Sunday, May 19, 2019

News and commentary round-up, week ending May 18, 2019

● The good news: In Montana, the state that tears apart families at the highest rate in the nation, the state Supreme Court finally found a case in which the child welfare agency’s rush to terminate parental rights was so egregious they felt compelled to overturn it. The bad news: Out of 250 appeals since 2012, this has happened no more than five times. Simply by reciting the facts of the case the story offers useful insight into the appalling mentality that permeates child welfare in Montana.

● In Arizona, the judge presiding over the case in which police broke down a family’s door and took the children at gunpoint has returned the children to their parents – but, the Arizona Republic reports, legal custody remains with the state, so they’ll still have to jump through all sorts of pointless hoops.

● I have a blog post about how the advocates-in-scholars’-clothing at Chapin Hall are fanning the flames of foster-care panic in Illinois.  And the Family Justice Resource Center has a letter to the Chicago Tribune warning of another group trying to exploit recent tragedies in that state: so-called child abuse pediatricians.

A former foster youth on the HBO documentary “Foster”: “In regard to dignity for foster youth, this film is a travesty.”  (We agree.)

●Two more examples of the horrors of being a foster child in Oregon:

--After a scandal involving the placement of Oregon foster children in out-of-state institutions, the state child welfare agency promised to visit the places to be sure that Oregon children were not ill-treated.  So off they went to the Red Rock Canyon School in St. George, Utah.  They came back with a glowing report that made the place sound like the best summer camp you could imagine.

Just one problem: As Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, one day later, Utah issued its own report.  They found such severe problems that they put the institution’s license on “conditional” status.  Actually, make that two problems: The Oregon DHS representatives visited the place, and wrote their gushy report “shortly after a brawl erupted on campus where a SWAT team responded and reportedly aimed guns at the foster youth.”

Why did the Oregon visitors see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in their report? Because Oregon tears apart families at a rate far above the national average, creating an artificial “shortage” of in-state foster homes.  So they ship kids all over the country and absolutely do not want to know what really happens to them.

--This also explains the other horror to come to light in Oregon last week: If the allegations in the lawsuit described in this story are correct, Oregon all but guaranteed that the foster children on whose behalf the suit was brought would be abused in foster care.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Foster-care panic in Illinois: Chapin Hall throws gasoline on the fire

This is a follow-up to an earlier post about foster-care panic in Illinois which includes links and citations for all data and studies.

Back when he ran – and dramatically improved – the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, Jess McDonald had a graph he called his “EKG chart” – because that’s what it looked like.

The chart showed the spikes in the number of children taken from their parents during any week in which a child abuse fatality was on the front page of the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun- Times.

Right now, odds are the EKG would be off the charts.  Illinois almost certainly is experiencing its worst foster-care panic since 1993 – when the scapegoating of family preservation after the death of Joseph Wallace caused removals to skyrocket, plunged an already bad system into chaos, and was followed by an increase in child abuse deaths. 

UPDATE, SEPTMEBER 15, 2020: That is, in fact, what has happened.  Between fiscal years 2018 and 2020 the number of children torn from their homes in Illinois has skyrocketed 30%.  The 17% increase in 2019 alone was the second highest increase in the country that year.  In fact, even as the number of children taken over the course of a year nationwide approaches a 21-year low, the number taken in Illinois has hit a 21-year high.

The problem isn’t that the deaths are on the front page – that’s exactly where they belong. The problem is that politicians are rushing to learn the wrong lessons; and a bunch of people with a depressing record for dressing up their advocacy as “scholarship” are pouring gasoline on the fire.

The most recent horror stories, including the death of A.J. Freund, were caused by overloaded caseworkers, budget cuts and an ill-conceived privatization of services for families.  But you’re much more likely to score political points – and less likely to have to spend state money - if you rush to scapegoat family preservation.

And so, Gov. J.B. Pritzker does what politicians so often do in these situations: He embraces the Big Lie of American child welfare, and confuses child removal with child safety.  While he didn’t quite utter the common mantra “if in doubt, yank ‘em out” he came depressingly close, declaring: “We will make sure the message is clear: If the child is unsafe, we don’t want there to be any hesitation about removing a child.”

But it is far better for children when you remove the risk instead of the child – and, since most cases are nothing like the horror stories, in most cases, it is possible to do just that.

The problem with Pritzker’s approach is that it increases the danger to children – and I don’t just mean the enormous emotional trauma of needless removal. Pritzker’s approach also means increasing the already high risk of abuse in foster care itself, and increasing the overload for caseworkers, making it even less likely that they will find the next A.J. Freund.  These are all lessons that were learned after the Wallace tragedy – but now, apparently, have been forgotten.

Perhaps one should expect no better from politicians. But we should expect better from those who proclaim themselves to be scholars.  But Pritzker actually was responding to a quick-and-dirty “review” from advocates who have a long, ugly track record of presenting their anti-family advocacy as "scholarship" – Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

A not-so-systemic review

Chapin Hall was hired by the governor to do a “Systemic review of Critical Incidents” involving families that had received what Illinois calls “Intact Family Services.”  They spent all of six weeks on the task.

But there was nothing systemic about it. 

Instead, Chapin Hall simply reviewed existing reports on horror story cases conducted by the DCFS Inspector General’s office, reviewed a grand total of three fatality cases and some other documents and forms, and interviewed all of 14 “stakeholders.”

Since the sample was both tiny and non-random, it is impossible to draw sweeping conclusions – but Chapin Hall does so anyway.  You may be sure that had any family preservation advocate cited three carefully-chosen success stories to “prove” the fact that family preservation typically is better for children than foster care Chapin Hall would have thrown a fit.

But since we respect scholarship, we don’t do this. Instead, we cite massive peer-reviewed studies, including two specific to Illinois.

So, if you were going to judge the safety and appropriateness of various interventions, which research do you think is likely to be more valid? A handful of horror stories, selected precisely because they are horror stories, or a carefully matched experimental design involving more than 15,000 cases?

But then, Chapin Hall clearly had drawn its conclusions before even starting the “review.”  They rushed out a press release highlighting the low rate of child removal in Illinois – clearly signaling that was what they would conclude was a key problem.  And sure enough, that was the very first sentence in their review.

In fact, independent court-appointed monitors, who examine the system as part of a longstanding consent decree, have found again and again that as Illinois reduced its rate of removal child safety improved.  (Indeed, even the Chapin Hall review mentions, in a single sentence, a statistic that calls its entire thesis into question: Even now, with all the budget cuts and other recent mistakes, the rate of child abuse deaths in Illinois is below the national average.  That doesn’t prove that a low rate of removal reduces child abuse deaths, but it doesn’t exactly support a hypothesis that a low rate of removal puts children in danger.)

And, as we noted previously, the low rate-of-removal statistic is misleading. It’s skewed by Cook County. In the rest of the state, the rate of removal is much higher.

That’s not the only example of statistics abuse in the review.  In the recommendations section, the review implies that if there are enough reports alleging abuse that alone should be enough to take away the child.  Why? Because “research suggests that young children with previous allegations of physical abuse die at a rate 70% higher than children with allegations of neglect.”

A basic fact about child abuse fatalities

What this neglects to mention is a basic fact for which we all should be grateful: Though each child abuse death is among the worst imaginable tragedies, they are extremely rare tragedies. 

There are more than 73 million Americans under age 18.  Even if we double the official estimate, that would mean that 3,440 die each year of child abuse.  Even if we narrow this down and look only at the number of children who, in some way, become known to child protective services agencies, and fatalities among these children we’re still talking about a very few needles in a gigantic haystack – as Illustrated here nationally and for Illinois. 

That’s based on national figures.  Here’s the Illinois version:

So this “research” tells us only that the chances of any parent killing a child are infinitesimal – and the chances of a parent who was the subject of previous allegations killing a child are ever-so-slightly less infinitesimal.  Yet based on this, Chapin Hall seems to want a massive increase in the removal of children from their homes, solely based on previous allegations, regardless of whether those allegations had any validity.

This was, in fact, the same mentality behind DCFS’ failed experiment in using “predictive analytics – a dangerous fad in child welfare that amounts to what Prof. Virginia Eubanks, author of Automating Inequality calls “poverty profiling.” It appears they factored in things like: “people with multiple reports might be more likely to kill their children” without factoring in the fact that almost no parent ever kills her or his child.

caseworkers were alarmed and overwhelmed by alerts as thousands of children were rated as needing urgent protection. More than 4,100 Illinois children were assigned a 90 percent or greater probability of death or injury, according to internal DCFS child-tracking data released to the Tribune under state public records laws.  And 369 youngsters, all under age 9, got a 100 percent chance of death or serious injury in the next two years, the Tribune found.
At the same time, high-profile child deaths kept cropping up with little warning from the predictive analytics software, DCFS officials told the Tribune.

And yet, one of Chapin Hall’s recommendations is that DCFS “revisit the use of predictive models …”  Because in child welfare nothing succeeds like failure.

On top of everything else there is, at a minimum, an appearance of conflict of interest in turning to Chapin Hall.  The whole place is run by a former DCFS director, Bryan Samuels.

It’s not as if there is some shortage of genuinely objective scholars out there.  Some of them, from the University of Illinois School of Social Work Children and Family Resource Center, are already on the job: They’re the ones who monitor the consent decree – and who have found that when Illinois reduced its rate of removal child safety improved.

And there are plenty of groups outside Illinois.

But as long as Illinois politicians’ knee jerk response is to ask Chapin Hall for answers, the answer will always boil down to take the child and run.  And it will always be wrong.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

NCCPR in Youth Today on federal legislation that would take the last brake off the foster care steamroller

...The bill would more than double the amount of money the federal government forks over to states for foster care reimbursement each year. Even worse, this bill would remove the only small brake from what is less a runaway train than a lumbering foster care steamroller that crushes better alternatives for children....

Read the full column in Youth Today

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

News and commentary round-up, week ending May 13, 2019

●Last week I posted a link to an op-ed column by a family defender in New York City about the kind of family that doesn’t have to worry about having child protective services in its life.  This week: Another family defender writes in the New York Daily News about the kind of family that does.

●From Honolulu Civil Beat: An excellent story about a family faced with two kinds of trauma. First, the children were needlessly taken because the mother was herself a victim of domestic violence.  And now, the mother may be denied the career she’s wanted all her life because she can’t get off the state’s central registry of alleged child abusers – a registry she never should have been on in the first place.

●I have a column in Youth Today about how the foster care-industrial complex is trying to get legislation through Congress that would more than double federal foster care spending – and remove the last federal fiscal brake on needless foster care.

●Vivek Sankaran has a column about how his own experiences illustrate what’s revealed by a new study: High-quality family defense, using the model pioneered in New York City, dramatically curbs needless foster care, with no compromise of child safety.  And this story discusses East Bay Family Defenders, which is bringing the New York model of family defense to Alameda County, California.

●In another column Sankaran talks about foster youth who endured years of abuse in foster care, finding strength in their relationship with each other – and their mother.

I have a blog post about why Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services is the Kellyanne Conway of child welfare agencies. They both have a fondness for “alternative facts.”  (And, of course, they’re both deeply involved with the needless separation of families.)

Youth Today has a story about a court decision that stops the New York City Administration for Children’s Services from sending out the police to arrest foster youth who run away.

● And The New York Times has an op-ed that says not one word about foster care or the child welfare system – and yet explains exactly how to fix it.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Philadelphia DHS Pyramid of Bulls**t

Fortunately, it’s no match for the Bar Graph of Reality:

For full details on time periods, methodology and sources
 see the NCCPR Big City Rate-of-Removal Index
The Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS) is the Kellyanne Conway of child welfare. 

Under the leadership of Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa, the agency has developed a fondness for  “alternative facts” – desperately spinning data (and recent history) in the hope that no one will notice the simple truth: Year after year after year, Philadelphia tears apart families at either the highest or the second highest rate among America’s biggest cities, even when rates of family poverty are factored in.  (Come to think of it, justifying the needless removal of children is something else Conway and Philadelphia DHS have in common.)

Yes, the most recent data show that, due to a slight decrease in removals in Philadelphia, and a big increase in Phoenix, Philadelphia is again in second place among the ten largest cities. Narrowed down to the five largest, Philadelphia is still #1. And what is consistent year after year is that these two metropolitan areas – Phoenix and Philadelphia -- consistently tear apart families at rates far above all the others.

Recently, I discovered that DHS had outdone itself, when I found something toward the end of the department’s most recent Quarterly Indicators Report.  It wasn’t entirely a surprise. Ever since Philadelphia journalists caught on to the city’s extreme outlier status, DHS has been in full alternative facts mode.  As I explained in a blog post in February:

Here’s what DHS is claiming, according to a tweet from the agency: “Last year of 19,325 families reported, 3.8% had children removed due to safety.”  In a tweet of her own, Figueroa claimed that “Philadelphia’s removal rate is inline with the National average and other big cities.”

What’s new is the visual.  Call it, the DHS Pyramid of Bullshit.  It looks like one of those classic “food pyramids” but it’s designed to reinforce the false impression left by the tweets. Here’s why the operative word is bullshit:

The basic number DHS doesn’t want you to know

For starters, nowhere in the pyramid does DHS ever tell us the actual number of times children are taken from their parents in Philadelphia each year.  So here’s the actual number for federal fiscal year 2018:


In fact, I have not been able to find the number of entries into foster care anywhere on the DHS website.  The figure is easy to find for every other community in the top ten – even for Phoenix.

How do we know the 2,718 figure is correct? Because every state and locality has to report entries into foster care to the federal government. And, though it takes awhile, the federal government makes these totals public.  That’s how Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children pulls together data for every county in Pennsylvania.  You’ll find the figure for Philadelphia in this report at the bottom of page 2.

So why won’t DHS even provide this one basic number?  Why won’t the agency tell the press and the public something as basic as “How many times a year are children taken from their parents in Philadelphia?” 

The answer, of course, is that the real number is so embarrassing – it shows how vastly out-of-line Philadelphia is with every other big city except Phoenix.

So instead, the Pyramid of Bullshit includes only the claim that children were removed from 739 families in City Fiscal Year 2018.  But even that makes no sense, since that would mean taking an average of nearly four children per family.  So some data seem to be missing.

Compared to what?

The other problem concerns what measure is used to compare the number of children removed from their homes.  The logical choice is to compare it to something objective.  So one should either compare entries to the number of children or the number of impoverished children in each community. 

With its fondness for "alternative facts," 
and its willingness to justify needlessly 
separating families, Philadelphia DHS is the
Kellyanne Conway of child welfare agencies
(Photo by Gage Skidmore)
When you actually do that, you get the Bar Graph of Reality that appears at the top of this post comparing entries into care to the number of impoverished children in each of the five largest cities.  You’ll find another Bar Graph of Reality for all ten big cities at the end of this post.  They show that Philadelphia is nowhere near “inline” with either the national average or other big cities – except Phoenix.

We think factoring in poverty is the fairer method, but in our NCCPR Big City Rate-of-Removal Index, we do both.  (For the record, if you don’t factor in poverty, Philadelphia is even worse, #1 in child removal instead of #2.) The Index also provides links to sources for all data.

But a key part of the DHS Kellyanne Conway act is to avoid using anything truly objective for comparison. So instead she offers the number of families reported as alleged child abusers and the number of families investigated.

But that figure is itself easily manipulated.  If, as Cynthia Figueroa reportedly does, you urge people to just use their “intuition” and report anything and everything and if, as Cynthia Figueroa seems to believe, every sports injury might be abuse and therefore should be reported, and if, every few years, as it is prone to do, the Pennsylvania Legislature passes a spate of new laws demanding an that ever more people report their intuition, then the number of reports and investigations will artificially increase.

In contrast, DHS can’t manipulate the number of children living in Philadelphia or the number living in poverty (though if DHS really wanted to curb child abuse and neglect, reducing the latter number would be a great way to start.)  So the logical comparison is the number of times children are thrown into foster care compared to the number of children living in poverty.

That’s reality.  The only way to change that reality is for Philadelphia DHS to stop needlessly harming so many children by consigning them to the chaos of foster care. 

And Philadelphia DHS could do it, too. If only what passes for leadership there would devote as much creativity to alleviating poverty and curbing needless removal as it did to crafting its Pyramid of Bullshit.

For more details about methodology see this earlier post.

For full details on time periods, methodology and sources see the
NCCPR Big City Rate-of-Removal Index

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

News and commentary round-up, week ending May 7, 2019

● There’s still another major study documenting the extent to which children are needlessly in foster care – and this one also documents the success of one solution: high-quality legal defense for families.  There’s a story in the Chronicle of Social Change. Here’s the press release from New York University School of Law. And I have a post about it on this blog.

● One of the lawyers who provides this kind of high-quality family defense has an excellent essay in Paste about a family in which the mother accidentally dropped her five-year-old son. He suffered a fractured skull.  But this family didn’t need a lawyer.  Can you guess why?

● The Arizona Republic has a story about the hypocritical way child protective services agencies invoke concerns about children’s privacy – because it’s the agency’s privacy they’re really defending.

● One child welfare agency, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services countenanced a massive invasion of children’s privacy – and that was only one of the problems with the HBO documentary Foster.  I have a blog post about it.

● Daniel Heimpel, publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change has a column criticizing Naomi Schaefer Riley for using “cherry-picked statistics on child maltreatment deaths – a horrific but incredibly rare occurrence – to insinuate that ramping up domestic family separations has a corollary in reduced child maltreatment deaths.”  (I have more about Riley here.)

● The Chronicle also has a column from Nora McCarthy, director of Rise, about Rise’s Handbook for improving frontline practice with parents (There’s a link to the full handbook.)

● And, 26 years after I wrote a cover story for the alternative weekly in Chicago about the foster-care panic caused by certain media and politicians, I have an update.  (The media are doing better; the politicians, not so much.)

The shame of HBO’s “Foster”

The foster parent is a saint!  The caseworkers are heroes!  The birth parents are scum! (Unless they repent in which case they are merely sick.)  And none of that is even the worst thing about this documentary.

This is a stock photo. This child is not the subject of a documentary
about foster care. If he were, no one would show his face.
Or would they?
In its promotional material for the “documentary” Foster, (and no, I’m not going to link to it) HBO declares that it “upend[s] some of the most enduring myths about foster care, going beyond the stereotypes.”

On the contrary. Foster enshrines enduring myths and stereotypes. Foster is the system the way the system wants to be seen – noble foster parents and heroic caseworkers rescuing innocent children from parents who are usually the scum of the earth but occasionally – if they repent – merely sick.  And all that isn’t even the worst part.

Foster mimics one of the biggest failures of the system itself.  Foster care, the system, is built to help the helpers – to make the helpers feel good, even at the expense of the children.  Foster, the documentary, does exactly the same thing. That’s why it’s going to be enormously popular among middle class professionals in the system, and that’s why none of them is likely to notice the documentary’s single greatest flaw; a failure not of filmmaking but of ethics.

Wrong from the start

 Foster gets it wrong literally from the opening moments.  It begins with the claim that one in eight American children will suffer a “confirmed” case of abuse or neglect by age 18.  That’s not true.

“Confirmed” is a made-up term, used by those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, to mischaracterize cases. The actual terms “indicated” or “substantiated” can mean only that a caseworker guessed that it is slightly more likely than not that some kind of abuse or neglect occurred.  And, at no point does Foster even hint that there is a vast difference between the horrors described by some of the children in the “documentary” and typical cases; cases that often involve the confusion of family poverty with “neglect.”

It’s all downhill from there.

 A real-life “Aunt Ti.”

First we meet the foster mother who is essentially the star of the program. She deserves to be. There is no reason to doubt the portrayal of this foster parent as someone who has been, sometimes literally, a lifesaver for the children in her care.

She is a woman possessed of such boundless patience, genuine love, and enthusiasm that by the end of the program you’ll probably wish your parents had been accused of child abuse just so you could have the chance to go live with her.  The only other foster parent who comes close is “Aunt Ti” – and she exists only in a Twilight Zone episode written by the creator of The Waltons.

But such foster parents are no more typical than the ones on the other extreme – the ones who abuse the children entrusted to their care.

But this isn’t the worst of it.

Equally unrepresentative are the current and former foster children - at least in terms of what brought them into foster care. We hear only from foster children whose parents range from inexcusably neglectful to unspeakably cruel, often raining down physical and verbal abuse.  Again, there is no reason to doubt their accounts. But the parents they describe are not typical of the parents who lose children to the system.

Put Foster’s atypical portrayals of birth parents and foster parents together and viewers are left wondering why we don’t rush in and “rescue” far more children from horrible parents, since what could be better for them than a real-life Aunt Ti?

But this isn’t the worst of it either.

The only good parent is a redeemed parent

But wait, I can hear the producers saying: What about the parents we did show? – we didn’t portray them as evil.

True, but in the world of Foster, if birth parents aren’t evil they have to be sick! Sick! Sick!  And they must be guided by noble caseworkers into realizing the error of their ways and repenting!  Then and only then do they “deserve” to have their children back. 

Indeed, a guidebook for “watch parties” explicitly calls on discussion leaders to push a “public   There is nothing in Foster to indicate that what’s really needed is a social justice approach – something that’s been shown effective in study after study.
health” approach to child welfare.
But in Foster the only good parent is a parent who has been properly cured – and redeemed.  So this is what we see:

A mother uses drugs while pregnant. The infant tests positive for cocaine.  Mom lies about it – to avoid having the child taken away. Dad has no idea Mom was doing drugs.  The family is reunited but only after scene after scene in which Mom confesses to how horrible she’s been, and both parents express undying gratitude to the caseworkers and thank them profusely.  (They’re going to love screening this at social work schools!)

In fact, there probably is no reason this infant couldn’t have been left with this loving couple in which the mother made a mistake.  It’s likely that all they needed was concrete help and, possibly, drug treatment for the mother.  Or the infant could have been placed in the sole custody of the father – which is what happened eventually, but only after the child was placed in foster care and the parents bowed and scraped enough to persuade the system they were worthy.

Foster, however, offers no hint that there was any alternative to removal. The explanation from the caseworker is taken at face value. And only inadvertently do we see how the system actually put stress on the family that may have driven the parents apart.

At one point an “investigator” visiting the father suspects that the infant may have had a seizure.  And that, in turn, might be because of Mom’s drug use.  It is only much later in the documentary that those viewers still around learn that there is no medical evidence that there was a seizure (though it’s still assumed to have happened) and no evidence that cocaine use caused the alleged seizure – if there was a seizure.

But by then Dad has become furious at Mom.  At a counseling session (of course), with the mother in the room, he says: “I was pissed off that she did something and it’s going to reflect on my daughter.  Why the hell did you choose to use that fu----g drug!”  To which the counselor replies “It’s great you were able to get that off your chest … [but] you have to forgive her.”

At the end of the program, it’s revealed that the couple has separated.

Reinforcing stereotypes about “drug babies.”

This family isn’t the only one harmed in ways the producers can’t seem to see.

As The New York Times explains, one of the most important lessons of the “crack baby” scare of the 1980s is that not only were the claims about the effects of prenatal substance abuse grossly overblown, often it was the very stigma inflicted on the children by the system that caused the harm.

In Foster we meet an 18-year-old who is one of the few foster youth to make it into college, where she is struggling.  She beat enormous odds, both because she was one of those treated horribly by her own mother, and because she was moved to so many homes she can’t even remember them all. Anyone who can come so far in spite of so much is a lot of things, such as resilient, determined and courageous.  She sure isn’t “dumb.”

But she thinks she is.  And she thinks she knows why.  Twice she says it’s because “I was a drug baby.”

Apparently, no one ever told her otherwise.  And now, a documentary will reinforce that belief – for her, and for viewers.

But even this isn’t the worst thing about Foster. 

A massive invasion of privacy

The worst is its massive invasion of children’s privacy.

HBO brags about how the producers of Foster got “unprecedented access.”  That is true. And it’s a travesty.

The most intimate details of a 16-year-old’s life – and his crimes (he’s already part of the juvenile justice system) -- are discussed on camera in meetings and at televised court hearings.  What is apparently his real first name – an unusual name – is used throughout and he is seen on camera.

Much younger children also are seen, being interviewed and interacting with their foster mother.  An autistic eight-year-old is seen breaking down and having a tantrum for fear of getting onto a school bus.  Now, all of these moments will live on forever.

All because a child protective services agency – the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) - and a bunch of other players in the system, traded these children’s privacy for some good p.r.

I’m sure it was all legal.  I’m sure all the proper forms and releases were signed.  But here’s the problem: no one – no one – who has the legal authority to sign away the privacy of foster children by putting their faces on camera and using their real first names has the moral right to do it. 

That’s because the moral right to decide whether the benefits of such exposure outweigh the risks rests only with those who love the children whose privacy is at risk.  Agencies do not love children.  (It’s the same issue that arises when child welfare agencies allow foster children to be used for clinical drug trials. Yes, that does happen.)

These children’s own parents can’t give truly informed consent for the simple reason that they’re inherently under duress.  They may fear that if they don’t sign the form they might never see the children again.

If the children of the foster mother actually were adopted before they were put on camera, then their adoptive mother had the right to make the decision.  But except for one of the children, whose status is seen changing to guardianship (at an on camera court hearing) they are all portrayed as foster children.  It that is accurate than the foster mother, however well intentioned, lacked the moral right to sign those forms.

Mind-boggling hypocrisy

Even more mind-boggling is the hypocrisy.  NCCPR favors open court hearings in child welfare cases.  But whenever there is an attempt to open court hearings in a new state or locality, it’s almost always the child welfare agency, or assorted other parts of the system, that scream and yell about how this should not be done because those sleazy journalists can’t be trusted to keep children’s identities a secret. 

But journalists have an outstanding record of voluntarily withholding children’s names and other identifying information.  That’s one reason why at least 40 percent of foster children now live in communities where court hearings are open, in many cases they’ve been open for decades with no problems.

Los Angeles County, however, is not one of them.  In fact, when it was tried, an appellate court stopped it. One of the groups that objected said that opening the hearings “put the needs and interests of the public and the media ahead of the victims of child abuse and neglect.”

Yet in Foster, that same group, and others who had opposed open courts in Los Angeles, are enthusiastic participants.  Various professionals are seen – sometimes along with their young clients – on camera, in meetings discussing the most intimate aspects of the lives of children we have gotten to know by face and first name, in therapy sessions, and in court hearings that have not only been opened, but opened to cameras.

The benefits of leaving L.A.

It’s hard to blame the producers for all this. They, too, almost certainly had the best of intentions. But they made one crucial mistake: They never left Los Angeles.  They tapped into the master narrative that has dominated Los Angeles child welfare, and coverage of Los Angeles child welfare, for decades.  Those thanked in the closing credits include some of the very people and groups responsible for getting child welfare wrong all the way back to the McMartin Preschool hysteria. 

And there’s no effective counter-narrative in Los Angeles – in particular no well-organized, passionate community of family defense attorneys.

Had the producers decided to do their documentary about foster care in New York City, odds are they would have told a very different, and much more complete, story.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Still ANOTHER study documents needless foster care

High-quality family defense dramatically shortens foster-care stays with no compromise of safety. That means thousands of children are trapped in foster care far longer than necessary.

High quality family defense safely reduced
foster care by an average of nearly four months.
For an infant that's nearly one-third, or more, of
her or his life.
I’ve previously summarized five major studies documenting in various ways that large numbers of children are needlessly trapped in foster care. Now there’s a sixth.  And this one also provides strong evidence for a key solution: high-quality defense counsel for families.

This new evidence comes at an important time: A change in a federal policy manual means that child welfare agencies now can get reimbursement for half the cost of providing legal representation for children and families in eligible foster-care cases.

When parents are caught in the net of a child protective services agency they have no constitutional right to a lawyer.  So whether families too poor to afford a private attorney (which is, of course, almost all of them) get legal representation depends on where they live.  Even when there’s a lawyer, it’s usually an overworked public defender or “panel attorney” with an enormous caseload who either just met his or her client five minutes before the first court hearing or wasn’t appointed until after that hearing, when it’s often too late. In most of the country most of the time, families up against CPS are, literally, defense-less.

But New York City is an exception.  In New York City most families get a defense team. In addition to a lawyer there’s a social worker who can come up with alternatives to the cookie-cutter “service plans” often demanded by child protective services agencies. And often there’s a parent advocate – a parent who has been through the system herself and can help guide the client.  The whole team works for an institutional provider that can offer further support.

It began as a pilot project, but the proportion of families represented this way has grown steadily.  That created an opportunity to do the most careful, comprehensive study yet of this kind of representation.  It was published this week in Children and Youth Services Review.  NCCPR’s President, Prof. Martin Guggenheim, is a co-author.

Four months less in foster care

The study compared the outcomes for children whose families were assigned to defense teams to those whose families were assigned to panel attorneys.  They were followed for four years.  The results for child safety were the same.  But the children whose families had a defense team were forced to endure foster care for an average of 118 fewer days – nearly four months less.

For a child, especially a young child, that’s a very long time.  For an infant, it’s nearly one-third or more of her or his entire life.  And children experience time differently from adults – it passes more slowly. 

The results were most dramatic in the first two years. In the first year, children with a defense team achieved reunification 43 percent more often than children represented by panel attorneys. They reunified 25 percent more often in the second year.

A lot of needless foster care

All this also tells us something else: A whole lot of foster-care is unnecessary.  If you can get the same safety outcomes with, on average, four months less foster care, what are all those children doing stuck in foster care for all those additional months? 

The places where these children wound up, once freed from foster care, are strikingly similar. For both groups seven percent of the children were adopted, three or four percent went into guardianship arrangements, and another three or four percent “aged out” of the system with no permanent home.  But while only 60 percent of those with conventional representation were reunified after four years, 65 percent of children with defense teams were reunified.  And while 26 percent of those with conventional representation were still trapped in foster care after four years, the figure for those whose families had a defense team was 21 percent.

So it’s time for those in child welfare who claim their Holy Grail is permanence to prove it.  Family defense teams achieved permanence more often and more quickly, with no compromise of safety.  So anyone serious about permanence should be demanding this form of representation for all families.

Even better outside New York City?

All these results are likely to be even better in most of the rest of the country.  In part because the City’s Administration for Children’s Services knows it won’t get a “free ride” in court, it’s shown far more restraint than most jurisdictions when it comes to taking away children, and it holds proportionately fewer in foster care than most places.  So the results almost certainly would be even more dramatic if all families got this sort of representation in, say, Philadelphia, which takes away children at the highest rate among America’s big cities.  The results would be more dramatic still, of course, in places where poor people don’t get lawyers in these cases at all.

And yes, these places could afford it – in fact, it would be a bargain. The study estimates, conservatively, that if all families in New York City received this form of representation it would reduce foster care costs by $40 million per year.

But what about entries?

The place where the different form of representation didn’t show a statistically significant difference also is instructive.  Team representation did not appear to reduce initial entries into care.  But that’s almost certainly for one simple reason: The defense team didn’t get there in time.

Although New York City shows more restraint than most places in its overall rate of removal, ACS has one nasty little habit that sets it apart in an ugly way: It rushes to invoke it’s power to tear apart families in “emergencies” even when there’s no emergency.  This means the ACS caseworker simply takes away the child entirely on her or his own authority.  They do this in nearly half of all removals.  By the time the lawyer is appointed, the child already is in foster care. 

At one time, one of the New York City providers of team representation, the Center for Family Representation, actually had a grant for a pilot project to intervene before that initial removal decision was made.  They avoided removal in 38 of 48 cases.

So the next experiment should be to restore programs like that and see what they can do, compared to conventional representation.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Child welfare in Illinois: The children’s crusade redux?

Twenty-six years ago, a little boy in Chicago died a horrible death, and everybody learned the wrong lessons.  Can the child welfare system – and the media – do better this time?

UPDATE, SEPTMEBER 15, 2020: The child welfare system has given its answer, and it is a resounding, and depressing “No.” Between fiscal years 2018 and 2020 the number of children torn from their homes in Illinois has skyrocketed 30%.  The 17% increase in 2019 alone was the second highest increase in the country that year.  In fact, even as the number of children taken over the course of a year nationwide approaches a 21-year low, the number taken in Illinois has hit a 21-year high.

The story I wrote for the Chicago Reader in 1995.

            In 1993, 3-year-old Joseph Wallace was killed by his mentally-unstable mother, Amanda. The child had been taken from her, then returned to her.  Aha! said politicians and media, especially the Chicago Tribune, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services must be bending over backwards to coddle abusive parents and support “family preservation” at the expense of “child safety.”   If we just take away vastly more children, there will be no more cases like Joseph Wallace. 

But, as I wrote in a story for the Chicago Reader in 1995, called “The Children’s Crusade,” family preservation had nothing to do with Joseph’s death – in fact, it almost saved his life.  Later stories by Tribune reporters all but acknowledged that their earlier reporting got it wrong.  But it was that early reporting that stuck in the public mind.  It was summed up best by Benjamin Wolf, Director of the ACLU of Illinois' Institutionalized Persons Project, which has a decades-old consent decree that spurred reform of DCFS. As Wolf put it at the time, those early stories made a bad child welfare system “unquestionably worse.”

            That’s because DCFS and the courts did what those early news stories told them to do.  There was a foster-care panic -- the number of children torn from their families soared.  By 1996, a child was proportionately more likely to be trapped in foster care in Illinois than any other state.  An already bad system was plunged into chaos, thousands of children were traumatized when they were taken from parents who were nothing like Amanda Wallace – and child abuse deaths actually increased.  It took a decade to recover. 

          Now, the whole cycle is in danger of repeating itself.  This time, the child who died a horrible death was A.J. Freund.  Some of the early news coverage has been more nuanced – a thoughtful examination of the issue of child welfare and drug abuse by Tribune reporter John Keilman and the way Tribune reporter Robert McCoppin handled allegations by a county prosecutor are good examples. But some of the commentary repeats the mistakes the Tribune made in 1993.  Meanwhile, politicians and others already are setting up efforts to keep families together to take the fall for this latest tragedy.  If they succeed, it will lead only to more such tragedy.  The stakes are, literally, life and death.

The harm of foster-care panic

            One thing that’s changed over the past 26 years: There is even more research on the enormous inherent harm of placing a child in foster care.  At least five separate studies, two of them massive in scope and looking specifically at cases from Illinois, have found that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes typically fare better in later life even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

            That’s not as surprising as it may sound. The typical cases seen by DFCS workers are nothing like the horror stories. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. Others fall on a broad continuum between the extremes.  Think for a moment about what happened to all those children torn from their parents at the Mexican border last year.  Yes, DCFS caseworkers almost always mean well – but the children they take suffer just as much trauma. They shed the same sorts of tears for the same sorts of reasons.

            And yes, that applies even when the issue is drug abuse. A study of infants born with cocaine in their systems found that the actual physical development of those infants was better when left with mothers able to care for them than when placed in foster care.

            Some might respond: “Yes, but A.J. was born with opiates in his system, and his mother allegedly killed him, so we should put all children born with opiates in their system in foster care.” But there is a problem with that logic:  The mother accused of killing him, JoAnn Cunningham, also was a licensed Illinois foster parent.

            That’s the problem with building arguments on horror stories.  For every one you have I have one that “proves” the opposite – and vice versa.  When anecdotes collide it’s time to look at the data.  We’ve already seen what those data tell us about typical cases.  Now consider what they tell us about physical safety.

            Of course most foster parents don’t abuse or neglect the children in their care.  But study after study has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes and the record of group homes and institutions is even worse.  Worse still, for reasons discussed below, a foster-care panic actually makes it more likely that children in real danger will be overlooked and more children will die.

            But that hasn’t deterred Illinois politicians.

A Tribune story about a legislative hearing says that legislators “called into question the agency’s longstanding priority of keeping families together…”

            The Associated Press reports that Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, said there was “too great a focus on what was otherwise is a laudable goal of reuniting biological families when possible.”

            According to another AP story: “Then there are questions about whether it is too difficult for child welfare workers to remove children from their homes, and too easy for parents to have their children returned to them.”

            In fact, it is extremely easy to remove children from their homes – DCFS workers – and police - can do it entirely on their own authority, without even asking a judge first.  And Illinois has one of the worst records in the nation when it comes to prolonging the time children languish in foster care.

            But most important of all, if taking away more children is the answer to preventing child abuse deaths, why hasn’t it worked in states that take away proportionately far more children than Illinois?  They have exactly the same sorts of tragedies.  Even more to the point, if taking away more children is the answer, why didn’t it work the last time it was tried in Illinois?

            During those same years that the number of Illinois children taken from their parents skyrocketed, child abuse deaths actually increased.  They didn’t start to go down again until the panic abated and foster care numbers started to decline.

When DCFS actually improved

            And, in fact, it was that very decline, a new emphasis on family preservation, and bold new leadership that led to a remarkable turnaround at DCFS.

            As the AP story notes “The system saw big improvements in the late 1990s and early 2000s, after a federal consent decree in response to [the] American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois lawsuit.”  The improvements also were a result of the appointment of one of the most politically-savvy leaders ever to run a child welfare system anywhere in America: Jess McDonald.  He quietly put an emphasis on safe, proven alternatives to foster care. 

            And child safety improved. Who says so? Independent monitors appointed by the court as part of the consent decree.  In 2003, the lead monitor told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “Children are safer now than they were when the state had far more foster children.” Their latest report shows that safety continued to improve all the way through about 2011.

            Much of what looks like a significant worsening after that is simply due to the fact that the monitors changed the way they measured key safety indicators.  But part of it is a real decline – due to budget cuts, higher caseloads and turmoil in DCFS leadership – not a Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy.  We know this because in recent years there has been little change in the number of children taken from their parents in Illinois.

            All this also explains why child abuse deaths can actually go up during a foster-care panic. 

      The real reason for child abuse tragedies among children “known to the system” is almost always overloaded, underprepared caseworkers who don’t have time to investigate any case carefully – so they make terrible mistakes in all directions.  A foster-care panic increases the overload, so there’s even less time for each investigation -- and even more tragic mistakes.

            So now let’s look again at the death of A.J. Freund.  In hindsight the case file had more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade. But if you’re working for an agency that’s suffered years of budget cuts and increasing caseloads, you don’t have time to look at the big picture.  Over and over, workers seemed to look only at the immediate incident.  They did the minimum required to check the necessary boxes – not because they didn’t care, but because it was all there was time for.  (Or, in some rare cases, if that county prosecutor is correct, they may not, in fact, care.)

            And it wasn’t just DCFS workers who didn’t go deep enough.  Rep. Feigenholtz says "I got the sense from what I read that the cops were essentially begging (DCFS) to take the child."  But, as noted aboive, the cops don’t have to beg anyone. They had full authority to remove A.J. themselves.  And on at least one occasion, a police officer arrived at the door and left again  after peering into the house, and seeing two boys there who appeared to be “happy and healthy.”

            But now, in a move that will increase the danger to children – but placate legislators -   DCFS   Every case involving young children that was determined to be “unfounded” is now going to be “reviewed” all over again.  At the same time, the number of calls to the Illinois child abuse hotline almost certainly has spiked – it almost always happens after high profile deaths.  Workers, terrified for their jobs, will rush to take away more children needlessly, exposing them to emotional trauma and the high risk of abuse in foster care – and at the same time, they’ll actually miss more children in real danger.
has made that workload even worse.

            None of this means no child ever should be taken away.  But foster care is an extremely toxic intervention.  Illinois was able to make children safer only when it started to use foster care in smaller doses. 

Enter Chapin Hall

            Even those of us who are not learned scholars understand this much about the research process: You’re supposed to do the research first and then draw conclusions.

            But apparently, over at Chapin Hall, they prefer a different approach.  According to AP:

The research center Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago is expected next month to issue what [Gov. J.B.] Pritzker called “actionable recommendations” into how the DCFS’s Intact Family Services Unit functions.
But Chapin Hall has shared one conclusion in a press release: “With the lowest foster care entry rate in the nation, Illinois has a high threshold for child removal.”

            Rep. Feigenholtz leapt on that, and, according to AP “said lawmakers have to answer the question of whether the threshold for child removal is too high or whether the workers are ‘not aware of them [sic] or are poorly trained.’”

            But even leaving aside the problems with this conclude-first-do-the-“research”-later approach, the way Chapin Hall uses the figure on entries into foster care is misleading.

            ● The low rate of removal in Illinois is driven almost entirely by Cook County.  It’s not unusual for big cities to have lower rates of removal than their surrounding states, possibly because caseworkers in big cities may see more poverty and are less likely to confuse that poverty with neglect.

            In the rest of Illinois, the rate of removal is more than two-and-a-half-times the rate in Cook County, and only about 18 percent below the national average.*  But of the three cases that prompted Chapin Hall’s “research” two occurred outside of Cook County.  So these data could as easily be used to make a case that downstate Illinois should be taking proportionately fewer children.

            ● And there’s still another problem with the figure.  Illinois is notorious for taking away children and not reporting the removals as foster care placements.  Chicago attorney Diane Redleaf, author of They Took The Kids Last Night, calls it a “shadow foster care system.”  It works this way: DCFS tells a family: agree “voluntarily” to place your children with, say, grandma, and we won’t go to court and place them with strangers.  DCFS then can argue that it was not really a “foster care” placement.

            Illinois is not alone in this practice. But by its nature, we don’t know how often it happens and how Illinois compares to other states.  That calls into question Chapin Hall’s claim.

            There’s one other problem with Chapin Hall being hired to do anything concerning DCFS. Chapin Hall is run by a former DCFS director, Bryan Samuels, creating an unavoidable appearance of conflict-of-interest.  This is not the first time Chapin Hall has failed to be sensitive to such appearances.

Then how do we fix this?

At the legislative hearing, Rep. Grant Wehrli pretty well guaranteed himself a place in news stories by demanding of DCFS Director Marc Smith: “What are you going to do as an agency to ensure that a case even remotely close to this one doesn’t happen again?” If the governor plans to hold Smith to the same standard then just fire him now. And his successor. And his successor’s successor.

The only acceptable goal for child abuse tragedies is zero.  But we must seek that goal understanding that our reach will always exceed our grasp, and if that is the measure of a child welfare agency leader than every leader of a large system has failed, is failing and always will fail.

No one demands that police chiefs stop – or even solve – every murder.  Yet now Smith is expected to “ensure” that there will never be a tragedy even “remotely” like the death of A.J. Freund.

I can hear the objections now: Yes, but we’re talking about children who were known to the system.  As is discussed in detail here, invoking the percentage of cases “known to the system” may be the most meaningless statistic in all of child welfare.  But here’s the short, Illinois-specific response: A vast number of children become “known to the system” each year.

The problem is illustrated by what I have come to call the big blue haystack:

That’s based on national figures.  Here’s the Illinois version, UPDATED MAY 8:

This blue haystack represents the  358,545 children who were, not only known to DCFS in some way but the subjects of investigations by the agency over the three years from 2015 through 2017, according to a just released state audit.  According to that audit, 102 of those children died.  But among those other 348,443 children are many whose case files look just like the files of the 102 who died – and yet nothing went wrong.**

It’s a lot harder to find those needles in a haystack than simply trotting out the “known to the system” figure might lead one to believe.

But there are ways to reduce the likelihood of such tragedies. 

Those ways were summarized in a study done by a liberal Texas think tank (yes, there is such a thing), the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

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 screens in reports for investigation 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.

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.

For starters, restore the cuts to DCFS so workers have manageable caseloads.  But that can’t be done simply by going on a caseworker hiring binge – not now at least.  A foster-care panic almost certainly already is underway in Illinois.  If all the state does is hire more caseworkers, then they’ll simply be chasing all the new cases and all you’ll get is the same lousy system only bigger.

So any new hiring must be accompanied not just by restoring but expanding services for the many families who are troubled but where the parents are neither sadists nor brutes.  That kind of help can prevent such families from ever becoming the subjects of DCFS investigations and stealing time from finding children in real danger.  Similarly, crisis intervention services must be expanded for families on the verge of losing children to foster care.  And high-quality family based drug treatment needs to be readily available for every parent who needs it.

That will cost some money. But the final step won’t cost a dime: Smith and Pritzker need to show the courage to stand up to politicians, stand up to media if necessary, and refuse to allow a foster-care panic.

They should follow the example of Jess McDonald.  Or they could take the more blunt approach favored by Joette Katz in Connecticut.  Katz left a judgeship on the state Supreme Court to run the Connecticut Department of Children and Families under former Gov. Dannel Malloy. 

Before Katz took over the agency, every few years a high-profile child abuse tragedy would set off a foster-care panic.  Not long after Katz started running DCF it happened again.  But this time there would be no panic.  Because Katz would not allow it.  As she put it at the time:

A child dies and the next thing you know workers are getting thrown under the bus and 500 children get removed [from their homes] the next day because it’s a reaction to a tragedy. I think that’s the exact wrong way to behave.

She – and Malloy -- paid a political price for it.  But you know how everyone says we’re supposed to “put the children first”?  It turns out that this child welfare leader and this governor really meant it.

A test for Illinois media

This is also a testing time for the state’s media.  Back in 1993 and 1994, the Tribune’s coverage of the Joseph Wallace case attracted enormous national attention.  Then Managing Editor Ann Marie Lipinski said she got calls from "18 million reporters."  One national news organization after another did huge stories scapegoating family preservation, almost all with a Chicago dateline. 

And it hasn’t stopped.  The Tribune coverage created a template that continues to be followed all over the country: Find a high-profile fatality, or every child abuse death in a state or locality, and rush to blame efforts to keep families together.  All over the country, children suffer for it.

Now, the Tribune, and other Illinois media, have a chance to create a brand new template – in which instead of cheap shots and scapegoats, they search the nation, and even Illinois’ recent past to see what really works in child welfare. 

Perhaps this time, they can set an example for how to cover child welfare right. 

*-Rates of removal are calculated by comparing data on entries into care, available here, to Census Bureau data on the number of impoverished children in every Illinois county.

** - The DCFS Inspector General gives a higher figure for deaths known to the system. But it appears she also uses a much broader definition of "known to the system" - any child who was the subject of a call to the state child abuse hotline.  So while her figures show more needles, her comparison involves a much larger haystack.  Also, as the Chicago Tribune points out, the Inspector General's figures don't indicate how many of these deaths were due to abuse and neglect.