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.