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.