inquirer revelations, but she doesn’t want anyone to ask why the Inquirer had to do DHS' job and uncover abuses DHS should have known about.

It is, indeed, inexcusable.  So for once, can’t DHS stop making excuses and put the children and youth first?

Monday, March 4, 2019

Don’t let Philadelphia DHS off the hook for what happened at Glen Mills

The Commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, Cynthia Figueroa, didn’t know what was going on at an institution where her agency warehoused scores of children. But she should have known. 

It took me two days to get through the Philadelphia Inquirer’s 6,000+ word expose of the nation’s oldest “reform school,” the Glen Mills Schools in Delaware County, Pa.  That’s not because it isn’t gripping reading. On the contrary, it’s a compelling, rigorously documented narrative.  But it was unbearable to read the litany of horrors allegedly inflicted on youth at the institution in one sitting.  (Glen Mills denies the findings in the Inquirer story. The institution reportedly has sent out a six-page memo to juvenile justice officials in response.)

Don’t let anyone kid you into thinking Glen Mills is an aberration.  At the end of last year, the Education Law Center and the group that calls itself Children’s Rights found serious, widespread problems at Pennsylvania youth institutions – and their report was based only on officially reported incidents. 

And, of course, there has been one expose after another after another about such places all over the country. That includes places such as Maryville, near Chicago. Like Glen Mills, Maryville had long been touted as a model institution.  And it includes places such as Clarinda Academy in Iowa – which says its approach is modeled on Glen Mills.

But perhaps the best indication that Glen Mills is no aberration comes from how Glen Mills reportedly stopped youth and their parents from complaining about abuse: They reportedly warned that, if they complained about abuse, the youth would be sent someplace worse.

How Philadelphia DHS helped keep the place open


But there is one aspect to the story that is almost more disturbing.  Though Glen Mills took in youth from all over the country, in recent years 40 percent of them have come from Philadelphia – courtesy of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services.  Philadelphia DHS pays Glen Mills $52,000 per-year per-child for the privilege of warehousing youth there. It’s possible that without Philadelphia DHS Glen Mills could not have stayed in business.  That means a succession of agency leaders, including the current commissioner, Cynthia Figueroa, share responsibility for what happened there.


The revelations about Glen Mills were the result of dogged reporting by Inquirer reporter Lisa Gartner.  She combed through court records.  Philadelphia DHS could have done that. She pored over incident reports.  Philadelphia DHS could have done that.  She interviewed scores of former residents and staff.  Philadelphia DHS could have done that, too.

In fact, Philadelphia DHS could have done something more: Made unannounced visits (though as Gartner documents, it wouldn’t have been easy).

I can hear the DHS Excuse Machine already: Hey, it’s not our fault, they'll say. In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Human Services actually licenses places like Glen Mills, and if the state says the place is o.k., how are we supposed to know?

But while the state hands out the licenses, it’s Philadelphia DHS that decides if Philadelphia youth have to be warehoused at Glen Mills and similar institutions. The young people themselves have no say, and neither do their parents. So it’s damn well Philadelphia DHS’ responsibility to know. 

The problems Gartner documents go back decades. So it’s not as if Figueroa had no reason to look deeper.  News accounts have hinted at what was just below the surface.  In fact I wrote about one such account while doing a report about child welfare in Rhode Island (where a local judge was so in love with Glen Mills that he sent the head of the state Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program to see how wonderful it was. Glen Mills paid the airfare).  It’s all laid out in this NCCPR report, starting on page 14.

In an Inquirer op-ed column drawing apt comparisons to Pennsylvania’s notorious “kids for cash” scandal, Marsha Levick, chief legal officer at the Juvenile Law Center writes:

The abysmal failure of local and state children and youth agencies to scrutinize the Glen Mills program despite the filing of many incident reports of abuse over the years, as well as the persistent rumors of a “fight club” culture there, is simply inexcusable. [Emphasis added.]

What Glen Mills says about its own program


The nature of the program itself should have been cause for alarm. As we noted in our Rhode Island report, Glen Mills boasts of using “peer pressure” and “group confrontation” to manage behavior.

As the Inquirer story explains,

To this day, reporting on their fellow classmates earns students “status," allowing them to move through campus without adult supervision and enjoy privileges like home passes and the chance to compete on sports teams.

But even the Child Welfare League of America, a trade association for public and private agencies, condemns this approach.  According to CWLA’s so-called “standards of excellence” for “residential services”:

The following practices shall be prohibited under any circumstances: corporal punishment such as slapping, spanking, paddling, or belting; marching, standing or kneeling rigidly in one spot, or any other kind of physical discomfort; denial or deprivation of sleep or nutrition: denial of access to bathroom facilities; verbal abuse, ridicule, humiliation, shaming or sarcasm; punishing a group of children for the actions of one or a select few; withholding family visits; other impingements on the basic rights of children to care, protection, safety, and chemical, mechanical or peer restraint. [Emphasis added]

Was Figueroa aware of Glen Mills’ own stated practices of “peer pressure” and “group confrontation”? Was she aware of the CWLA standards concerning this approach? 

A poor response to an earlier incident


Or consider what happened as recently as August, 2018.  As Gartner explains in her story:
 The Inquirer reported that a Glen Mills counselor had lifted a boy in the air, slammed him down on his back, then choked the asthmatic teen for several minutes while he cried, “I can’t breathe.”

Figueroa suspended admissions to Glen Mills. But she did not pull the other youth out. In fact, Gartner writes, Figueroa praised Glen Mills leadership for their “100 percent ownership and accountability" for the incident.

Yet now, Figueroa's tweets almost leave the impression she exposed the problems at Glen Mills.  When Philadelphia DHS announced – after the latest Inquirer revelations – that it is finally pulling the youth it sent to Glen Mills in the first place out of there, Figueroa tweeted:

@PhiladelphiaDHS commitment is and continues to be safety for our youth! We have demanded and and [sic] will continue to do so

But Figueroa has been running DHS for two-and-a-half years, and all that time the agency was sending youth to Glen Mills.  Why didn’t she demand “safety for our youth” during all that time? 

Then, when Gartner tweeted that, in the wake of her reporting, the executive director and chairman of the board of Glen Mills are “stepping aside,” Figueroa retweeted it with the comment “Demand quality for youth!”

So, what exactly was Figueroa demanding of Glen Mills in 2016 and 2017?

I’m not suggesting that Figueroa actually knew what was going on.  But she should have known.  And it’s not just Figueroa.  The problems have festered for decades. Her many predecessors share responsibility.  And it’s not just Philadelphia DHS.  Glen Mills gained a nationwide reputation for being, as the Inquirer put it, “the Harvard of reform schools.”  So all of child welfare and juvenile justice needs to do some soul searching.

Perhaps they just didn’t want to know


Why didn’t they know? Perhaps they didn’t want to know.

Institutions such as Glen Mills feed off places like Rhode Island, which takes away children at one of the highest rates among the states, and Philadelphia, which, notwithstanding Figueroa’s desperate attempt to fudge the figures, takes away children at the highest rate among America’s big cities.  Those high rates of removal leave states and localities begging for beds – and beggars can’t be choosers.

And yes, high rates of removal affect institutions for children labeled “delinquent” too.  That’s because children consigned to foster care are more likely to commit acts that will get them labeled delinquent.  Indeed, whether a child is labeled dependent or delinquent may depend on which “system” notices them first.

DHS would say that they are continuing to reduce the number of children it institutionalizes, something I noted during my recent written testimony to the Philadelphia City Council.  But if DHS were not taking away children at such an obscene rate, it wouldn’t have needed to use Glen Mills at all.


Get the children who don’t need to be in foster care back home and there will be plenty of room in good, safe foster homes for the children who really need them.  Would foster parents take such “difficult” children?  They would if DHS took the $52,000 it spends per child per year to warehouse them at places like Glen Mills and spent it on intensive support for the child’s own family or a foster family.

Once again, I would urge those who still think institutionalization is the only answer to watch this video in which Karl Dennis, the father of Wraparound explains how it was used to keep a youth safely in his own home – after the local jail found him too hard to handle:



As noted above, Figueroa actually had been on the verge of resuming sending Philadelphia youth to Glen Mills – based on the institution’s promises to do better.  Then, according to an Inquirer follow-up story,  in the wake of the most recent revelations, Figueroa now says

She has been “crystal clear” that the school’s leadership team needs to go, she said, and even then she would have to see a “significant shift in culture.”

But institutions are inherently unfixable.  The culture of institutionalization, even without physical abuse, is poisonous for children and youth.

The place that really needs a “significant shift in culture” is Philadelphia DHS. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The mind-numbing mediocrity of Oregon’s child welfare leadership


Among the justifications offered up for shipping Oregon foster children to an allegedly abusive institution in Iowa: Oregon is a small state, so it doesn’t have the "best treatment services." 

Iowa is a smaller state.


First a quick review:

1. Disability Rights Washington issues a report alleging widespread abuse and prison-like conditions at Clarinda Academy an institution in Iowa to which Washington State sends foster children it doesn’t know what to do with. 

2. Washington State responds by promising to take the foster children for whom it has responsibility out of this allegedly awful place – and move them to other institutions.

3. Oregon Public Broadcasting reveals that Oregon also is shipping foster children to Clarinda.  

4. Oregon officials go all Sergeant Schultz in response.


They know nothing, nothing about any abuse of Oregon children. They say they’re confident that Clarinda never abuses children from Oregon, so those children are just going to have to stay there.

Defending the indefensible


Now, the latest turn of events:

In an op-ed column for the Statesman-Journal in Salem, the director of the Oregon Department of Human Services Child Welfare Division, Marilyn Jones, offers up a justification for this cruel, callous treatment of children that is mind-numbing in its mediocrity.  What makes Jones’ response to dispiriting is that it is so typical of the thinking – or lack of thinking – behind child welfare in America.

This isn’t the extremism of the take-the-child-and-run fanatics in child welfare, it’s just the plodding, everyday unthinking norm.

Jones’ column reads like it was written by one of those experimental computer programs that can churn out routine news stories Take one cliché from column A, another from column B.  So it’s worth going through it point-by-point, and then asking a couple of fundamental questions:

Jones begins with one of the old standbys: Things are so different now from when she started 20 years ago.  The children’s problems are just sooooo much more difficult now.

Well, I started writing about child welfare as a reporter more than 40 years ago.  And everyone in child welfare making excuses for their failures said exactly the same thing: The children we’re seeing “now,” (in the 1970s, that is), have problems that are sooooo much more difficult than they were back in the 1950s.   Such claims go back even further. The oldest claim I’ve found, so far, that the children’s problems are so much worse “now” was written when “now” was 1948.

Then Jones tells us that because of Oregon's size, it doesn't have the "best treatment services." Therefore, she says,

Oregon, like other states with small populations, needs to use out-of-state services.

Of course!  That explains why children are being shipped to Iowa – which has a smaller population than Oregon.




Then comes another classic:

We work through the juvenile court system, where a judge must sign an order to place children out of state.

That, of course, is the same rationalization used to justify taking away children needlessly in the first place.  But since neither children nor parents typically have effective legal counsel, the judge is hearing only the child welfare agency’s side of the story. And that’s why they’re far more likely to wield rubber-stamps than gavels. 

Then there’s this:

Since 1975 Oregon has followed the rules and procedures of the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, uniform legislation adopted by all 50 states that mandates any placement must be approved and monitored through the compact.

But the ICPC does nothing to ensure that Oregon children, institutionalized in Iowa, are really safe. What the ICPC really does is formalize delay, incompetence and buck-passing.  It is among the impediments to a well-functioning child welfare system.  Everyone n child welfare knows this.  Well, everyone except, perhaps, a child welfare leader who also doesn’t seem to know that Oregon is bigger than Iowa.

But Jones isn’t done making excuses:

When a child is placed out of state, our staff participate by phone in ongoing treatment planning with the child.

And what better way to know if a child is being abused than by calling him or her on the phone, right?  It’s the perfect way to build trust!  And staff at an allegedly abusive institution would never think of standing nearby while the child is taking to the worker.

Jones continues:

They also can call the child and visit the facility to meet face to face and ask the child how they are doing.

Well of course they can. But do they?  And in terms of the information gleaned, what is the difference between this kind of visit from someone parachuting in from a thousand miles away and when Red Cross workers would visit POW camps where prisoners would assure them that, really, truly, they were being treated just fine.

And finally:
 We contract with independent, third-party professionals to monitor the child’s well-being and conduct private, in-person meetings every 30 days.

So a caseworker who has no stake in this child has to schlep out to Clarinda and talk to the child and then report back to some other caseworker in Oregon who probably has little or no idea who the child is. Yep, that’s reassuring.

Recalling what DRW found


But most important: In spite of all these supposed safeguards, Disability Rights Washington which has no vested interest, still found what it says is widespread abuse.  And they found problems far beyond overt acts of abuse. For every child allegedly abused, many more were subject to what DRW alleges is a demeaning, dehumanizing culture of everyday life at Clarinda – including even a rule against singing.  As I noted in a previous post:

● The no-singing rule is one example of the prison-like rigidity to every aspect of daily life.  Others include having to move from place to place lined up single file, being barred from talking to the opposite gender, almost never being allowed off the facility grounds and severe restrictions on phone calls to friends and families.  Some dorms add on restrictions such as no leaning on walls, no talking during meals, no walking on grass, and no going to the bathroom without permission.

● There is a coercive, almost Orwellian system of exploiting peer pressure to keep the young people in line, complete with “hundreds, if not thousands” of unwritten “norms” the youth have to follow.  (Clarinda officials told DRW their system was modeled on an institution in Pennsylvania, Glen Mills. This is not exactly reassuring considering that just last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer concluded that “Serious violence is both an everyday occurrence and an open secret at Glen Mills, and has been for decades.”)

● When peer pressure wasn’t enough, DRW found that Clarinda misused and overused painful physical “restraints.”  DRW reports that every student they spoke to “reported that restraints they experienced were physically painful and frequently resulted in back, shoulder, and neck pain for several days or weeks.”

Yet Marilyn Jones apparently wants us to believe that if a child says “No, wait, I’m from Oregon!” this doesn’t happen.

DHS: Oregon’s most neglectful parent


Imagine what would happen if, say, independent inspectors issued a similar report about, say, a summer camp, and a parent said: “I don’t care what this report claims, I trust the camp director.” Parents have been charged with neglect for far less.

But the worst of the rationalizations is the claim that institutionalization is necessary at all.  It isn’t.  Oregon children are being shipped to out-of-state institutions because Oregon takes away too many children. Period.  Get the children who don’t need to be in foster care back home and there will be plenty of room in good, safe foster homes for the children who really need them.  Provide intensive wraparound services to the children and the foster families, and there will be no need to institutionalize those children.

I’m sure that all those years ago, (back when the children’s problems were sooooo much easier) Marilyn Jones went into child welfare work for the right reasons. I’m sure she’s in it for the right reasons today.  But that’s not enough.

I hope everyone in Oregon will read the full DRW report. Then read Jones’ op-ed. And then ask two questions: 1. Is Clarinda really an example of the "best treatment services"?  2. Is Marilyn Jones really the best person Oregon could find to determine the fate of the state’s most vulnerable children?

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Can child welfare control its “nuclear weapon”? Here’s your chance of a lifetime to find out!

When New York State instituted a lottery in 1967, it came
with all sorts of high-minded promises about how it would
be advertised.  The fate of those promises provides a lesson
concerning whether to believe similar promises about predictive
analytics in child welfare. (Photo by Reuben Whitehouse)

Predictive analytics is the nuclear weapon of child welfare.  Vast amounts of data are taken from people – especially poor people – without their consent (like what Facebook does, only worse). Then if someone alleges that one of those people has committed child abuse or neglect, a secret, or perhaps only semi-secret, algorithm coughs up a risk score. That score is an invisible scarlet number that can brand not only parents, but their children, for life.

As Author Virginia Eubanks explains in her book, Automating Inequality, rather than counteracting the racial and class biases of the human beings who run child welfare systems, it magnifies those biases. She calls it “poverty profiling.” And ProPublica has documented how this has played out in criminal justice.

So what is the response from proponents of analytics in child welfare – a field that is super secretive with no real accountability, due process, or checks and balances?  Endless promises of self-restraint.

Sometimes they say: “We’ll only use it to target prevention programs.”  But we already know how to target prevention programs without an algorithm: Just put them where the poor people are, since the overwhelming majority of cases involve “neglect” and child welfare systems routinely label poverty as neglect.

Or they’ll say: “Child abuse hotline operators will know the “risk score” but we won’t even tell the people who actually go out to investigate the allegation.”  But whoever is going out to investigate knows that if they’re told to get out there in a hurry it’s probably because the risk score was high. So whether they’re told or not, they know.

Or they’ll say: “We’ll never, ever use the score to decide whether to remove a child from the home.”  But again, the caseworker knows (whether explicitly told or not) when the algorithm has rated a case high risk – and they can’t unknow it when the time comes to decide whether to remove the child.

Or they’ll say: “Even if we get our fondest wish and get to slap a ‘risk score’ on every child at birth (and make no mistake, for some in the field, it is their fondest wish) we’ll only use it for prevention.  But – well, see all the problems cited above.

The limits of high-minded promises 

But there’s an even bigger problem with all these high-minded promises. What happens as soon as there’s pressure to be less high-minded?

The amount of pressure needed to get politicians to abandon their principles can be remarkably low – as is illustrated by the story of the New York State Lottery.  Yes, the Lottery.

New York State was among the first in the modern era to institute a lottery, in 1967.  It took an amendment to the State Constitution – so there were lots of high-minded promises to allay concerns of those who feared it would encourage compulsive gambling or encourage those least able to afford it to waste their money.

The key selling point, it was promised, would be an appeal not to greed but to generosity.  Advertising would emphasize that lottery proceeds would be used to help fund public education.  So the first lottery slogan was "Your Chance of a Lifetime to Help Education."  I grew up in New York and I recall an early print ad that said “The New York State Lottery: It’s not the money; it’s the principal. And the teachers. And the students.”

There was just one problem. Not enough people were buying lottery tickets.  Sales were way below projections.  So, by the 1980s, the lottery took a different approach that might best be called, it’s not the principals and the teachers and the students – it’s the money! Money! Money!  Have a look:


Yes, the Lottery still sometimes produces commercials that take the high road, but this is the dominant theme.

If all it takes is revenue falling short of projections to prompt this abandonment of principle (and principals), imagine what would happen in a field where the stakes are a lot higher.

Imagine this scenario:  A child “known to the system” has died.  The media have found out the name of the caseworker who mistakenly thought the home was safe. After being attacked in news accounts and/or by politicians, she comes forward to tell her story.

Choking back tears, she says: “My bosses had an algorithm that told them this family was high-risk. But they never told me. Of course, if only I’d known I never would have left that child there.”

What are the odds that the leader of the child protective services agency would stick to the policy of using predictive analytics with only the utmost restraint?  Even if s/he wanted to, what are the odds that the political leadership in the state or county would allow such restraint to continue?

I’d say you’ve got a better chance of winning the lottery.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Child abuse fatalities: The little red needle in the big blue haystack





If you want to get people to surrender fundamental civil liberties you’d better scare the hell out of them. 

Donald Trump understands this; it’s been his m.o. since he began his campaign. So when his administration started tearing apart families at the Mexican border he justified it with hype and horror stories.

The child welfare establishment gets it, too.  For decades they’ve used horror stories – and hyped, misleading statistics - to justify tearing apart families all over America. No, it’s not identical, but there are more similarities than differences.

As early as 1993, under the headline “Damned Lies and Statistics,” Time magazine called out what was then one of the worst offenders – Prevent Child Abuse America (as well as other groups crusading for other causes) for using “flagrantly flimsy figures.”  

Ten years later, PCAA itself admitted to this:

While the establishment of a certain degree of public horror relative to the issue of child abuse and neglect was probably necessary in the early years to create public awareness of the issue, the resulting conceptual model adopted by the public has almost certainly become one of the largest barriers to advancing the issue further in terms of individual behavior change, societal solutions and policy priorities.

It’s not that the numbers themselves are necessarily wrong – but crucial context often is missing.  So we are often told that there are more than three million reports alleging child abuse every year. But we’re not told that more than 80 percent of them turn out to be false and most of the rest involve “neglect” – which often means only that the family is poor.

The most misleading statistic in child welfare

But the single most misleading figure in all of child welfare is the one I discussed recently in connection with the Orange County Register’s descent into “crack baby” journalism – the one about the proportion of child abuse deaths “known to the system.”

It is a figure built around the worst possible tragedy – child abuse fatalities.  The only acceptable goal for such tragedies is zero.  But if one really believes that even one such death is one too many, then there is no need to distort data to leave a misimpression about how often such tragedies occur right under the noses of caseworkers.  And that very distortion makes it harder to reach the goal we all share.

The more one favors a take-the-child-and-run approach, the more one harps on this figure – because the impression it leaves for the casual reader is vastly different from what the number really means.

So we read that “Of all the children who died in [name of state or locality] [fill in percentage] were previously ‘known to the system.’”

Typically, the percentage will be anywhere from one-third to two-thirds; the Register gave an even higher percentage, but did not explain how it came to that conclusion.

So one might read in a news story: “Half of all child abuse deaths involved children previously known to child protective services.”  Wow. That sounds like half the time, children known to CPS die.  Of course the figure means nothing of the sort.  The real meaning becomes clear when you add one crucial bit of context: The actual number of children who become “known to the system” over the course of a year.

So now, let’s look at the numbers nationwide.

According to the latest Child Maltreatment report from the Department of Health and Human Services, there were an estimated 1,720 child abuse deaths in 2017.  Of that total, 27.3 percent were previously known, in some way, to authorities.

Those who promote hype and hysteria are always saying that every figure they want to hype is an underestimate.  But this time, let’s assume they’re right.  Just for the sake of argument, let’s double the number of child abuse deaths and double the proportion “known to the system.”  That would give us a total of 3,440 deaths, of which 1,878 involved children “known to the system.”

Adding the missing number


Sounds like children often, even typically, die right under the noses of child protective services workers, doesn’t it?  But now, let’s add the missing number – the total number of children who become “known to the system” every year.  In 2017 that number was over seven million children - 7,508,000 to be precise.  So now we’re talking not about 1,878 out of 3,440 – but 1,878 out of 7,508,000.

So every year, CPS agencies are expected to figure out which of the 7,508,000 children will die if they don’t intervene in time.  It looks a bit like the graphic at the start of this post. This one:


 A tiny red needle in a big blue haystack.

But even that representation understates the difficulty involved for frontline caseworkers. In the graphic, all of the deaths are in one place.  In real life, they are much smaller needles scattered all over the haystack.

Even showing the needles in a different color can be misleading. Because while some of the case files turn out to have more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade, in many others there was no way to predict the tragedy that would follow.  As one former child welfare official put it: “For every one of these [death ‘known to the system’] cases, I can show you ten with identical circumstances where nothing went wrong.”


And then there is the whole definition of “known to the system.”  Again, some of those deaths were in cases where, in fact, the family was extremely well known to authorities, the problems were obvious and anyone should have seen the danger.  But most were not.  Sometimes “known to the system” means only that a report several years earlier had been screened out at a child abuse hotline.  So CPS investigators didn’t really know the family at all.

Where do we put 7.4 million children?


So what do we do? Investigate the families of all 7.4 million children?  Even if that could be done logistically – and it can’t – that would traumatize millions more children for no reason.  And, of course, the overload would be such that all the investigations would be sloppier and even fewer needles in that giant haystack would be found.

Or should we skip the investigating and just take away all 7.4 million children?  That way we know we won’t miss the needles because we’ve vacuumed up the entire haystack.  But where, exactly, would we put all those children?  And what would we do about placing so many of them at high risk of abuse in foster care itself?

So what’s the point of the most misleading statistic in child welfare? It’s not to get us to take away all 7.4 million – but it is an effort to get us to take away more of them, and traumatize more families with needless investigations, and beat back any attempts to impose openness, accountability and due process on the system.

But openness, accountability and due process are exactly what we need.  Because only a system that relies less on coercive intervention will have the time and resources to find those needles in the haystack, before it’s too late.

We know that because of something I’ve written about before, a study done by a liberal Texas think tank, the Center for Public Policy Priorities.  The study looked at what does, and does not, contribute to reducing child abuse deaths.

Let’s start with what doesn’t contribute to more child abuse deaths. The study found:

● The rate at which people report child abuse does not contribute to more or fewer child abuse deaths.

● The rate at which a state takes children from their parents does not contribute to more or fewer child abuse deaths.

● The rate at which a state screens in reports for investigation does not contribute to more or fewer child abuse deaths.

Here’s what does contribute to more child abuse deaths:

● High rates of poverty

● High rates of teen pregnancy

● Low rates of services to prevent child maltreatment.

Which means, of course, the real solutions are pretty obvious.

In contrast, the misuse of the most misleading statistic in child welfare only makes things worse.  It encourages overloading caseworkers with even more false allegations, more cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect” and more children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love.  And that leaves the workers even less time to find those very small needles in that very large haystack.