Sunday, March 31, 2019

If it's April Fools, it must be Child Abuse Hype and Hysteria Month


Back in 2003, one of the groups most responsible for fomenting hype and hysteria about child abuse came remarkably close to admitting that they did just that – and that it had backfired.

Rather like Dr. Frankenstein admitting he’d created a monster, in a 2003 Request for Proposals concerning how to improve their messaging, Prevent Child Abuse America wrote:

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.

This is especially worth remembering as we begin “Child Abuse Awareness Month” – a month, which, appropriately starts on April Fools Day.

So I’ve reprinted below our 2010 blog post on the topic – with some updates and links to newer data – since, unfortunately, aside from those data, nothing has changed. Because it's a lot easier to create a monster than to bring it under control.


Get ready for a seemingly endless stream of cookie-cutter news stories and Astroturf op ed columns (the kind written by national groups with blanks to fill in to make them sound home-grown) touting "Child Abuse Awareness Month" – based on the bizarre premise that the American people are blissfully unaware of child abuse.

There is something appropriate about the fact that "Child Abuse Awareness Month" starts on April Fools Day, since it involves fooling the public in order to push an agenda of hype and hysteria that obscures the real scope of the problem, and real solutions, in favor of approaches that only make a serious and real problem worse. Your typical Child Abuse Awareness month news story or op ed column follows a standard formula:

1.     Take the most horrifying case to occur in your community over the past year, the more lurid the better.

2.     Jump immediately from that story to a gigantic number which actually is only the number of "reports" alleging any form of child maltreatment. Ignore the fact that the vast majority of those reports are false and most of the rest are nothing like the horror story, and often involve the confusion of poverty with neglect. Or…

3.     Use only the total number of cases that caseworkers guess might be true, but call them "confirmed" giving the guesses, which are simply the opinion of a worker checking a box on a form, far more credibility than they deserve. A major federal study found that workers are two- to six-times more likely to wrongly label an innocent family guilty than to wrongly label real child abusers innocent.

4.     Throw in huge lists of "symptoms" or "warning signs" that "might" be "signs" of child abuse – and might as easily be signs of any number of other things.

5.     Instruct us all that it is our duty to phone the local child abuse hotline with any suspicion of anything no matter how vague and how dubious – instead of advising us to report when we have "reasonable cause to suspect" maltreatment, the same standard often used in law to guide "mandated reporters."

6.     Remind us that we are welcome to call the hotline anonymously – thereby encouraging those who want to harass an ex-spouse, a neighbor or anyone else against whom they may have a grudge to go right ahead, secure in the knowledge that they'll never get caught because they can conceal their identity.

It all comes from the same ends-justify-the-means mentality behind the egregiously-misleading report published by Every ChildMatters – the mentality that says: what's a little distortion and exaggeration in the name of a good cause?

In fact, such distortion and exaggeration can do enormous harm to children. 

Hotlines wind up with more false reports and trivial cases; children are harassed and traumatized by needless child abuse investigations – often including stripsearches as caseworkers look for bruises - and some of those children are forced needlessly into foster care. The caseworkers wind up even more overloaded by these false allegations, so they have even less time to find children in real danger.

Reality check

NCCPR has some resources on our website for any journalists and others interested in putting all this into context, countering the hype and hysteria and pressing for real solutions:

·         Our analysis of the latest comprehensive study of child abuse, which puts the scope of the problem into context
·         Our Solutions pages, Doing Child Welfare Right and our Due Process Agenda.
·         Our essay on how to really prevent child abuse: take a social justice approach instead of a public health approach.

If the people behind "Child Abuse Awareness Month"  (also known as "Child Abuse Prevention Month") really want to prevent "child abuse" then how about campaigning to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty.  

Poverty increases the stress that can lead to actual abuse and, as noted above, poverty itself often is confused with "neglect."  This can be seen by the fact that the simple act of raising the minimum wage $1 an hour cuts "neglect" by ten percent.

The problem of child abuse is serious and real, but the solutions have been phony. The distortion and exaggeration that typify child abuse "awareness" campaigns only promote phony solutions and make those serious, real problems even worse.

If only there were a Statistics Abuse Prevention Month.

Friday, March 29, 2019

UPDATE: Confronted with the horrors at his shelter, NYC child welfare chief acts immediately – to pass the buck.

But a judge finds that, in one particularly egregious case, the city's Administration for Children's Services couldn’t even get the buck-passing right.

In New York State, individual counties and New York City run child welfare, but services for the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled are provided by state agencies. 

So I suppose no one should be surprised at what happened when a New York City Council committee tried to call David Hansell, the commissioner of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services to account for the horrible conditions at the Bill de Blasio / David Hansell Children’s Center. (That’s not the center’s real name, but, as I explained in a previous post to this blog, the more often we call it that, the more likely it is that the worst of the problems will be fixed.)

Hansell blamed the state.  Since some of the problems involve older youth with mental health and developmental disability issues his response to the chaos at the center boiled down to: Hey, not my job!

There is actually a lawsuit over this. Perhaps in the end it will turn out the state really does share responsibility (though it’s important to note that many of the longstanding problems at the de Blasio / Hansell Center involve children and youth for whom Hansell’s agency has unambiguous responsibility).

But even if part of the fault rests with the state – in fact, even if all of the fault rests with the state, a few things should be obvious:

● As long as the youth are in your custody you do not allow children, youth and young adults to be jammed together in an overcrowded shelter.

● As long as they are in your custody, you don’t allow them to bully and terrorize each other.

● And as long as they’re in your custody you do not allow a youth who suffered brain and spinal injuries to be stuck there for a year, with no therapy, without even a working wheelchair, sometimes left sitting in his own urine. 

You don’t let the horrors continue until the jurisdictional niceties are worked out.  You fix it first, then fight over who foots the bill.

The case of the brain-injured youth was so bad that a judge ultimately held Hansell in contempt.  She found that ACS couldn’t even get the buck-passing right: Hansell’s agency repeatedly missed deadlines for submitting applications to the relevant state agency.

Is ACS angling to open more group home / institution beds?

But it gets worse. Hansell also blames the problems at the center in part on the closing of some beds in group homes and institutions – which suggests he might want to reopen some of them.

But the reason they were closed in the first place is that they’re so bad for children, and because many of them were at the center of scandal after scandal over abuse and exploitation – (here’s a case in point) – just like the Bill de Blasio / David Hansell Children’s Center.

So let’s recall, again, the history of the shelter.  An earlier shelter had been shut down as a hellhole in 1977.  But when the new one opened, in 2001, Nicholas Scoppetta, the ACS commissioner at the time, promised that this time it would be different.  Of course it wasn’t.

So consider: The old shelter became a hellhole and was shut down.  Then a new shelter is opened amid promises that this time it will be different.  Then the new shelter becomes a hellhole.  So now Hansell hints that maybe the solution is to open some other institution. Really?

If he’s allowed to get away with it, I’m sure he’ll be at the dedication ceremony, explaining why this institution will be different.

NCCPR in City Limits on rampant statistics abuse by NYC child welfare agency

Were there a hotline to which one could report statistics abuse, the leaders of  New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services would have their rights to their spreadsheet software terminated.
ACS Commissioner David Hansell’s recent column for City Limits is only the latest example.  The agency regularly cherry-picks data to disguise the fact that, under Hansell’s leadership, ACS has retreated from reform and subjected more children to the enormous trauma of needless foster care

Thursday, March 28, 2019

NCCPR in Youth Today on how Trump and US child welfare play the "bonding" card - from the bottom of the deck

Last November, I wrote a column for Youth Today about the alarming similarities between the Trump administration policy of tearing apart families at the Mexican border and the way U.S. child protective services agencies routinely separate families in the United States.

Certainly the two are not identical, but there are more similarities than differences. In my column, I wrote that nothing upsets the U.S. child welfare establishment more than being reminded of this fact. (A few weeks later, a pillar of that establishment proved my point.)

Now the list of similarities has grown even longer. Confronted with the failure to reunite many of the children it wrongfully tore from their parents in the first place, the Trump administration is doing exactly what child protective services agencies do: They’re playing the “bonding” card.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Scandal at New York City’s parking place “shelter”: Everyone should be shocked. No one should be surprised.

The current revelations are a lot like the 2016 revelations, which were a lot like the 2014 revelations.  And a New York Times story effectively predicted it all – on the day the shelter opened in 2001.

The late Nicholas Scoppetta speaking at the shelter that now bears his name.
Scoppetta was one of the best commissioners of New York's
Administration for Children's Services. But the shelter was one of his mistakes.
UPDATE, MARCH 29: ACS Commissioner David Hansell acts immediately - to pass the buck!  Read our update here.

Here’s the first rule about parking place “shelters” – those first-stop child warehouses where some child welfare agencies dump children immediately after they are taken from their homes because caseworkers don’t know what else to do with them – or simply because it’s the easiest thing to do:

If you build it they will come.  If you keep it open they will stay.  If it stays open long enough it will become a hellhole. 

Second rule: It doesn’t matter how pretty the place is.  It still will become a hellhole.

Third rule: It will happen no matter what, but it’s more likely to happen during a time of foster-care panic, a sharp, sudden increase in removals of children from their homes.

The latest case in point: the Nicholas Scoppetta Children’s Center, run by the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).  This week NBC New York ACS workers who described  “chaos, physical fighting, and overcrowding” at the shelter.  

This story was a follow up to earlier stories by NBC New York and the Chronicle of Social Change revealing that the neglect of one youth was so bad and so prolonged that a judge held the current ACS commissioner, David Hansell, in contempt.

But this isn’t the first such expose. There was a similar story in the New York Post in 2016 and DNAinfo in 2014.

And no one has any right to be surprised.

The story that predicted it all

That’s not just because this cycle has been repeated all over the country.  It’s also because in 2001, on the very day the renovated landmark New York City building was opened, replacing a hideous makeshift space, a New York Times story essentially predicted it all.

The Center was the pride and joy of Nicholas Scoppetta, himself a foster child who became the first commissioner of ACS and, in fact, one of the best.  (He did not name the place after himself; that came much later.)

The Times story hailed the center’s architecture, with its “soaring arches and East River views …child-friendly interiors …[and] a rooftop playground.”

But the story was written by Nina Bernstein, a reporter whose book, The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care, published that same year, was a finalist for the National Book Award.  She is one journalist who can’t be fooled by what a building looks like.  So the story also included a prescient warning:

[S]ome child welfare veterans see dangers in the very spaciousness and beauty of the new building, that it will become a place where too many children will be kept for too long. They remember the last city-run Children's Center, a six-story emergency shelter on Fifth Avenue and East 104th Street that a previous administration bent on reform closed down amid scandal and litigation in the mid-1970's.
That center, too, was supposed to be a temporary stop for vulnerable children, but for decades it served as a place of last resort for the unwanted, with some children spending years there. In 1977, closing it was considered one of the accomplishments of Carol J. Parry, who then headed the city's child welfare administration. ''I was desperate to close it,'' she recalled in a telephone interview.
But Mr. Scoppetta, who vividly remembers the old Children's Center -- he entered foster care himself through its portals as a 5-year-old -- vowed that the new center will not become a shelter or an orphanage.
''We are absolutely, unequivocally opposed to that,'' Mr. Scoppetta said. ''If a kid stays more than 24 hours, it's only because it's a very difficult placement.'' …

But, the story goes on to note, “Few placements are really easy…”

The story ends this way:

In the old Children's Center, Ms. Parry cautioned, danger came from troubled children who hurt one another, and staff members who became abusive. Mr. Scoppetta, who remembered being locked in a closet in the center, promised that there would be no repetition.
''There's no reason,'' he said, ''that it couldn't become a national center for child welfare.''

But there is a reason. See Rule #1 above.

And so we had this from DNAinfo in 2014:

Children disappeared nearly 1,600 times from an Administration for Children's Services facility, which many of them described as being a cramped and chaotic environment plagued by bullying and theft, over a 13-month period, DNAinfo New York has learned.

And this from the New York Post in 2016:

Dozens of kids housed in a city-run foster-care center are labeled “emotionally disturbed persons” and hauled next door to Bellevue Hospital, where some get drugs to sedate them … The 55-bed Children’s Center houses wards of the city, from newborns to 21-year-olds. They can spend days to months in the chaotic and dangerous place.

And now we have this from WNBC-TV:

The child-friendly decor and life-sized images of Elmo and Cookie Monster belie a darker reality in recent months where, employees said, weapons were recovered inside and walls were smeared with feces by troubled teens. …
A … worker told the I-Team: “You have children being intimidated by other children and bringing in weapons because they feel like they need to protect themselves. The workers are terrified.”
Workers expressed fear that they would not be able to protect the younger children from the older children.

One ACS commissioner who seemed to understand at least part of what needed to be done was Gladys Carrion.  In October, 2016, she announced an initiative to place more older youth directly into foster homes, bypassing the shelter. 

But that promise came shortly after the death of Zymere Perkins, which led to Carrion’s ouster (officially, she retired) and her replacement by David Hansell, who has retreated from reform, allowed a foster-care panic, and dissembled about the existence of that panic. 

The largest spike in removals involves so-called emergencies, in which workers remove children on-the-spot, without even asking a judge first.  These also are the placements for which there has been no preparation beforehand – so these children are likely to be hardest to place in homes, and therefore most likely to be dumped into the shelter.

So now, all of the problems have been compounded by overcrowding.  The shelter was built for no more than 55 children.  But earlier this month it reportedly housed 94 youths.  In the wake of the media attention, ACS now says it’s down to 67.

After WNBC’s revelations, Hansell announced “reforms” – but they revolve mostly around making the shelter more like a jail – more security officers and more security cameras. 

In fact, the only way to fix a shelter is to do what Carol Parry did in 1977 – shut it down.

One quick fix that would help a little

In the meantime there is one small change which could at least improve the worst of the  conditions there: David Hansell’s biggest concern is polishing ACS’ image; it’s at the center of everything he does.  It’s not that he doesn’t care about the kids – of course he does - but he cares at least as much about image.  I think it’s why he was chosen for the job by Mayor Bill de Blasio  -- whose primary concern seems to be not being blamed for the next Zymere Perkins.

I think that’s why Hansell has retreated from reform and at a minimum tolerated the foster care panic.

So I suggest one simple change.  Rename the shelter the Bill de Blasio / David Hansell Children’s Center. Do that and they’ll have the place cleaned up in a nanosecond!

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.