Wednesday, June 26, 2019

ACS plans to use scarce funds to prop up its hellhole shelter

Let’s play Jeopardy! 

The category is Massive Child Welfare Failures.

Here’s the answer: Pour millions more into a multi-million dollar facility that advocates knew would fail from the day it opened, instead of spending that money helping families.
Here’s the question: How does New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services propose to “fix” the hellhole it calls a “shelter”?

That’s what we found out thanks to a New York City Council hearing on June 24.  As the Chronicle of Social Change reports, to his credit, the chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee, Stephen Levin, reminded everyone of something pointed out on this Blog in March:

“Here we are, 18 years after the Children’s Center opened … [and] the Children’s Center is currently under a cloud of scandal and litigation and has become, as advocates feared in 2001, a place where children languish for too long,” [emphasis added].

Actually, they didn’t just fear it. As a prescient New York Times story made clear  they essentially predicted it – a prediction based on the appalling track record of children’s “shelters” all over the country.

The extent of the horrors is discussed in detail in the previous post, so I won’t repeat that here.  But this should give you a good idea: 

Betsy Kramer is director of policy for Lawyers for Children, which, as the name implies, is one of the groups assigned to represent children in child welfare cases.  She says ACS won’t even give her staff access to evaluate the living conditions of its clients at the shelter.  They claim that somehow it would violate the confidentiality of other children.  (Ever notice how the uglier a child welfare agency’s behavior gets, the more it hides behind “confidentiality”?)

Shelters can’t be fixed

You can’t fix these places.  The only solution is the one New York City came up with the last time its great big shelter became a hellhole: Shut it down.  But to do that, ACS Commissioner David Hansell would have to reverse the foster-care panic he has encouraged, creating a spike in needless removals of children from their homes.  That has led to overcrowding and other problems at the shelter.

ACS Commissioner David Hansell
has come up with a long line of excuses,
 all of which boil down to:
 Hey, it's everybody's fault but mine!
Instead, Hansell has come up with still another in a long line of excuses, all of which boil down to: Hey, it’s everybody’s fault but mine!

As for “solutions,” as noted in that post in March, he wants to hire more “security officers” – in other words guards, making the institution even more like a jail.  Kramer said the new hires should be social workers instead.

In addition, the Chronicle reports, ACS says it will hire “95 new personnel” for the place.  Unless these personnel are simply replacing additional employees (which would seem pointless) “95 new personnel” will cost millions in salary and fringe benefits.  If ACS has that kind of money to throw around, the agency should use it on concrete help to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty, which is so often confused with neglect.

Failure to track psychiatric meds

Hansell was also in full buck-passing mode when it came to allegations concerning the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medication on foster children at the shelter and elsewhere in the system.

The City Council wants basic data on the use of such medication.  But Hansell – whose agency has legal custody of these children and can override parental objections to their medical treatment – claims his agency doesn’t have these data.  Only the state collects the information, he says, because foster children are covered by Medicaid and that’s administered by the state.

So at best, Hansell is saying his agency has no mechanism of its own to track how many children his agency has authorized to receive these powerful meds.

This is becoming a pattern when it comes to statistics that are embarrassing for Hansell’s agency.  Forthey finally admitted it’s 20 to 25 percent).
months ACS claimed it had no figure for how often children its caseworkers took away on their own authority – without asking a judge first – were taken for so little reason that the judge actually returned them home days later at the first hearing. When pressed

ACS is also one of the child welfare agencies that’s keen on using big data – that is, predictive analytics algorithms – to target families. But should we really trust with big data an agency that has so much trouble with small data?

Final Jeopardy

Now, here’s your final jeopardy answer:  Apparently, none.
If you need the music to think it over:
OK, here’s the question: For which failings of the agency that he purports to run, will David Hansell, commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services take responsibility?

And that’s why, ever since David Hansell become commissioner, New York City’s vulnerable children have been in more jeopardy.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

News and commentary round-up, week ending June 25, 2019

● Two very good pieces of children’s rights legislation passed the New York State Legislature last week. 

One bill, discussed in this story, would provide modest reforms to New York State’s Central Registry of alleged child abusers.  It also would raise the standard for a caseworker deciding to “substantiate” a case from one of the lowest in the nation to the same absurdly low standard in most states.

The other bill puts children’s rights ahead of the convenience of foster and adoptive parents.  It’s the topic of this post to this blog.

● ProPublica Illinois has an outstanding story about how, for decades, the Illinois child welfare agency has violated a consent decree that requires only what should be a basic human right: that children and families get services – and placement settings – where people speak their own language.  I have a blog post about the story, with a link to the full story.

● The headline isn’t great, but this story, from Stateline, is a very good examination of how some states are curbing the worst form of substitute “care” – group homes and institutions (something the group home industry insists just can’t be done).  Of course it helps that most of the states cited have made significant strides in reducing the number of children needlessly taken away in the first place.

● A Texas family with a medically-fragile child files a complaint against a hospital about the child’s medical care.  The hospital promises to respond within 45 days.  The response comes on day 46 – but it’s not from the hospital, not directly anyway.  As a Texas television station reports, the hospital contacted CPS which showed up to take the child on the spot. 

● And I have a blog post on how the latest evaluation of Pittsburgh’s vastly-overhyped child welfare predictive analytics algorithm misses a crucial point when it comes to how to reduce racial bias in the system.

Monday, June 24, 2019

A New York bill would ease the trauma for children whose parents’ rights have been terminated.

Unfortunately, some foster and adoptive parents say preserving their exalted status is more important.   

New York State Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner sponsored
this excellent legislation in part because of her own experience
as a foster child.

Imagine for a moment that, in those millions of cases in which parents divorce, we had a very different set of laws than exists today.

Suppose the laws worked like this: If the parents could work out their own custody and visitation arrangements, fine. But if they couldn’t, then courts would be required, automatically and in every case, to deem one of the parents “unfit.”  The children would be denied all contact with the “unfit” parent.  No visits. No phone calls. No video chats. Not even a birthday card.

There are, in fact, circumstances where a no-contact order is entirely appropriate after a divorce.  But a law that required this result in every situation where parents couldn’t agree obviously would do enormous harm to countless children.

Yet there is one situation in which this draconian cutting-off of contact between child and parent is the norm: Termination of parental rights.

No contact for legal orphans

In almost every state, when the state itself decides that a parent is unfit and terminates that parent's rights, all contact between child and parent is cut off.  The cutoff is immediate.  Even if the child is languishing in a foster home or a group home – with no adoption in sight – the parents become legally dead to that child.  That’s why, when such children never find a permanent home, they are known as legal orphans.

A handful of states do it differently.  No, they don’t require contact after termination of parental rights.  But they allow a judge to order such contact if the judge is persuaded that this would be in the best interests of the child.  The laws apply both in cases where children are legal orphans and cases where they have been adopted.

A bill now on the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo would add New York to these states. 

The bill has the strong support of groups that defend families in New York courts – and they are family defenders not, as one news account claimed, “parents’ rights activists.” It also has the strong support of legal aid groups that represent children in child welfare cases – precisely because they recognize that such contact sometimes is in the best interests of children.

Indeed, the prime sponsor of the bill in the New York State Assembly, Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner, D-Bronx, was moved to sponsor the bill in part because of her own experience as a foster child. The prime sponsor in the State Senate, State Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, is a former caseworker.

Who opposes the bill? The usual suspects

So who is against the bill? Among others, of course, the trade association for New York’s private foster care agencies – for decades one of the nation’s more regressive forces in child welfare. (I still treasure a letter of complaint that group sent me when I was a journalist – in 1976.)

But also, the Upstate-based Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York.  Once a relatively progressive force, they now are taking a position that puts the desires of foster and adoptive parents ahead of the needs of children.

I would like to think they don’t speak for most such parents, because their memo opposing the bill reveals some ugly truths about its authors. It is drenched in smears and stereotypes about overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite birth parents, and it wrongly implies that the bill somehow would make contact between children and their birth parents mandatory.

They write:

[I]nstead of being governed by the best interest of the child, instead of allowing the adults involved to work in partnership to best support the child they love, decisions would be driven by the wishes of the biological parent, who has shown through their choices and continued actions that they were unable prioritize [sic] or meet their child’s basic needs.

Elsewhere the memo declares that termination only happens to “biological parents” – itself a pejorative term -- who

…despite being provided extensive support, services and legal representation, were unable to adequately stabilize their lives in order to provide a minimum sufficient level of ongoing care to their children.

This is false on every count. 

For starters, the bill explicitly states that judges should only allow contact if it’s in the best interests of the child – exactly the criterion the foster and adoptive parents claim to support. 

Second, the law would not ban voluntary arrangements between adoptive and birth parents – they are permitted under existing law.  But the bill might serve as an incentive to make adoptive parents more reasonable about reaching such agreements.  Right now, contrary to what is suggested in the memo, these agreements are not true “partnerships” because the adoptive parents have vastly more power.

Even worse is the stereotyping of all parents who lose parental rights.  Some are indeed unfit, and even contact with their children would be harmful to those children.  Others might be, as the memo says, unable to “meet their child’s basic needs” – but why is that grounds to terminate parental rights at all, let alone cut off all contact?  

Even when parents are truly unfit to have custody of their children, it still may well benefit those children to maintain contact.  And everyone in child welfare knows that the line about “extensive support, services and legal representation” is the Disney version. In many cases, the termination was unjustified, the result of a stacked-deck system in which parents often get no help and no effective legal representation.

 150 percent of other parents’ rights is a bit excessive

But the worst part of the memo is the part where the authors pervert an argument that advocates such as myself often have made in other contexts. They write:

This legislation contradicts the legal construct that adoptive parents are the legal parents under the law, imbued with 100% of the rights afforded to all parents, natural or adopted.

No, it doesn’t.

Adoptive parents should indeed have 100 percent of the rights afforded all parents. That’s why they should not be subject to any coercive intervention by child protective services agencies just because of their adoptive status – things like requiring them to present their children to mandated child abuse reporters, or special accounting requirements for adoption subsidies.

But they are not entitled to 150 percent of the rights of other parents.  And that, in effect, is what they have now in this most important area of all. 

The adoptive and foster parents group also claims that if the bill becomes law it will discourage some people from becoming foster or adoptive parents.  But anyone who won’t become a foster or adoptive parent because a new law won’t allow their privileges to be treated as more important than the needs of children really shouldn’t be a foster or adoptive parent.

If this bill is signed into law it would give adoptive parents equal standing with divorced parents – no more, no less.

Because that’s what’s best for the children.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The horribly mundane reasons for child abuse horrors

A ProPublica Illinois story has urgent lessons for state lawmakers – including lessons about the real reasons children “known to the system” sometimes die.

ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Sun-Times have published a searing in-depth report on the harm that has been done, for decades, to thousands of Spanish speaking families by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).  The story, by reporters Melissa Sanchez and Duaa Eldeib is long, and it is worth every minute of your time.

The story found that sometimes because of incompetence, sometimes because of laziness and sometimes because of bias, children’s time trapped in foster care has been prolonged and families needlessly destroyed because DCFS did not provide caseworkers or foster parents who spoke Spanish.

It’s bad enough when children must endure needless foster care while their parents are forced to jump through endless, meaningless hoops.  It’s that much worse when the parents don’t even know what hoops to jump through because the marching orders are in a language they don’t understand.

Illinois promised to fix these problems – in 1977.  It signed a consent decree in response to a class-action lawsuit concerning failure to properly serve Spanish-speaking families.  It’s known as the “Burgos decree” after the family involved in the original case, Leopoldo and Iris Burgos. But, ProPublica Illinois shows, decade after decade, DCFS has violated the decree.

For the children, all of the trauma of separation is compounded when they can’t even communicate with their foster parents.  And if young children are left to languish in such homes, they may wind up speaking in a different language from their own parents.  At that point, the usually white, middle-class foster parents and/or the child welfare agency can play the “bonding card.” 

Well yes, they may say, maybe we never should have taken the children in the first place, and we certainly shouldn’t have kept them all this time, but tough luck Mom and Dad, your kids have “bonded” with strangers.  And tough luck kids – you’ll never see your parents again, unless you can find them when you become adults. 

Fatal miscommunication

I’ll come back to this part of the story below.  But first, the ProPublica Illinois story teaches another vital lesson. It’s about the real reasons for the horror stories that often drive child welfare policy – in many cases, driving that policy off a cliff.  These lessons are particularly important right now in Illinois, where one such horror story has prompted some lawmakers and others to scapegoat the state’s efforts to keep families together, almost certainly setting off a foster-care panic.

In fact, the real reasons for child abuse deaths have nothing to do with some Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy.  The real reasons are far more mundane: Workers who are poorly trained, underqualified, and often so overloaded with false allegations and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect that they don’t have time to investigate any case properly. 

And now, ProPublica Illinois’ reporting illustrates another reason – just as horrible because, like the others, it is so mundane: The workers didn’t speak the right language.

ProPublica Illinois examined reports from the office of the DCFS Inspector General and found three such cases.  Sanchez and Eldeib write:

One case involved a 6-month-old boy who died in a 2005 trailer fire in western Illinois. A DCFS investigator had previously visited the home with an interpreter and noted potentially hazardous space heaters. The investigator relied on the interpreter’s opinion that the space heaters were safe. Nobody warned the family about the risk, the father later told the Belleville News-Democrat.
“If they would have told us it was bad,” he said, “we would have gotten rid of them.” …
In another case, a DCFS worker who did not speak Spanish relied on a number of interpreters, including relatives, while investigating the abuse of an 8-month-old boy in 2004 in Aurora, a heavily Latino suburb west of Chicago. DCFS closed its investigation of the case, but the baby died a few days later after being shaken. His father was convicted of murder. …
In yet another case, no Spanish-speaking hotline operators were available in 2010 to take a call reporting suspected abuse of a 1-year-old girl. By the time the caller finally got through two days later and then, later still, an investigator checked in on her, the bruises had faded.
The girl died a few days later of suffocation and blunt force trauma.

But lawmakers can’t score cheap political points by promising to hire more Spanish-speaking   It’s so much easier, and cheaper, to invent a bogeyman -- efforts to keep families together – even though independent monitors, appointed in response to another lawsuit settlement, found that as Illinois curbed needless foster care, child safety improved.
caseworkers and interpreters.

Now, about playing the bonding card

ProPublica Illinois illustrates its story with three cases spanning generations: The original Burgos case that led to the consent decree, which started in 1972, a tragedy of needless removal from 1997, the year the Illinois system was at its worst thanks to a previous foster-care panic, and a case that began in 2014 and still is underway.

The latter case involves Jorge Matias, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. As the story points out, Matias has never been accused of abusing or neglecting his children.  His only “crime” was maintaining a relationship with the children’s mother, who was addicted to heroin. 

When Matias’ first child was confiscated at birth he was placed by a private agency, Children’s Home & Aid, with foster parents Jana and Peter Palenik. They did not speak Spanish – and they chose not to speak English at home.  They spoke to the boy in their native language – Slovak.

Odds are there are very few native Slovak speaking children who are taken from their parents.  So the fact that these foster parents refused even to speak English at home should have immediately disqualified them, since, inevitably, this would make it harder for older foster children to communicate, and harder for the youngest children to maintain any relationship with their own parents.

It’s not clear when Children’s Home & Aid and DCFS found out about the foster parents’ Slovak-only policy – but caseworkers visiting the home should have noticed how the foster parents were communicating with the infant in their care.

Yet the child not only was not returned to the father from whom he never should have been taken, he was not moved to the home of relatives who say they were – and remain – willing to care for him.  He was not even moved to a foster home with Spanish-speaking strangers.  Then when Matias had another child by the same mother, that child also was placed with the Slovak speakers.  A third child was placed with Matias’ relatives. (By the time that child was born, DCFS was under fire from the Inspector General’s office for its handling of the case.)

A recommendation for TPR

As the children continued to bond with their Slovak-speaking foster parents, and because Matias wouldn’t throw the woman he loved under the bus, Children’s Home and Aid recommended termination of parental rights and awarding guardianship to the foster parents, who started talking about adoption.

It looked like things might finally change in July 2018, when the DCFS Inspector General – generally no friend of families – criticized the handling of the case.  According to ProPublica Illinois her interim report

indicated serious bias against Matias and an unnecessary delay in finding a permanent home for his children. The inspector general recommended that DCFS conduct its own review and decide if Children’s Home & Aid should be removed from the case. DCFS took over the case and opened an internal investigation into whether Matias’ Burgos rights had been violated.

But the next month, on the very day he was supposed to meet with his new caseworker, Matias was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  According to ProPublica Illinois: “An ICE spokeswoman said agents had been outside his apartment building looking for someone else; they didn’t target Matias, who had no criminal record.” But Matias “still wonders if somebody involved in his children’s case reported him to immigration authorities.”

Three months later, Matias was deported to Guatemala. He wants his children to live with him there, and continues to fight for them in court, appearing via video link.

If his children can’t be with him, Matias said he’d like them to live with his relatives in Chicago, not with the Paleniks. “Maybe they were victims, too,” he said of the Paleniks. “But now they want to keep my children.” He fears that if they remain with the Paleniks, they will have an identity crisis later in life. “I want them to know their roots and their relatives,” he said.

A “pattern of biased decision-making”

In February, 2019, three months after Matias was deported, Acting Inspector General Meryl Paniak issued a final report on the case.  It was scathing.  Again from the ProPublica Illinois story:

[Matias’] case, she wrote, was perhaps worse than that of the original Burgos family. …Paniak wrote that “placing any child in a home from birth where they are not taught any language by which they can communicate with their family of origin violates the basic precept of child welfare.” …
The report revealed that Children’s Home & Aid determined Matias was an unfit parent based on unsupported assumptions, including describing him as “mentally ill or impaired” because he didn’t make enough progress toward getting his children back.
The inspector general also found that Children’s Home & Aid conducted excessive drug testing without cause. Matias had not been suspected of using drugs and, records show, never tested positive.
The inspector general recommended that Children’s Home & Aid reimburse DCFS for the costs of the drug testing and present a plan to address the “pattern of biased decision-making that pervaded in this case.”

But then it was time to play the bonding card.  Despite the fact that the prolonged foster care was the fault of DCFS and Children’s Home & Aid, and despite one instance after another of wrongdoing that caused the needless separation and trauma, the acting inspector general said there was a “dilemma” concerning what do to.

This is, of course, what bad child welfare agencies count on – playing the bonding card.  Indeed, Donald Trump’s functionaries are using the identical argument to keep apart some of the families they tore apart in the first place at the Mexican border.

In fact, Matias has shown remarkable compassion and restraint concerning the Paleniks. There is nothing to indicate that he would deny the children ongoing contact with them were he to regain custody.  And, in the decades since the claims about bonding first became part of child welfare orthodoxy we’ve learned that bonding is more complicated than simply running a stopwatch.  It’s also become clear, as I discuss here, that in American child welfare, you only get to play the bonding card if you’re white and middle-class.

But regardless, there should be no dilemma here.  One of the things we owe our children is a just society.  In a just society no child need ever be afraid that when they grow up their children might be taken from them just because someone with more money and lighter skin wants to keep them for their very own.  We will never achieve such a society as long as child welfare agencies are allowed to play the bonding card in order to get away with doing whatever they want to poor families of color.

I'll close with a question I've posed before: If I kidnap your child at birth, flee to Mexico, take really good care of him, and then come back four years later, can I keep him?  Letting child welfare agencies play the bonding card amounts to giving them a license to steal poor people’s children.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

No, you can’t use predictive analytics to reduce racial bias in child welfare

And if you’re claiming success in reducing racial disparities by ensnaring more white children in the system instead of fewer children of color, you’re missing the point.

Pittsburgh's supposed success in reducing child welfare racial disparities
consists mostly of slapping scarlet number "risk scores" on more children such as these.

“When it comes to stopping state-sanctioned violence – whether an unjustified police shooting or child removal – shouldn’t we use the most advanced tools at hand?” Daniel Heimpel, publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change, asks in the conclusion of a recent column. 

Since he’s long been one of the most ardent supporters of using predictive analytics in child welfare, [UPDATE: In a tweet, Heimpel takes issue with this characterization, which is based on my impression of years of Chronicle stories] his answer is unsurprising: “It seems to me that predictive analytics – which has been so maligned as the harbinger of automated racism – could actually be a key to eroding its hold.”

But the principal child welfare study Heimpel cites teaches a very different lesson.

Whodunit vs. who might do it

Heimpel begins by suggesting that predictive analytics could be used to find caseworkers who are racially biased – as demonstrated, presumably, by the fact that they are outliers in the number of times they “substantiate” alleged child abuse or neglect or remove children from families of color.  He cites research showing that it is possible to pinpoint which police officers stop and frisk African-Americans at a disproportionate rate.

But that’s not predictive analytics. That’s just math.  You’re not predicting what people are going to do – you’re just looking at what they’ve actually done. In other words, you’re looking for whodunit, not who might do it next week or next year. If all the other variables, such as nature of allegations, income of the family, etc. are the same, and a few workers are far more “trigger happy” about removing children of color than most others, odds are those workers have a bias problem.

Of course, there’s also an underlying assumption that child protective services agency administrators want to find such workers and change their behavior.  It is at least as likely that many CPS agencies would seek out and punish workers who are more cautious than most about substantiating alleged abuse and removing children – because take-the-child-and-run is a terrible policy for children but it’s often good politics.  That’s one reason why we have foster-care panics.

In any event, predictive analytics applied to families is very different. As I discuss in detail here, it’s more like the dystopian sci-fi movie Minority Report.

When the images happen to be true

Heimpel writes that “The idea of using predictive analytics in child welfare easily conjures images of child abuse investigators targeting parents a machine deems likely to harm their children.”
Yes, it does. Because those images are accurate.

The “machine” uses a series of data points, many involving whether a family is poor, and uses it to “predict” if that family will abuse or neglect a child in the future.  But if the data points are biased – confusing poverty with neglect, for example, then the predictions are likely to be biased.  Virginia Eubanks, author of Automating Inequality aptly calls it poverty profiling.  And Prof. Dorothy Roberts, an NCCPR board member, advances Eubanks’ analysis to show the racial bias as well.

Furthermore, when actually put into effect, these models have been shown to have enormously high rates of false positives – predicting terrible harm will come to children when in fact it didn’t.

But what about Pittsburgh?

Heimpel cites a recent evaluation of the nation’s most advanced predictive analytics model, one I’ve criticized often, the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST) used in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County, Pa. For every neglect call received by the county, AFST generates a risk score between 1 and 20 – an invisible “scarlet number” that supposedly predicts how likely it is that a given child will be harmed.  The number then helps call screeners decide when to screen out a call and when to send a caseworker out to investigate.

The evaluation suggests that AFST reduced racial disparities at one child welfare decision point – opening a case for investigation.  And it did.  But in the worst possible way.

As the evaluation itself acknowledges, this achievement was accomplished through

increases in the rate of white children determined to be in need of further child welfare intervention coupled with slight declines in the rate at which black children were screened-in for investigation. Specifically, there was an increase in the number of white children who had cases opened for services, reducing case disparities between black and white children. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, what they’re really saying in Pittsburgh is: Great news!  We’re running around labeling so many more white parents as child abusers that we’ve reduced racial disparities!  (“Opened for services,” is a euphemism, by the way. It means the caseworker decided the allegation should be “substantiated” and the family put under the thumb of the child protective services agency.)

This is rather like a child welfare system suddenly throwing thousands more children into foster care, sending those children home after only a few days and then saying “Great news, folks!  Our average length of stay in foster care has plummeted!”

Given all we know about the enormous harm of needless child abuse investigations and needless foster care, the solution to racial disparities should involve treating black families more like white families, not the other way around.

And nowhere mentioned in the evaluation is something else that happened after AFST was implemented – something deeply disturbing: There was a sharp, sudden spike in the number of children torn from their parents in 2017.  In a typical year, Allegheny County tears children from their parents about 1,000 times. In 2017 that spiked to 1,200 before returning to 1,019 in 2018. 

We don’t know of AFST contributed to the spike – the evaluation never addresses it.  But in the past the longtime director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS), Marc Cherna, has taken pride in avoiding such spikes in entries.  This time, there is silence.

And even the usual number of removals in Pittsburgh, about 1,000 per year, is disturbingly high. When compared to the number of impoverished children it represents a rate-of-removal as bad as Phoenix, which has the highest rate-of-removal among child welfare systems in America’s largest cities, and worse than Philadelphia, which is second worst.  If anything, all this raises questions about whether Cherna, the one-time reformer who has led Allegheny County DHS for decades, has stayed too long. 

AFST widens the net

Indeed, among the deeply disturbing findings of this evaluation is that AFST is widening the net of coercive, traumatic state intervention into families, with no actual evidence that children are safer.  And the results would be even worse if not for the fact that the human beings who screen calls are “standing up to the algorithm” more often than the county seems to have expected.  But DHS appears to want to prevent this, so the effects of AFST on families are only likely to worsen.

A flawed measure of accuracy ...

The evaluators made their case that AFST has improved accuracy based on the following premise: Workers who go out to investigate cases are concluding that a greater proportion of them warrant further intervention.  And since the investigators don’t know the actual scarlet number – somewhere between 1 and 20 for each child in the family – the evaluation assumes AFST must be singling out a greater proportion of cases where there really is a need for DHS to intervene.

Here’s the problem.  The investigators don’t know if the scarlet number was, say, a 6 or an 18. But the investigators know enough for the very existence of AFST to bias their decision-making.  They know that the algorithm that is the pride of Allegheny County, and has gotten an avalanche of favorable national attention is probably what sent them into this home in the first place. That alone probably is enough to make them more skittish about potentially “defying” the algorithm and saying there’s no problem here.  So what the report claims is an increase in accuracy is more likely a self-fulfilling prophecy. the net grows wider

A child abuse investigation is not a benign act.  Even when it does not lead to removal it can be enormously traumatic for children.  But under AFST this trauma is increasing. According to the evaluation, before AFST the proportion of reports “screened in” was declining.  AFST stopped that decline.  That is deeply disturbing in itself, all the more so when combined with the one-year increase in entries into care noted earlier.

The human factor

The one bit of good news in this evaluation is that the human beings who do the actual screening have been less afraid to stand up to the algorithm than I’d expected.  But what’s interesting here is the fact that DHS seems to be upset by this.

One of the biggest selling points for AFST has been that it’s supposedly just a tool, something that gives advice to the screeners who still, with their supervisors, are making the actual decisions.  According to the evaluation:

“…there is considerable lack of concurrence with the AFST by call screeners … only 61 percent of the referrals that scored in the ‘mandatory’ screen-in range were, in fact, screened in.  Therefore, the county will continue to work with call screeners to understand why they might be making these decisions.”

That does not sound like DHS is happy with the screeners daring to question the algorithm.  It’s frightening to think of the effects on the poorest communities in Allegheny County if DHS takes this one “brake” off AFST.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

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

● There’s nothing unusual about a child protective hotline being used as a weapon of family destruction by those making malicious false reports and by “mandated reporters” making CYA calls.  It is unusual when the child protective services agency admits this is a problem – even when they won’t actually do anything about it.  That’s what’s happing in New Mexico, as revealed in an excellent story from Searchlight New Mexico.  And I have a blog post about what could be done about the problem if agencies ever mustered up the courage to do it.

● Still another abuse of families is state central registers of alleged child abusers. They’re really easy to get on and really hard to get off.  WNYC Public Radio has a story about how that hurts children and families.

● Did racial bias prompt Texas child welfare authorities to needlessly tear a black child from his parents? Yes. Who says so? The caseworker assigned to the case.  The Houston Chronicle has the story; a story that also illustrates why the longtime flack for the state child welfare agency needs to see an otolaryngologist.  All that time defending the indefensible has compromised his sense of smell.

A Forbes commentator writes about a new study in JAMA Network Open, part of the Journal of the American Medical Association network of medical journals. The study found that child neglect decreased in states that chose to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The story includes a link to the study.  In an invited commentary in JAMA Network Open the author says the findings may indicate “an unexpected benefit” of Medicaid expansion.  But by now we should realize that nothing is more predictable.

● Prof. Martin Guggenheim, co-director of the New York University School of Law Family Defense Clinic (and President of NCCPR) and Susan Jacobs, founding executive director of the Center for Family Representation discuss the implications of that landmark study demonstrating the success of high-quality family defense in safely reducing foster care.

● And I have a postscript to the brilliant Netflix series When They See Us. It’s about how the mother of one of the Exonerated Five, Sharonne Salaam, went on to help reform child welfare in New York City.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Weapon of family destruction: Child abuse hotline becomes a tool of harassment through false and malicious reports – according to the people who run it!

But, of course, actually doing something about it is another matter

Image by cbsperna from Pixabay

Every state has some sort of child abuse “hotline” that people can call to report alleged abuse and neglect.  Every state allows such calls to be made anonymously.  And many professionals are “mandated reporters” required to report their slightest suspicion of alleged abuse or neglect. 

There is no enforceable penalty for a false report and plenty of penalty for failure to report – even though in the half century since the first mandatory reporting laws passed there has not been a single study documenting their effectiveness, and some one-time supporters of such laws have had second thoughts.

“Mandatory reporting requirements were adopted without evidence of their effectiveness; no reliable study has yet demonstrated their positive or negative effects on the health and well-being of children at risk of maltreatment, their parents and caregivers and service providers.”

The result is predictable: False allegations inundate the hotlines. Some are malicious – often from schools striking back at parents demanding better education for their children. Others are CYA referrals from mandated reporters terrified not to report.

HuffPost and the Hechinger Report documented the nationwide problem last year.

The first step is admitting you have a problem

But there is something new in New Mexico.  For the first time that I know of, a state child protective services agency actually admits there is a problem.

The admission comes in an excellent story by Ed Williams of the nonprofit New Mexico news site Searchlight New Mexico.  That state only centralized its hotline in 2011.  But, Williams reports that officials at the state Children Youth and Families Department

have been raising concerns over malicious use of the abuse and neglect reporting system ever since … As soon as the phones started ringing at the Statewide Central Intake call center in 2011 … [r]eports started coming in that were clearly false, and often malicious or retaliatory in nature.
"Every hour we spend sorting out false and malicious allegations is an hour taken from a frightened child who truly needs our help," said then-Secretary Yolanda Deines, during a press conference shortly after the hotline’s launch.
"Please find a healthier way to express your anger, and don't take time away from a child who might be in danger," Deines said.
Eight years later, CYFD employees say that the Statewide Central Intake office, or SCI, continues to receive malicious reports on an almost daily basis, most commonly from school staff and divorced couples in the midst of custody battles. A lack of data, however, has led to questions within CYFD about the frequency of such calls.
 “We don’t want our agency to be used as a mean guard dog” to bully parents, said SCI manager Paul Williams. “But I see it all day long.”

It isn’t just parents who are bullied, however.  In the case at the center of Williams’ story, from the small town of Carrizozo, a child was being bullied.  Other children in the family allegedly were denied their rights to special education.  Their mother, Christy Cartwright, did what any good mother would do: She raised hell.

The school allegedly did what any lousy school would do: They weaponized child protective services and used it to bully the entire family.

The school principal denies that the calls were retaliation. But he also denies that bullying even exists in his school!  Here’s what he said during a taped meeting with Cartwright:

“Everything’s ‘bully, bully, bully,’ that’s all you ever hear about.  I’m telling you for a fact, there is no bullying at this school.”

Indeed, Williams reports, in one of their calls to the hotline, the school alleged that Cartwright was “brain washing the children to say they are bullied at school.”

(Oddly, this principal has yet to be recognized by national education leaders for having the only school in America in which there is absolutely no bullying.)

This case is not isolated.  As Williams writes:
 Searchlight New Mexico has spoken with 28 parents who shared personal stories of retaliation by school employees. Almost invariably, those instances of alleged retaliation followed arguments with the school over special education programs or student behavior problems in class.

Huffpost and The Hechinger Report found much the same.

But while CYFD is willing to admit the problem, they’re not actually willing to do anything about it.

“There is a potential for the system to be abused, and CYFD could take a proactive role,” said CYFD Deputy Secretary Terry Locke. “But the tradeoff is that we might dissuade people from making [valid] calls. The question I have is, have these calls been enough of an issue for us that we would consider an action like that?” [Emphasis added.]

This is worth examining in detail.

First, a child abuse investigation is not a benign act.  At a minimum, children endure the trauma of strangers coming to their home, asking about the most intimate aspects of their lives, turning the house upside down, and leaving everyone in fear. If the allegation is physical or sexual abuse, the children may be subjected to a strip search and an intrusive medical examination. If anyone else did that, it would be sexual abuse. 

So even one needless hotline call such call should be “enough of an issue” to prompt action, just as even one case of child abuse should be “enough of an issue” to warrant action.

Second, as CYFD comes close to admitting, the bigger risk when it comes to missing real abuse is all that time wasted on false reports.

There are solutions

Whether the harm to children is inflicted by a small public school in rural New Mexico or an elite private school in New York City, if child protective services agencies really wanted to stop the institutionalized bullying of children and families by schools and others who abuse their hotlines there are several steps they could persuade state legislatures to take:

● Replace anonymous reporting with confidential reporting.  If a teacher or principal or anyone else who may have a grudge or someone who simply may be clueless wants to claim that a parent is abusing a child, that person should be required to give the hotline operator his or her name and verifiable contact information.  That information still should be kept secret from the accused in almost all cases, but the hotline needs to know. 

That will immediately discourage false and trivial reports.  It also will allow hotlines to detect patterns of false or malicious reporting, screen out such reports – and bring charges when necessary.  The law also should allow the accused to go to a judge and explain why s/he feels the family is being harassed by false reports, and by whom.  The judge should check the record and, if the accused is right, and if the judge is persuaded that the reports are an act of harassment, the name should be released to the accused, who should have the right to sue for damages.

● Eliminate mandatory reporting.  Let professionals use their professional judgment concerning when to report alleged child abuse.  As noted above, there is not a shred of evidence that mandatory reporting laws actually have made children safer.  And the fact that more than 80 percent of reports nationwide are false suggests strong evidence that mandatory reporting is inundating the system, stealing time from finding children in real danger.

● Eliminate the category of “educational neglect.” A majority of states actually don’t have such a category in their child abuse statutes – they treat the failure of children to make it to school as exactly what it is, an educational problem for which school districts should be responsible.  A decade ago the highly-regarded Vera Institute of Justice found that overwhelmingly, these are low-risk cases, and it's idiotic to waste the time of child protective services dealing with them. In addition to wasting the time of CPS workers, sending a CPS worker to the door only makes the family defensive and makes it harder to solve whatever problem may be causing absenteeism. Details on the findings are in this post.

● If you don’t have the guts to do the first three, at least change the messaging.  Training for mandated reporters should include not just what to report but also what not to report.  And instead of constantly telling anyone and everyone to report anything and everything, no matter how absurd, urge people to report only when they have reasonable cause to suspect abuse or neglect.

Read the full story about the Cartwright family in Searchlight New Mexico

Thursday, June 13, 2019

From a criminal justice tragedy, a child welfare hero

A postscript to Ava DuVerney’s searing Netflix drama about the Central Park Five EXONERATED Five.

Ava DuVernay (Photo by Sandra Moreno)

One of the few moments of hope in the first episode of When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s searing drama about five boys falsely accused of rape in New York’s Central Park in 1989, comes when the mother of one of the accused confronts the lead persecutor (that’s not a misprint) and demands that the illegal interrogation of her son stop immediately – or she’ll contact The New York Times.

As a result, Yusef Salaam is saved from making a false, coerced confession – saved by his mother Sharonne Salaam.  (It does not save him from being convicted as a result of the appalling behavior of everyone from the police to the district attorney to much of the media to a certain sleazy New York real estate developer.)

Ultimately Yusef Salaam and the others were exonerated, but not before spending years in jail for a crime they didn’t commit. 

But Sharonne Salaam didn’t stop with fighting for her own son.  She formed an organization, People United for Children. 

As David Tobis explains in his book From Pariahs to Partners: How Parents and Their Allies Changed New York’s Child Welfare System, PUC originally focused on helping youth incarcerated in New York’s juvenile justice system.  But, Tobis writes,

Salaam soon realized … that problems for children in the juvenile justice system begin farther upstream in the child welfare system, which she saw as a main feeder for the juvenile justice system. She says that PUC “made the decision to take the preventive approach by stopping the cycle of children first entering the foster care system . . . ”  By 1996 PUC had become, as Salaam later accurately wrote, “the Harlem community’s best-informed advocates for foster care children.” …

Before the issue of racial bias in child welfare was on almost anyone else’s radar, PUC and the Center for Law and Social Justice sued the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) over the widespread needless removal of Black children from their homes.

Salaam’s fierce determination (portrayed well in the series by Aunjanue Ellis) and PUC’s militancy were critical factors in building the infrastructure of family advocacy that led to significant child welfare reform in New York City.

As Tobis writes, Salaam

recognizes that her militancy made other organizations demand more from ACS and made the positions of moderate groups more acceptable to ACS. The extremes define the center, and PUC was on the far end of the spectrum. Salaam says, “We were able to push CWOP [the Child Welfare Organizing Project], and they were able to seek out more.”

Sharonne Salaam remains a social justice advocate. She now runs a group called Justice 4 the Wrongfully Incarcerated.

As for the D.A. …

As for the District Attorney, Linda Fairstein, she did just fine in the years after the trial.  She became, as The New York Times put it, “a best-selling crime novelist and celebrity former prosecutor.”  She served on the boards of directors of several prestigious organizations including Safe Horizon, whose work includes running a network of “Child Advocacy Centers” in which police, prosecutors, caseworkers and “clinical forensic specialists” come together to interview and examine children alleged to be victims of child abuse.

Safe Horizon’s website includes a list of so-called “signs of child abuse” that include almost every possible negative change in a child’s behavior.  The website describes these as “common” signs of abuse.  There is not even the usual boilerplate note of caution that these could be  “signs” of anything other than child abuse.

In the weeks since When They See Us started streaming on Netflix, Fairstein has lost some of her privileges. She resigned under pressure from Safe Horizon.  But Salaam and the other accused were exonerated all the way back in 2002.  That same year, Sharonne Salaam’s confrontation with Fairstein was described in a critical story about the D.A. in The Village Voice.

That story cites a Newsday interview in which an appellate court judge who dissented from an opinion upholding the convictions of Yusef Salaam and the others said:

“I was concerned about a criminal justice system that would tolerate the conduct of the prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, who deliberately engineered the 15-year-old’s confession. . . . Fairstein wanted to make a name. She didn’t care. She wasn’t a human.”

But that didn’t prompt any action concerning Fairstein. 

Then, the abuses in the case were exposed in a Ken Burns documentary in 2012.  That didn’t change anything either.

Why didn’t Safe Horizon act until now?

For her part, Fairstein has been all over the place claiming she is the real victim here.  She says she was portrayed unfairly in the series.  To hear her tell it, you’d think she was the victim of, how might one put it?  A miscarriage of justice?

For more about When They See Us, and the case on which it is based, see these excellent commentaries in The New York Times from culture critic Salamishah Tillet and columnist Jim Dwyer.