Too much thinking stands in the way of an ever-larger child welfare surveillance state
In the climactic scene of Inherit the Wind
a film loosely based on the Scopes Monkey Trial,
the character based on Clarence Darrow – making the case for the right to teach
evolution - is questioning the character based on William Jennings Bryan, who
makes the case for creationism.
But the Darrow character argues that more than creationism
vs. evolution is at stake.
really is about the right to think:
I love that scene.
suspect a lot of my fellow liberals love it, too.
Science, after all, is all about thinking,
and only fundamentalists could oppose that, right?
In fact, it’s preposterous to even imagine a
field in which women and men of science – doctors, no less – would actually
urge their fellow professionals to do less thinking – uh, right?
Well, not exactly.
Because in the upside-down inside-out world of child welfare, there are
medical professionals who are doing exactly that – literally.
Andrew Brown, director of the Center for Families and
Children at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, first brought this to light in
an excellent op-ed column for The Hill
doctor will accuse you now.”
He writes about how two doctors, Richard
Klasco, a professor of emergency medicine, and Daniel Lindberg, a professor of
pediatrics, are urging their colleagues to adopt an approach they themselves
less, screen more.”
The idea is this: If a child has certain injuries, sometimes
even something as minor as a bruise, these injuries are more likely – or, a
better way to put it – less unlikely
to be caused by abuse than other injuries.
Up to now, doctors have been told to consider these injuries
in the context of things like family medical history and the plausibility of a
If there is still
genuine concern that the injury might be a sign of another problem – be it
abuse or a medical condition – they’re supposed to refer the child for
additional medical tests, in particular x-rays – which then are reviewed by
professionals who, again, are supposed to consider all possible explanations.
Getting rid of that
But under the think less-screen more approach, we get rid of
all those other pesky considerations.
● First, the proponents say, we have to vastly expand the
definition of what kinds of injuries are deemed suspicious – or maybe even
eliminate definitions altogether and deem any
visit by any
child to an
emergency room suspicious.
● Then any such injury, or ER visit, regardless of family
medical history or explanation, should automatically prompt, at a minimum, a
demand for a “skeletal survey” – equivalent to 20 standard x-rays of the child.
As a family profiled by Brown in his op-ed put it in
their own post
, it’s like leaping from: “smoking causes lung cancer” to “anyone
who has lung cancer is a smoker.”
Actually, it’s worse. The treatment for lung cancer is
likely to be the same regardless of the cause.
But if one leaps to the conclusion that any bruise of a certain nature
is probably child abuse, the consequences for the child can be far worse.
Lindberg and Klasco summarize their case, and use the term
“think less, screen more” in an op-ed
for Time magazine.
But Lindberg goes into far more detail in an essay
for the Journal of Pediatrics.
That essay is co-authored by Dr. Rachel
Berger. She runs the “Child Advocacy Center” in the Department of Pediatrics at
the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Children’s Hospital.
She also is prone to minimize the enormous
harm of foster care, as can be seen in a commentary she co-authored
that is discussed
toward the end of this previous NCCPR Blog post
It’s not that Lindberg, Klasco and Berger are ill-motivated.
On the contrary.
The nature of their
work means they see the very worst that parents can do to their children (though the
nature of their work also means they see it so often that it may distort their perception of
how often it happens). Like all of us, they are genuinely horrified and want to do something
What they don’t seem to see, however,
are the horrifying consequences for children of false allegations and needless
So in their current article, Berger and Lindberg say referring a child for a skeletal survey, and sometimes even more tests, based
on suspicion of child abuse should be routine whenever there is a so-called “sentinel
injury,” a term typically applied to a narrow range of bruises and other
injuries in infants.
That’s not because children with sentinel injuries probably
In fact, in any given year, of all Americans under age 18, fewer than
two-tenths-of-one-percent were believed by child protective services workers to
be victims of any form of physical abuse, from the most minor (some CPS workers
consider a spanking to be abuse) to the most severe.
(Even if we assume that the “real number” is
twice as high, which is unlikely,* that still means more than 99.5 percent of
American children are not physically abused in any way in any given year.)
But, Berger and Lindberg argue, the
percentage who show up with “sentinel injuries” and were abused isn’t as
Nevertheless, Berger and Lindberg call for vastly broadening
the types of injuries that should be deemed “sentinel injuries” and raising the
age for labeling them “sentinel injuries” to age 4. And maybe not just actual
injuries. Berger and Lindberg say even a baby’s “fussiness” could be a sign of serious abuse.
If the family doctor – or any other medical practitioner -
sees a "sentinel injury," the authors argue, the doctor should, literally
“think less, screen more” -- put the family under suspicion and send them to
the hospital for a battery of tests on the child.
Those tests may be evaluated by doctors who are
so-called “child abuse pediatricians.” Even when they don’t have that
designation, the doctors looking at all those x-rays may be
predisposed to find abuse by the very fact that child abuse is the suspicion
that prompted the referral in the first place.
But even that isn’t enough for Berger and Lindberg.
They go on to cite, with approval, a mechanism
Berger developed in which every
who is brought in to an emergency room is automatically “screened” for abuse and,
presumably, further tests, via a checklist of “risk factors” – regardless of
whether there are “sentinel” injuries. The results go into the child’s
electronic health record. And here’s the great news, they write: Berger’s model
is based on one already “validated” in the Netherlands.
But you have to follow the endnote to the
actual Dutch study
to learn that the checklist got it wrong more than 89
percent of the time.
But so what? say Berger and Lindberg. Lots of medical tests
are performed routinely for screening and come up negative in most cases.
But none of those other tests can result in a
child being confiscated on-the-spot and consigned to the chaos of foster care.
Berger and Lindberg's approach would place many more families under suspicion. That, in turn, would place their children at
exactly that risk.
It gets even more
But the absurdity is just beginning.
Berger and Lindberg actually call for less thinking on the
grounds that it will eliminate bias!
other words, no need to worry about, say, being too suspicious of Black parents
and needlessly demanding they get their kids x-rayed if you simply suspect
everyone and demand that all parents whose children have certain symptoms
subject those children to testing.
On the one hand, I suppose it’s progress that these doctors acknowledge that bias among their colleagues is so pervasive and so deep that the solution is to bar them from even thinking.
But even if one assumes vastly widening the
net of a cruel, stressful intervention into children’s lives is the best way to
eliminate bias, there’s still a problem – it doesn’t eliminate bias; it just
kicks that particular can down the road.
X-rays don’t read themselves.
Conclusions are drawn by doctors.
In this scenario, the doctors already know
that the referral is based on a suspicion of child abuse.
If you add to that the fact that the family
walking through the door for those x-rays is a family of color you have just as
much, if not more, potential for bias than existed before.
Bias may be even more likely if the person looking at those
x-rays is a so-called “child abuse pediatrician” and/or part of a “child abuse
team.” This is a new subspecialty in which people who already have the
certification supervise the training of other doctors who want the same
certification. So whatever biases might have been there when the subspecialty
was created, in 2009, are likely to be perpetuated.
I am aware of no studies concerning who becomes a child
abuse pediatrician and why.
I do know
that I have never read a story in which a child abuse pediatrician says: “I
kept finding families who were destroyed, and children who suffered enormously when those parents were wrongly accused of
child abuse. So I vowed to learn everything I could and become a child abuse
pediatrician so I could stop children from being hurt that way, and make sure
we were focusing on children in real danger.”
In her book, They Took the Kids Last Night
defense attorney Diane Redleaf describes case after case of misdiagnosis of
But, she notes, “Not one child abuse pediatrician
I knew of ever admitted their opinions about abuse were ever mistaken.”
She calls the field “a specialty stacked in
favor of finding child abuse.”
And it is not exactly reassuring that Berger, Lindberg and Klasco
all repeatedly minimize the harm of a false accusation.
Lindberg and Klasco claim in their op-ed that
the worst that will happen is that “some non-abused children will be screened,
and some non-abusive parents will be offended.”
As Andrew Brown explains, the worst that can happen is what
happened to the children of Rena and Chad Tyson – after the parents were told to get the child x-rayed and the x-rays found fractures:
Rather than attempting
to find a medical explanation, doctors at the hospital contacted Child
Protective Services. All three of the Tysons’ children were removed by the
state and placed in a kinship foster placement. The family would be separated
for five months while Rana, Chad, and their children’s pediatrician worked to
figure out the cause of the fractures.
The real causes were a series of medical conditions.
But the children were trapped in foster care
and the legal and medical bills bankrupted the family.
Oh, wait, that’s not even the worst.
The Tysons’ children were placed with
relatives and the parents could see them every day.
Anyone care to bet how this “bias-free”
system would have responded had they been poor and nonwhite?
Oh, wait again. We know exactly how it would
respond – the
same way it always responds - as described here.
There are many
, and they all, as the doctors might say, present with similar
symptoms: doctors whose specialty is child abuse jump to the conclusion that
the cause of the “suspicious” injury is child abuse.
Adding even more bias
Berger and Lindberg support approaches that would make the
process even more biased.
For page after
page they go on and on about how decisions can be based on looking objectively
at physical injuries.
But then they
speak admiringly of a frightening surveillance-state process already in place
in Britain thanks to the use of electronic health records.
Berger and Lindberg write:
services] shares information with the National Health Service about children
who are on a “Child Protection Plan.” If that child then receives medical care
in any unscheduled care setting, such as an [emergency department] or urgent
care center, the healthcare team is alerted and given access to the contact
details for the CPS caseworkers and service providers. In addition, CPS is
automatically notified that the child has been to the ED, and both parties can
see details of the child’s previous 25 visits to EDs or urgent cares.
Here’s why that’s so scary.
1. The overwhelming majority of cases in which families are
under some kind of child welfare agency supervision (our equivalent of a “Child
Protection Plan”) don’t involve abuse at all – they involve neglect, where the
determinations are most subjective of all.
Indeed, what CPS workers call neglect often
is simply poverty
2. The people most likely to have “receive[d] medical
care in any unscheduled care setting” are, of course, poor people.
So now, under this plan – which Berger and Lindberg seem to
love – any poor parent “under supervision” because of “neglect” automatically is doubly suspect if s/he has to take a child to the ER.
And visiting the ER, for any reason, becomes
part of the child welfare agency’s case file, ratcheting up suspicion of the
Berger and Lindberg also write approvingly of a system in
New South Wales, Australia, in which a “Child-At-Risk” alert is in the
electronic health record for any child whose parents were subject of any report
alleging child abuse or neglect.
the United States, more than 80 percent of such reports are false reports.
Now throw in "predictive analytics"
As I read all these glowing accounts of building a bigger
and bigger child welfare surveillance state, I thought to myself: Oh God,
imagine what would happen in Pittsburgh, where Dr. Berger works, and where the
child welfare agency already harvests vast troves of data about poor families Cambridge
Analytica-style – that is, without their consent, and uses it against them in its “scarlet number” predictive
Sure enough, just a few paragraphs later, Berger and
Lindberg start singing the praises of the algorithm.
They repeat the
that the Pittsburgh algorithm may have reduced racial
bias; in fact any reduction was solely a result of screening in more white
The solution to bias is not to refer more and more families to
“child abuse pediatricians” for less and less reason.
The whole biased process starts the moment
the family doctor pulls the trigger and sends the family for additional
“screening” when it isn’t necessary.
Berger and Lindberg's approach winds up making all doctors trigger-happy.
But wait, say Berger and Lindberg – at least under the “think
less” approach, if the x-rays don’t show abuse, the family can be cleared – so,
isn’t it worth getting those x-rays?
But that claim is debunked - by accident - in an
in the same issue of the Journal
as the Berger/Lindberg essay.
The editorial, written by Dr. Mary Clyde Pierce, a child abuse
pediatrician, is not a critique – it’s highly-supportive of the “think less”
approach. But, according to the editorial:
sentinel injury in and of itself may be enough to not only prompt a further
workup for other abusive injuries (eg skeletal survey) but also to report the
event to social services regardless of
the results of the additional workup (eg, negative skeletal survey).
(Emphasis added. And by the way, did you notice how Clyde
Pierce says other abusive
a classic example of the bias that pervades the field, the immediate assumption
is that all sentinel injuries are abuse.)
“When the screening
studies are negative, the assumption is sometimes erroneously made that “abuse
is ruled out” or it is not abuse because the screening studies were negative.
These screening studies … cannot “rule out abuse.”
In fact, Clyde Pierce declares, if an infant with a sentinel
injury has no history of trauma and a negative skeletal scan, that actually
might put the infant at even greater risk – by lulling professionals into a
false sense of security that he wasn’t abused!
So you see, in the world of child abuse pediatrics not only
are you guilty until proven innocent, there’s no way to prove your innocence!
fallback argument: Horror stories
In the end, Berger and Lindberg are forced to fall back on
the argument that’s always used to get us to “think
less” – horror stories.
So they tell us all these elements of the child welfare
surveillance state are needed because of the “regular occurrence of fatalities
in children previously reported and screened out by CPS…”
“Regular occurrence" is not, of course, a
It can mean whatever
you want it to mean.
But here’s what we
do know: More than 7.5 million children become “known to the system” every
An enormously generous estimate of
the proportion of those children who die is two-tenths-of-one-percent.
Each of these deaths is the worst form of tragedy, and the
only acceptable goal for such “occurrences” is zero.
But the idea that, in the course of sifting through
reports on about 7.5 million children every year, agencies “regularly” screen out cases in
which children later die is not borne out by those numbers.
On the contrary, it is graphically obvious
that it is an extremely rare occurrence. Here’s the graphic:
For a much more detailed discussion of how figures about
child abuse fatalities are regularly misused to get us to “think less” see
this previous post.
But the best evidence that the surveillance state approach
won’t work comes from the Berger-Lindberg article itself.
The modern process of constantly ratcheting up surveillance
of families began more than half a century ago with the first wave of mandatory
reporting laws requiring certain professionals, especially doctors, to report
their slightest suspicion of abuse or neglect. The scope of the laws and the
professions they cover have steadily increased since, despite the fact that there is no evidence
these laws actually make
In 2009, the medical profession created the subspecialty of
child abuse pediatrics.
Berger and Lindberg say, the number of such doctors has more than doubled and
the scholarly literature has “increased dramatically.”
This vast expansion of the child welfare surveillance state gotten to extreme that one study estimates that at some point during their
childhoods one-third of American children – and more than half of
African-American children will
have to endure a child abuse investigation
Yet Berger and Lindberg themselves admit it hasn’t worked: As
examples, they cite studies showing no change in the proportion of cases of “abusive
head trauma” (AHT) that are being overlooked. (AHT is the new term the field came up with after all that misdiagnosis of “shaken
baby syndrome”) Then they add: “Perhaps most
disturbing is that the number of deaths related to physical abuse has remained
stable at approximately 600 annually.”
By their own admission, all that additional suffering
inflicted on children by the child welfare surveillance state hasn’t done a
damn thing to make children safer.
their solution is to make the surveillance state vastly bigger and more
Perhaps Berger and Lindberg would have seen the
problem with this – if only they’d given it a little more thought.
*-While it is, of course, likely
that some allegations of physical abuse are mistakenly labeled unfounded, the
only study I know of to second-guess these decisions found that caseworkers are
six times more likely to wrongly
substantiate an allegation of child abuse or neglect than to wrongly label it unfounded