Thursday, October 31, 2019

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending October 30, 2019

● Back in 2004, a huge, comprehensive study of that most sacred cow in child welfare, Court-Appointed Special Advocates found that CASAs only accomplishments were to prolong foster care and make it less likely that foster children would be placed with relatives instead of stranger.  Now there’s an even bigger, more comprehensive study – and the results are even worse.

Compared to children who were not assigned CASAs, children with CASAs were less likely to wind up in a permanent home and more likely to endure the worst outcome of all: “aging out” of foster care with no home at all.  I have a blog post about it, with a link to the full study.  I’ve also reprinted our annual Halloween reminder to CASA: It’s not a good idea to have a blackface act at your fundraiser.

● And now for something completely different: One of the best recent takes on the child welfare system came last week from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.  Full Frontal examined the racial and class biases that permeate the system and do enormous harm to children needlessly taken.

The program didn’t get everything right – highlighting a so-called foster parent “shortage” that is, in fact, artificial, created by the very problems Full Frontal examined.  But the segment still is notably better than what we get from many “serious” news organizations.  That’s probably because the writing staff for Full Frontal is more diverse than the staff of most “serious” news organizations.  Have a look:

● Last week, I wrote a blog post about a story in The Correspondent which noted that IBM’s supercomputer, Watson was doing a poor job of telling doctors how to treat illnesses.  In fact, some of Watson’s recommendations were dangerous.  It was one more example about how the hype about using big data to solve our problems doesn’t match the reality.  But at least Watson wasn’t guilty of racial bias.  The Washington Post reports that is more than can be said for another widely-used health care predictive analytics algorithm. That algorithm significantly underestimated the health needs of Black patients.  So if predictive analytics is racially biased when used in law enforcement – which it is – and racially biased when used in medicine – which it is – what does that say about using predictive analytics in child welfare?

● One should never take current or former child welfare agency leaders at their word when they brag about their success.  But when it comes to the claims in this column by the former Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, Joette Katz, the numbers back up the words.  Connecticut did, indeed, dramatically reduce institutionalization and increase the use of kinship foster care during Katz’s tenure.  This column also explains the right way to respond to cases involving substance abuse.

● Nebraska long has removed children at one of the highest rates in the country.  Officially those numbers are finally going down.  But is Nebraska reducing foster care, or just hiding it?

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Is Nebraska reducing foster care – or just hiding it?

For decades Nebraska was a national example of child welfare failure. Year after year the state took away children at one of the highest rates in the nation.  The state human services agency suffered from a succession of poor leaders, including one of the very worst, Todd Landry. Landry even made a sick joke at the expense of vulnerable families.   (Proving that no matter how big a failure you are, there’s always room for you in child welfare, Landry now is in charge of child welfare in Maine.)

Nebraska’s failings are outlined in detail in a report NCCPR released in 2012.

But then it looked like things were turning around.  When Matt Wallen was named Nebraska’s Director of Children and Family Services he took some constructive steps.  The new leader of the entire state health and human services agency, Dannette Smith, appears to want to continue the progress.  The rhetoric coming from her agency certainly has improved.  But do the numbers back up the words?

Officially, the number of children torn from their families in Nebraska dropped significantly in recent years.  Officially, as of 2018, Nebraska’s rate of child removal was “only” about 20 percent above the national average, when rates of child poverty are factored in.

But did removals really decline?

Hidden foster care

It seems that even as official entries into foster care have declined, another kind of foster-care has increased.  In an outstanding law review article on the topic, Prof. Josh Gupta-Kagan of the University of South Carolina School of Law calls it “hidden foster care.”

It’s something I’ve been writing about for a decade now: Child protective services agencies go to a family and coerce them into surrendering their children “voluntarily.”  In fact, there’s usually nothing voluntary about it.  The agency says: Place your children with a relative “voluntarily” or we’ll go to court and place them with total strangers.

In Texas, nearly two-thirds of entries into care occur this way.  There are indications the number may be almost as high in Virginia – though the data are limited.  And now, some Nebraska advocates claim that, in the past couple of years there’s been as one put it “a huge increase” in such placements in Nebraska.

Although we read federal regulations as requiring states to report these entries into foster care in official statistics, typically they don’t – and the federal government has not cracked down on this evasion. Indeed, in an Orwellian twist, some states refer to this as “diversion” from foster care.

It is not. 

Kinship care is foster care

Though placement with a relative is almost always the least harmful form of foster care, kinship care is still foster care.

The issue actually got attention in Nebraska for the wrong reasons.  Whenever the Nebraska child  welfare agency tries to put its dismal past behind it, a fear-mongering chorus rises up, aided and abetted by an Omaha television station that specializes in hype and hysteria over child abuse – which is why I’m not linking to their story. So in this case, the concern is based on the false claim that these hidden foster care placements are less safe, because a court didn’t sign off on them.

In fact, multiple studies have found that kinship foster care – even informal kinship foster care - typically is better for children’s well-being, more stable, and, most important, safer than what should properly be called stranger care. 

The temptation to use hidden foster care in Nebraska is understandable. In Nebraska the courts tend to be even worse than the child welfare agency, particularly in metropolitan Omaha.  Here’s one example. There’s another on Page 41 or our Nebraska report.

So, one could argue, even if the “improvement” in Nebraska consists entirely of placing children with relatives who formerly would have been placed with strangers, that’s still an improvement.

But such placements are too easy to abuse. They deprive families of even the minimal due process protections available when a worker formally removes the child and then goes to court to rubber-stamp the removal.  In Nebraska, we don’t know if these are all cases in which the children otherwise would have been placed with strangers, or if they include cases in which the children would not have been removed at all if the agency had been required to go to court.

And these placements are too easy to hide. 

Because now we don’t know if Nebraska made progress in dealing with its obscene rate of removal, or just found a way to sweep it under the rug.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

#CASAsoWhite: Our annual Halloween reminder to CASA: No, it’s not a good idea to raise money by holding a talent show with a blackface act. (And yes, one CASA chapter actually did that.)

We suggest that the National office for the Court-Appointed Special Advocates program use this item from The Daily Show as a training video

One year ago, responding to former Today Show anchor Megyn Kelly’s appalling attempt to justify blackface, (for which she has apologized) her colleague Craig Melvin noted that, as a CNN story put it, “this controversy is an opportunity to inform people — but said most people already knew how offensive blackface is.”

Most people, but apparently not one chapter of that most sacred cow in child welfare Court-Appointed Special Advocates.  Oh, they’ve probably learned in the years since they included a blackface act in a fundraiser, especially since they apparently eventually apologized – but that is just one example of the racial bias that plagues CASA.  And that, of course, raises fundamental questions about the role of CASA in deciding the fate of children who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately children of color.  Even more questions are raised by the latest study of CASA's effectiveness.

So every Halloween, I plan to reprint this post from 2017:  

This Halloween, The Daily Show offers a useful history lesson: The topic, why it’s a really bad idea for white people to dress up in blackface:

But the lesson isn’t just useful for Halloween. It’s also something that anyone involved with that most sacred cow of child welfare – Court-Appointed Special Advocates -- needs to know.

CASA is a program in which minimally trained volunteers, overwhelmingly white and middle-class, are assigned to families who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite. Then they tell judges if the children should be taken from those families, sometimes forever.   That, of course, raises problems of inherent bias.  But some CASA chapters have made their biases depressingly obvious.

Consider what happened nine years ago in Arkansas City, Kansas. To raise funds for the local CASA chapter, they held a talent competition. The winning act featured the mayor of Arkansas City – dressed in blackface.  The head of the local CASA chapter couldn’t understand why that was a problem.   "It wasn't black black," she said. "It was all really just tan." That’s only the beginning. All the awful details are here.

It would be one thing if this were just an isolated example of racial bias. But it’s not.

● There was the CASA chapter in Marin County, California, which fell apart when the state CASA association merely asked that they strive for more diversity among the volunteers.

● There was the appalling racist rant by someone who says he volunteered in a scandal-plagued Washington State CASA program for 20 years.

● There’s the fact that the most comprehensive study ever done of CASA, a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, found that CASA volunteers spend significantly less time on a case if the child to whom they are assigned is Black.

● And then there’s the question of whether the very structure of CASA makes it, in the words of a law review article, “anexercise of white supremacy.”

Showing the Daily Show video won’t solve all these problems; not even close. But it might help prevent the worst excesses of racial bias in CASA programs.

Originally published, Oct. 30, 2017

Thursday, October 24, 2019

#CASAsoWhite: A big, new study reveals CASA’S biggest #fail yet


A huge, new study of Court-Appointed Special Advocates is out.  It was commissioned – and paid for – by a state CASA program.  It claims to have fixed the alleged methodological failings in other studies.  The results, straight from the study:

 “Overall, children appointed a CASA have significantly LOWER odds than children without a CASA of achieving permanency.” [Emphasis added]

 Compared to children not burdened with a CASA on the case, foster children with CASAs were:

 ● Less likely to be reunified with their own parents.

 ● Less likely to find permanence in the form of guardianship by a relative.

 ● More likely to “age out” of foster care with no home at all.

 ● The results are NOT due to the fact that CASAs are said to be assigned to “the toughest cases.” The researchers took extraordinary steps to account for that.

 The findings are disturbingly similar to a devastating 2004 study of the program. If anything, the new findings are even worse.

Back in 2004, Youth Today revealed the results of the most comprehensive study done to that point concerning the most sacred cow in child welfare: Court-Appointed Special Advocates.

CASAs are overwhelmingly white overwhelmingly middle-class amateurs sent into the homes of people who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately of color.  The amateurs then tell judges what decisions to make and, to a frightening degree, the judges rubber-stamp the recommendations.  Though CASAs almost always mean well, their only real “qualification” typically is their white, middle-class status.  

What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, according to that 2004 study.  The study was commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, which thought it would show the world how successful the program is.  But it didn’t.  Instead, the study found that having a CASA assigned to a case prolonged the time children were trapped in foster care, and made it less likely that children would be placed with relatives instead of strangers – even though multiple studies have found kinship foster care to be far less harmful to children than what should properly be called stranger care.

The study also found that CASAs didn’t really spend that much time on their cases - an average of only 4.3 hours per month for white children – and only 2.67 hours per month for Black children.

CASA has an all-purpose excuse whenever a study doesn't find what CASA wants it to find:  Of course we got poorer results, they say, but that's only because we take on the toughest cases.  The findings, CASA claims, are due to "selection bias."  But the researchers who conducted the 2004 study took rigorous steps to avoid “selection bias” – that is, to be sure they adjusted for any differences in the circumstances of the children with and without CASAs.  Nevertheless, when the results didn’t go the way CASA wanted, National CASA blamed selection bias.  At the time, Youth Today concluded that National CASA’s efforts to spin the study “can border on duplicity.”

What National CASA did not do was commission another study.

But, 15 years later, Texas CASA did.

And it’s a Texas-size study.  The researchers looked at outcomes for 31,754 children, far larger than any previous study.  Not only did Texas CASA commission the study, they also paid for it – and they chose the group that would do the research.  The researchers go on at length about how they’re confident they dealt with the "selection bias." problem. So no, the results are not because the CASAs dealt with tougher cases.

And those results are even worse than the results from the 2004 study.

Delaying “permanency”

If their own writing is to be believed, the Holy Grail for those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, is “permanence” – or, as they call it “permanency,” presumably because adding an extra syllable makes them feel more important.

There are actually good reasons for this. Part of the reason foster care is so inherently harmful is because it is impermanent. Children are first traumatized by being taken from everyone they know and love and then traumatized over and over as they are moved from foster home to foster home, sometimes emerging years later unable to love or trust anyone.

But there are many ways to achieve permanency. The best, of course, is not to tear children needlessly from their parents in the first place.  Second best is swift reunification.  Third best is allowing the child to live in the permanent custody of a relative instead of a stranger.  Fourth on the list is adoption by strangers.  That option has an honorable place in child welfare. Sometimes it is, indeed, the best option.

But when latter-day “child savers” (to use the term their 19th Century counterparts proudly gave themselves) talk “permanency” they’re typically not interested in the first three – they want to jump to option 4: adoption by total strangers; people with whom the child savers can identify because they are more likely to be of the same race and class.

But officially their standard of success is “permanency” – period.

As the Texas study notes:

The CASA program was designed to help children in foster care, and one way the program believes it accomplishes this goal is by getting children into safe, stable, permanent placements.” [Emphasis added.]

So here’s the stunning finding from the massive Texas study: If a child has a CASA, her or his odds of achieving permanency are significantly reduced. 

It should come as no surprise that children with a CASA are 16 percent less likely to be reunified with their own parents. The racial and class bias that prompted one law review article to call CASA an “exercise of white supremacy” ensures this.

But the Texas study found that a child with a CASA is 20 percent less likely to find permanency in any form – and more likely to wind up with the worst outcome of all: “aging out” of the system with no ties to their own family and no permanent home with anyone else either.

Among those who do find “permanency,” children with a CASA are less likely to find that permanency with a relative, and more likely to find it with a total stranger through adoption. 

The researchers acknowledge that their study is not an outlier, writing: “Our findings largely confirm the conclusions of prior research on CASA.”

The spin: Maybe permanency isn’t that important after all

As was the case in 2004, the dismal findings from the new study did not seem to please the study’s authors.  So they came up with all sorts of ways to spin those findings.

First, of course, they speculated that the lower rates of permanency might be because, with all that time to investigate, CASAs may have concluded that “a given placement is not a safe, stable, permanent option.”  But the study itself doesn’t measure whether any such conclusions are accurate.  The 2004 study found, however, that when CASAs prolonged children’s time in foster care and reduced the chances they would be placed with relatives this did nothing to improve child safety. (It also found, of course, that CASAs aren’t really spending all that much time on their cases.)

Then the authors of the new study seem to suggest that permanence may not be all it’s cracked up to be. They write:

While traditionally legal permanency has been the primary focus of the child welfare system there has been a recent shift by some toward a focus on wellbeing and social support outside of permanent placement.  

The “some” in question seems to be the Texas CASA program itself, since the only support cited for this claim is a promotional publication from Texas CASA.  But if that's really what the researchers and/or Texas CASA believe you have to wonder: Why did they go to all this trouble to do a massive study of legal permanency outcomes if legal permanency isn’t really that important?

Then the researchers take it a step further, seeming to suggest that aging out might not be so bad.  They write:
 Youth who are likely to age out of the child welfare system receive services to help prepare them for adult living and additional services after aging out of care, some of which are not provided to those youth who reach a permanent outcome before age eighteen.

Leaving aside the fact that the description of help to youth who age out is overly optimistic, this offers a wonderful insight into the mindset of the child welfare establishment. They seem to be saying: Youth who age out get help that youth placed in permanent homes don’t, so maybe it’s o.k. to just let them age out. 

Quick: Can anyone think of a better way to fix this disparity?

Only toward the very end do the authors’ ever-so-gently raise the most likely reason for these awful results:

Another limitation of the present study is the lack of demographic information available about the CASA volunteers. CASAs’ age, experience, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background could influence their activities or their interpretation of what is in the best interest of a child. Without access to this information, we are unable to explore the influence of CASA characteristics.

First of all, this begs the question: Why didn’t they have access to this information?

More generally, we do know this information. Nationwide, according to National CASA’s own data, 84.4 percent of volunteers are white and only 19 percent are African-American or Hispanic/Latino.  (Among foster children only 44 percent are white and 44 percent are African-American or Hispanic/Latino). Things can get so ludicrous that the scandal-plagued program in Snohomish County, Washington, which has no actual Black CASA volunteers, used a stock photo from National CASA to portray one.

As for income, that can be reasonably inferred from the simple fact that you have to have enough time and money on your hands to be able to volunteer.

We can also get a sense of the outlook of CASA concerning issues of race and class by things like:

● The CASA chapter that held a fundraiser featuring a blackface act.

● The CASA chapter that fell apart over a simple request to try to become more diverse.

● The former CASA volunteer whose rants about the families he investigated read like a Donald Trump tweetstorm.

● The whole wretched mess in Snohomish County.

Links to details about all of the above can be found here.

The limits of CASA

None of this means that no child ever has been helped by having a CASA volunteer.  But the study findings indicate that children are more likely to be harmed than helped.  If a medicine were found to be more likely to make patients sicker instead of better, we know what would happen: It would be pulled off the market.

CASA might have a useful role to play in child welfare – if it were converted into strictly a mentoring program for foster children, without allowing these usually white, middle-class amateurs to tell judges where those children should grow up.

But in its current form, CASA should be pulled off the market.

It’s time for Congress, which helps to fund CASA, for the judges who appoint CASAs and for the well-meaning people in the programs themselves to stop.

Stop denying children the chance to live safely in their own homes.

Stop denying children the chance to live with their extended families.

Stop denying children permanency.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Rubbing salt into children’s wounds: Why is this horrible child welfare practice illegal in New York – but perfectly fine in L.A.?

The California online news site Capital and Main has an excellent story about how California in general and, apparently, Los Angeles in particular, makes the plight of the children of battered mothers infinitely worse by blaming the mothers for being beaten and consigning the children to foster care.  The charge is “failure to protect” – as in failure to protect the children from seeing their moms being beaten.

The story cites the case of Ingrid Archie.  She was charged even after she fled from her abuser, got a restraining order and moved to a domestic violence shelter. Nevertheless her children were taken – and she was jailed.  Then in a twist that’s Kafkaesque even by child welfare standards, she was charged with “failure to protect” again – because, while she was in jail, her oldest daughter was sexually abused in foster care.

The ways in which this all makes children less safe are legion – not least the fact that it discourages battered women from seeking help. They’re actually more likely to stay in abusive relationship for fear that if they seek that help, they’ll lose their children. Indeed, as reporter Angelika Albaladejo explains in her story, that fear is even exploited by abusers who sometimes threaten to turn their victims in to child protective services if they try to leave.

But there’s another harm as well.  As traumatizing as it is for children to be thrown into foster care, that trauma is actually worse when the child has witnessed domestic violence.  One expert called removing children under such circumstances “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”

We know this because these experts testified in a landmark class-action lawsuit that got this horrible practice banned in New York City. NCCPR’s Vice President, Carolyn Kubitschek, was co-counsel for the battered women in the case, known as Nicholson v. Scoppetta. (Due to some odd legal twists and turns, the ban theoretically applies statewide, but I doubt it’s being enforced Upstate.)  You can read the expert testimony as summarized by the judge, the stories of the plaintiffs and the judge’s full, scathing 183-page decision on NCCPR’s website here.

Remarkably, though New York City’s child welfare system has plenty of faults, and indeed, may be backsliding on this issue, the Nicholson consent decree has significantly reduced the needless removal of children of battered mothers.

The reasons for LA’s failure

So why is L.A. so far behind?

First, of course, in this case, because in New York they won that lawsuit. I know of none other like it anywhere else in the country.  But there also are other reasons Los Angeles lags behind. They’re the reasons Los Angeles always lags behind:

● New York City has a relatively strong family defender community, with aggressive institutional providers that fight hard for their clients.  They can fight, case by case, to make sure the city’s child protective services agency follows the consent decree.   There is nothing like it in Los Angeles.

● New York City has a mediocre child welfare agency chief and a mayor who, on child welfare, shows no courage.  But at least the City Council understands these issues and, particularly in recent years, has worked to hold the city child protective services agency accountable.  In contrast, Los Angeles has had a long succession of poor child welfare leaders, and the current one, Bobby Cagle, has a particularly poor track record.

And the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which effectively functions as both the legislative and executive branch, may well be the worst governing body in America, with politicians seemingly in a never-ending race-to-the-bottom when it comes to demagoguery about child welfare.

All of this also explains why Los Angeles takes away children at a rate more than double that of New York City.

The issue is not all that complex

Although the Capital and Main article is outstanding, there are a couple of points with which I would take issue.  

One is the idea that the rush to remove children in these cases amounts to “prioritization of the immediate safety of the child” – at the expense of all sorts of other harm to that child.  In fact, even that assessment is too generous.  What’s really being prioritized is the immediate “safety” of everyone from the caseworker to the agency chief; all of them terrified of leaving a child home and being blamed if something goes wrong.

Indeed, as Albaladejo notes: 

In Los Angeles County in recent years, concerns over protecting children have come to a head after several high-profile murders of children at the hands of abusive parents generated public scrutiny of [the county’s child protective services agency’s] practices, and encouraged a more reactive response.

That is a polite way of saying: There’s probably a foster-care panic underway right now.

As for the child, she or he may well wind up less safe physically – as is illustrated by what happened to Ingrid Archie’s oldest child; an illustration backed up by the data on the widespread extent of abuse in foster care.  And that’s before we even get to the additional emotional trauma.

I also question the idea that all of these cases are unusually “complex” and workers need lots and lots of that all-purpose child welfare bromide: “training.”

Some cases undoubtedly are complex.  But these also are cases in which there’s a vastly better way to “prioritize the immediate safety of the child” that’s also pretty simple: Instead of making it the victim’s responsibility to flee and, even then, sometimes taking away the child, why not remove the abuser from the home?

As I’ve noted before on this blog, there’s a readily available method to accomplish this: It’s called arrest. And there is a readily available placement for the abuser: It’s called jail.

As for training: Allow me to provide the entire training curriculum needed for this approach:

  1.       . Taking children from battered mothers in itself inflicts severe emotional abuse on those children
  2.       . Therefore, don’t do it.
  3.      ..  Remove the abusers instead.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending October 22, 2019

I made it part of my daily routine to take pictures of my kids before taking them to daycare and school so that I would have proof that my children were fine before they left my home. That’s probably not something many parents would even think of doing, but for a parent like me, it just makes sense.

That quote is from an article by a mother whose children were victimized by seven false allegations of child abuse.  She wrote about her experience for Rise, the magazine written by parents whose families have been victimized by child protective services.  It’s part of a series of stories about what it’s like to live in what amounts to a child welfare surveillance state.

Rise’s Director, Nora McCarthy, and Content Supervisor and Contributing Editor Rachel Blustain summarize the series, with links to the stories, in this excellent column for the Chronicle of Social Change.

Also this week:

● One of the worst abuses inflicted on children by CPS agencies is when they take away children of battered mothers because the mothers “allowed” the children to witness the beatings. Taking children under these circumstances actually compounds the trauma of removal itself. Yet in most of the country, it’s routine.  The California online news site Capital and Main has an outstanding story about the problem in Los Angeles.  I have a blog post about the story, and why this awful practice, so common elsewhere is, thankfully, illegal in New York City.

● The online news site VTDigger has a very good story about the urgent need to improve family defense in Vermont, a state that long has taken away children at one of the highest rates in the nation. According to the story, the director of the Vermont Parent Representation Center, Larry Crist, told a legislative hearing:
 Public defenders often handle hundreds of cases, he said, so they don’t have time to build a proper defense for parents or guardians. Because of the weak system of support, parents too often end up giving up custody of their children, even when DCF doesn’t have adequate evidence to prove that abuse occurred, he said.
“As a result the entire system has become sloppy,” Crist said. “DCF writes sloppy affidavits and no one challenges them.”

But it wasn’t just Crist. As the story explains:

Bill Young, who headed the Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, DCF’s predecessor, called for the Legislature to conduct an independent review of the child protection system to assess what weaknesses are allowing cases to be brought against parents without proper evidence.
“Parents are too often seen as the enemy before an investigation is completed,” Young said to the legislative panel.

● In The Scholar and Feminist online, Dinah Ortiz, Parent Advocate Supervisor for the Bronx Defenders, tells her own story of “Battling an Unjust System: How the War on Drugs Stole My Daughter.”

● I suspect this story from the Providence Journal originally was meant to be an expose of teachers supposedly taking too much time off.  But it turned into something quite different, as it revealed how much of the time off wasn’t a matter of choice: It was a matter of teachers suspended until they were cleared of false child abuse allegations – something that happens so often it disrupts the educational system. And Providence is not alone.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Predictive analytics in child welfare: If you can’t trust Watson…

Remember Watson?  Watson is that supercomputer that was so good at Jeopardy even Ken Jennings couldn’t beat it.  But it turns out Watson has some limitations.

IBM stated in 2016 that Watson would cause a "revolution in healthcare." Instead, several research centres have since cancelled their cooperation with the system because Watson’s recommendations were not only wrong but also dangerous.

Even more striking, because of what it says about how media approach such supposed breakthroughs, is an example to which The Correspondent linked: This story from Health News Review.  Here’s how that story begins:

We often call out overly optimistic news coverage of drugs and devices. But information technology is another healthcare arena where uncritical media narratives can cause harm by raising false hopes and allowing costly and unproven investments to proceed without scrutiny.

The story goes on to cite one gushy news account after another about how Watson would be a great leap forward in treating cancer.

It wasn’t.

So consider: Watson was being asked to help diagnose and design treatments for something that already existed.  It wasn’t even asked to predict much.  And it was dealing in the area of hard science.

Yet we are supposed to believe that algorithms can predict who is going to abuse a child.  And we are supposed to believe that the humans who program these algorithms will magically avoid incorporating into them any human biases.  We are supposed to believe this because, just as happened with Watson and helping to cure cancer, the use of predictive analytics algorithms in child welfare has been the subject of an avalanche of gushy, uncritical news coverage.  (The exception: This story in Wired, an excerpt from Prof. Virginia Eubanks’ book, Automating Inequality.)

In her story for The Correspondent, reporter Sanne Blauw writes:

We’re looking to technology as the sole solution to all our problems. Yet the best solutions could be in a completely different place. Climate change may require systemic change rather than a better algorithm. Teachers and healthcare workers would probably benefit more from a better salary than a robot assistant.

Similarly, child welfare agency caseworkers – and the families they deal with – would benefit more from a better salary than a predictive analytics algorithm.  And child welfare definitely requires systemic change rather than an algorithm.

So here’s your Final Jeopardy answer, Watson:

It doesn’t make children safer, it magnifies human biases, it gathers vast troves of data on mostly poor people without their consent, and the human beings in charge of it will never be able to live up to their promises to strictly limit its use.

The question: What is predictive analytics in child welfare?

UPDATE: Looking at the brighter side, at least Watson wasn't racially biased - which is more than can be said for another recent effort to use predictive analytics in medicine.  

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

CAPTA strikes again: Pennsylvania makes sure it conforms to an odious federal law -- and promptly begins harassing families where moms use legally-prescribed medical marijuana

Last year, the Pennsylvania Legislature threw one of its periodic collective fits of mass hysteria and demagoguery over child abuse.  The lawmakers made even more draconian its state law concerning newborns “affected” by parental substance use. 

The old law, which was bad enough, required hospitals to report to authorities any mother whose alleged use of an illegal substance “affected” the newborn.  Now it’s legal substances as well.  The change was cheered on by a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who sank to “crack baby journalism.” 

Meanwhile, the legislature also legalized medical marijuana.  I’ll bet you’ll never guess where this is going.

Meet Shanelle Dates.  As the Wilkes Barre Times Leader explains in this story, she was prescribed marijuana while pregnant in order to deal with “several gastrointestinal conditions, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The cannabis also eliminated her need for an antidepressant, she said.”

The marijuana replaced a toxic cocktail of prescription drugs which actually could have harmed her fetus, according to her gastroenterologist. 

Doctor after doctor signed off, assuring Dates she was doing the right thing. 

Had Dates been white and affluent there would, of course, be no issue. Such moms can smoke pot with impunity – they can even brag about it on Facebook.

But, as you’ve probably guessed even without clicking the link to the Times Leader story, Ms. Dates is neither. 

Even nonwhite mothers using medical marijuana might have been spared the trauma to themselves and their children of a child abuse investigation under the old Pennsylvania law. According to the Times Leader, that law specifically said hospitals did not have to report mothers when a mother “was under the care of a prescribing medical professional and complying with that professional’s prescription directions.”  (They still had the option to report, but at least it wasn’t a requirement.)

But Pennsylvania lawmakers have shown over and over again that they’d much rather posture about supposedly “cracking down on child abuse” than actually do anything to make children safer.  So they amended the law – exposing children to the needless trauma of child abuse investigations, and in the process making all children less safe.  The details on how and why the change compromises child safety are in this previous post.

This is almost certainly why Dates was investigated.  Her children were not removed, but children have been taken in other medical marijuana cases, according to Sabrina Smith, who runs a support group for medical marijuana users in Pennsylvania.  And harassment of poor parents who smoke pot is common across the country.

Conforming to CAPTA

When it comes to state laws making life harder for children and families, Pennsylvania is not alone. In fact, the change in Pennsylvania law brings it into conformity with the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, an odious federal law that, with each new iteration, ratchets up the harm done to children.

In that earlier post I discussed how the specific provisions about drug use by pregnant women got into the law:

The [Philadelphia Inquirer] story cites the former Pennsylvania congressman James Greenwood, who sponsored amendments to the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act requiring reporting all mothers of infants “affected” by prenatal drug exposure to child protective services so they can develop a “plan of safe care” for each child. (If states choose to take a wiser approach and not blindly follow the CAPTA mandate, they only risk losing a relatively small amount of federal money.)
The story notes how Greenwood stressed that 
the goal is to help families, not target struggling women.  “In crafting the federal law, I never envisioned that the ‘referral’ from a health care provider was the same as a child abuse report,” said Greenwood, a former child protection caseworker.
 This is, at best, hopelessly na├»ve. When a doctor picks up a phone and calls the agency that investigates child abuse reports to report that a mother’s newborn is “affected” by her drug use, you may be sure the agency that investigates child abuse reports will treat it as a child abuse report, and act accordingly.

Turns out I was being too optimistic. 

In Pennsylvania calls alleging abuse are taken by a statewide hotline and are then referred to county child protective services agencies.  But the Times Leader stories make clear that the state implemented the change in Pennsylvania so incompetently that there is, apparently, no way for the county agency receiving the report to know if it’s a formal, official “child abuse” report or a not-quite-as-official “here’s a heads-up about a drug-using mom” report.

But don’t expect the Pennsylvania Legislature to fix its latest blunder anytime soon.  Pennsylvania lawmakers can’t seem to think past the next press release.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending October 15, 2019

● He was a bright, engaging little boy when his aunt first asked child protective services for some help. Instead, CPS threw him into foster care, moved him from home to home, group home to group home, until he had no ties to anyone who loved him.

“Despite her desperate efforts, his aunt was unable to get custody of Alonzo, and was only able to see him during weekly, supervised visits,” writes Vivek Sankaran in the Chronicle of Social Change.

This only intensified Alonzo’s anger. He felt unloved. He felt disconnected. And he was becoming unhinged, no longer caring about life. With each move – of which he experienced at least 10 – the system was losing this child. And then it finally did, when he committed murder.

● The Philadelphia City Council will create a special committee to examine how the city’s Department of Human Services handles allegations of abuse and neglect and its process for deciding when to remove children from their homes, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. The proposal comes from councilmember David Oh, who himself was falsely accused of child abuse.

Four months earlier, the council had defeated a similar measure.  According to KYW Newsradio, part of what made the difference was activism by the many families harmed by DHS:

Oh reintroduced the resolution this month and encouraged parents who've lost custody of their children to come to Council to testify in its favor. Dozens showed up, and their emotional testimony extended the last few Council sessions by as much as an hour.
The resolution still appeared unlikely to pass this week, so Oh placed a "hold" on the bill, which keeps it on the calendar for future consideration. Several sources said that created concerns that the parents would continue to come and testify every week until the resolution passed.

And, it appears, DHS has finally stopped trying to repeal the laws of mathematics.  The Inquirer reported that:

Philadelphia has by far the highest rate of child removals of any big city. After adjusting the removal rate for the number of impoverished children, it still tops the list, albeit narrowly.

Nothing unusual there; NCCPR has been pointing this out for more than a decade.  But this time, DHS didn’t even try to deny it.

● Elsewhere in Pennsylvania things aren’t going as well.  In one of its frequent fits of mass hysteria and demagoguery over child abuse, the Pennsylvania Legislature made even more draconian its state law requiring hospitals to report to authorities any infant “affected” by parental substance use.  The old law, which was bad enough, at least said the substance had to be illegal.  Now it’s any substance.  The change was cheered on by an Inquirer reporter who sank to “crack baby journalism.” 

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania also legalized medical marijuana.  But while affluent white people can smoke pot with impunity, if you’re poor and/or nonwhite different rules apply.  So, as the Wilkes Barre Times Leader makes clear in this excellent story and this follow-up, the change in the law already is harming families.

● The Houston Chronicle and NBC News have another excellent story in their series about how so-called “child abuse pediatricians” harm innocent families.

● But is there a way that hospitals and medical personnel can intervene when they have concerns about a child that is actually helpful, improves child safety and reduces the likelihood that the child will have to endure the trauma of needless removal? As a matter of fact, yes. Check out this program in Washington State in which doctors, nurses, hospitals and family defenders work together.

● The reporter for the Times of Northwest Indiana who wrote this excellent story about how Indiana child welfare authorities routinely confuse poverty with neglect has written about how he got the story.

● “Adverse Childhood Experiences” and “trauma-informed” are now among the most common buzzwords in child welfare – often uttered by people who are oblivious to the extent that the system in which they work inflicts one of the worst Adverse Childhood Experiences of all. In an essay for Children’s Bureau Express, Prof. Christopher Church of the University of South Carolina School of Law reminds us that “Unnecessary Removals [are] The Most Unjust Adverse Childhood Experience.”

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending Oct. 8, 2019

● There was a problem in this family. Then the child’s charter school, which had refused repeated pleas for help, instead called the child protective services agency – which made everything far worse. It’s another excellent story from Rise, the New York City-based magazine written by parents who have lost children to foster care.

● Rise is one example of the impressive network of family advocacy that has dramatically lessened the harm of the child welfare system in New York City.  In the British journal apolitical, a key figure in creating that infrastructure, David Tobis, writes about how parent advocacy is spreading around the world.

● Now the bad news: The child protective services agency in Pittsburgh is ramping up the child welfare surveillance state: Starting next year, they’ll try to slap a predictive analytics "scarlet number" child abuse “risk score” on every child at birth. Consent will be assumed unless families opt out – and they’ll pay a price for that, too.  I have a post about it on this blog.

● Pittsburgh is doing it in the name of “prevention.” But there’s no need for an Orwellian algorithm to target prevention.  There are many better ways. As it happens, this week the American Bar Association published an article about one of them in Washington State.

● New Mexico also is looking at improving legal representation for families in child welfare cases.

● Here’s the first rule of heroism: Real heroes don’t go around proclaiming themselves “heroes.” Here’s the second rule: People who are truly dedicated to helping children don’t expect worshipful treatment just for showing up. In Youth Today I write that The Foster Care System Needs to Get its Heroes Straight – and I list a few of my own child welfare heroes.

● In last week’s round-up, I wrote that whenever you think the child welfare system can’t get any uglier, someone turns over another rock and a whole new batch of ugly turns up. Looks like it happened again.  It has to do with one of the myriad ways of funding foster care that tends to get little attention: Medicaid. The Chronicle of Social Change reports (subscription required) that states have been using Medicaid funds to help pay to institutionalize children in residential treatment centers.  In many cases that may be illegal.  The federal agency that is supposed to police this says it has no way to track it.  This all came to light indirectly, thanks to the Family First Act.  It’s a very complicated story, but it’s well worth the trip into the weeds.  

Monday, October 7, 2019

Pittsburgh’s child welfare agency goes full Orwell

Starting in 2020, Allegheny County, Pa. will attempt to, in effect, stamp EVERY
child born in the county with a "scarlet number" risk score that could haunt
the child and her or his family for life.


● They’re moving ahead with plans to try to label EVERY child born in the county with a predictive analytics risk score that could haunt the child for life.

● To avoid the stigma, parents have to affirmatively opt out. If they opt out, they lose out on help for their newborns. But there may be even bigger risks if they stay in.

● The county’s first “ethics review” found that its use of algorithms was ethical in part because it wouldn’t be applied to all children at birth.  The county solved this little problem by commissioning another ethics review.

● County officials promise this label-every-child-at-birth algorithm will be used only to target prevention. That’s absolutely true – until it isn’t.  Because this promise relies exclusively on self-policing by the same county officials who created this nightmare in the first place.

● And an algorithm isn’t needed to target prevention programs.

It is perhaps the ultimate Orwellian nightmare: From the moment your child is born, the child and family are labeled with a “risk score” – a number that supposedly tells authorities how likely you are to abuse your newborn.  The big government agency that slaps this invisible scarlet number on you and your newborn promises it will be used only to decide if you need extra help to raise your child, and the help will be voluntary. 

But once you’re in the database, that score stays there forever. And if, someday, the same big government agency wants to use the score to help decide you’re too much of a risk to be allowed to keep your child, there is nothing to stop them.  The scarlet number may haunt your family for generations. The fact that your child was supposedly born into a “high risk” family may be used against the child when s/he has children.

Welcome to the dystopian future of child welfare – and childbirth – in metropolitan Pittsburgh, Pa.

For a couple of years now, Allegheny County,  which includes Pittsburgh and surrounding suburbs, has been using something called the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST), a predictive analytics algorithm, to help decide which families should be investigated as alleged child abusers.

Back when Facebook was fined, we pointed out the similarities
to how Allegheny County's child protective services agency
uses data.
The algorithm coughs up a “risk score” – an invisible scarlet number. The higher the number the greater the supposed risk.  It’s all made possible by a massive trove of data on families that Allegheny County has gathered in a way reminiscent of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Though Allegheny County’s behavior is perfectly legal, it has amassed the without the informed consent of the poor people in the database to have the data turned against them.

The algorithm is weighted heavily toward punishing parents for being poor. In her brilliant book, Automating Inequality, Prof. Virginia Eubanks calls it “poverty profiling.”   In her review of Automating Inequality, Prof. Dorothy Roberts (a member of NCCPR’s Board of Directors) extends the analysis to show how predictive analytics reinforces racial bias.

To justify all this, the county submitted its plans to a couple of scholars for an “ethics review.”  But one of the reviewers is a faculty colleague and co-author of papers with one of the creators of the algorithm.  Even this ethically-challenged ethics review gave a seal of approval to AFST in part based on the premise that it would not be applied to every child at birth.

But getting the chance to slap a scarlet number on every child at birth is the Holy Grail for some predictive analytics proponents.  And now it appears that was the goal of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services all along. 

The birth of “Hello Baby”

In her book, Eubanks reports that the county was, at a minimum, considering introducing “‘a second predictive model … [that] would be run on a daily or weekly basis on all babies born in Allegheny County the prior day or week,’ according to a September 2017 email” from a deputy director of Allegheny County DHS, Erin Dalton.  (Dalton is also disturbingly sanguine about the harm of foster care.) As I noted in a 2018 column for Youth Today, such a model already exists — indeed it’s one of the models the designers of AFST proposed to the county in the first place.

The county apparently turned it down initially because they didn’t think they could sell it politically.  But clearly, with a couple of tweaks to the algorithm, now they think they can – and, sadly, they may be right.

And so, starting in January, 2020, the county plans to phase in a “prevention” program it calls “Hello Baby.”

Here’s how the county says it will work.

During some of the most chaotic hours of a family’s life, those hours in the hospital after a baby is born, when one medical professional, volunteer or other hospital-affiliated person after another is traipsing in and out of the room, the family will be handed a packet of information about the help available through “Hello Baby.”  A nurse may also discuss the program with the family.

The program offers three tiers of services.  Tier 1 is automatically available to everyone without having to surrender their data.  That tier is simply information about help that’s already out there.  Tiers two and three provide more intensive help to individual families. But to get that help you must accept having the child labeled by an algorithm as at moderate or high risk of abuse.

You have to opt out

The program automatically assumes you have given permission for this massive invasion of family privacy – it’s the equivalent of a “default setting” on an app you may download without realizing how much data you surrender in return. (Or just think of all the data you may have given to Facebook to share at will because you didn’t find the right button among the settings.)

The “Hello Baby” document is vague about the whole opt-out process.  But it appears you get very little chance to actually opt out. You get one notice – in the form of a postcard mailed to your home a few days after the child is born. Along with a reminder of the benefits of “Hello Baby” somewhere on that postcard will be a notification that you must specifically opt out of being run through the database – otherwise you and your child are slapped with that risk score whether you really wanted to participate or not. 

The material made available by Allegheny County does not mention how much time you have to opt out before your name is run through the database.  Nor does it say anything about expunging a risk score if you choose to opt out after the county has already done it.

And what, exactly, are you deemed at risk of doing?

According to the county:

The model was built to stratify families based on the likelihood that there may be future safety issues so significant that the courts require the County to remove the child from the home before the child has reached their 5th birthday.

Think about that.  From the moment your child is born, you risk having that child labeled at high risk for being taken away and consigned to foster care. From the moment you say “hello, baby” you may be at greater risk of someday having to say “goodbye, baby.”  In effect, “Hello Baby” creates a ticking time bomb in the form of an electronic record that might go off if, say, an angry neighbor calls a child abuse hotline, or if you’re caught pot smoking while Black.

To avoid that risk you have to be alert to the chance to opt out, and if you opt out you risk losing out on what might be genuinely useful assistance.

We’ll never, ever misuse all that data we have on you – we promise!

County officials solemnly promise not to use the data that way – they say they’ll use it only to target help, and won’t make it a part of child abuse investigations. But even the promise has a loophole:

As the county’s “Hello Baby” overview puts it:

The County pledges that this Hello Baby analytic model will only be used to provide voluntary supportive services as described here and updated over time. [Emphasis added.]

Indeed, they will issue a signed document to that effect.  What could possibly go wrong?

I think Allegheny County really means it when they say they won’t pull away the football – sorry, misuse the algorithm – for now.  But there is no institutional safeguard in place. There is nothing to stop the leaders of the agency that created “Hello Baby” and crave having data on every child from birth from changing their minds whenever they damn well feel like it. 

When might that be? How about the first time there’s a child abuse tragedy and word leaks out that the family had been labeled “high risk” at the time of the child’s birth? That’s when the demands will come to make this information available immediately to child protective services and to use it to immediately trigger a CPS investigation – or worse.

That’s not the only problem.  The extra help families will get is likely to be provided by people who are “mandated reporters” of alleged child abuse and neglect.  There are penalties for failing to report and no penalty for mistakenly calling in a false report. So mandated reporters always are under pressure to make “CYA” referrals. Now, these mandated reporters will enter the home already knowing that a “scientific” algorithm has determined the family is “high risk” for abusing and/or neglecting their child. That’s bound to color the judgment of the helpers when deciding whether or not to phone in a report alleging child abuse or neglect.

It’s still poverty profiling

In order to counter the charge of poverty profiling, the county has tweaked the algorithm – slightly. But their claims are disingenuous at best.  Thus, they claim: “Unlike the Allegheny Family Screening Tool model, the Hello Baby model only relies on data where the County has the potential to have records for every family it only uses universal (rather than means tested) data sources.”

But the key weasel word there is potential.

Because right before making this claim, the county acknowledges that they probably will use “child protective services, homeless services and justice system data.” 

So unless Allegheny County’s jails are filled with wealthy white-collar corporate criminals, and its homeless shelters are filled with people spending the night because they misplaced the keys to their mansions in Sewickley and other wealthy Allegheny County suburbs, this is still poverty profiling.  And, of course, they include data from any previous encounters with child protective services – and CPS intervenes to a vastly disproportionate degree in the lives of poor people.  (As noted in many previous posts, CPS agencies often confuse poverty with neglect.  So if you use a previous “substantiated” allegation of child neglect to raise a risk score you are not countering bias, you are simply automating it.)

And, of course, both the justice system and the child welfare system are notorious for their racial bias – raising the risk that “Hello Baby” amounts to racial profiling as well.


Another ethically-challenged ethics review

As noted earlier, even the “ethics review” for AFST commissioned by the county itself – the one co-authored by a faculty colleague of one of the designers of AFST – emphasized that one reason AFST was ethical is that it was not triggered until someone actually phoned in a call alleging child abuse and neglect.  It was deemed ethical in part precisely because it did not seek to slap a risk score onto every child at birth.

How do you get around this little detail? Simple. Commission another ethics review from someone who is likely to tell you what you want to hear. 

So Allegheny County turned to Deborah Daro.  Like most people in child welfare, Daro really wants to help children, and she’s devoted her life to the cause.  But Daro spent much of her time at the group that now calls itself Prevent Child Abuse America – and she did so at a time when PCAA was fomenting hype and hysteria about child abuse, and taking data out of context.  They were particularly keen on minimizing the role of poverty in what we label abuse and neglect. I discuss this in detail in the section of this 2010 blog post called “PCAA’s record of extremism.” But don’t take my word for it – back in 2003, PCAA came startlingly close to admitting as much, declaring:

While the establishment of a certain degree of public horror relative to the issue of child abuse and neglect was probably necessary in the early years to create public awareness of the issue, the resulting conceptual model adopted by the public has almost certainly become one of the largest barriers to advancing the issue further in terms of individual behavior change, societal solutions and policy priorities.

Then Daro moved to the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.  The same 2010 blog post documents Chapin Hall’s bias, and some of Daro’s work there. 

More recently, Chapin Hall has been a leader in minimizing the role of racial bias in child welfare, and in fueling foster-care panic in Illinois.

And nearly a decade ago, Daro herself wrote a paper advocating for something very much like “Hello Baby.”  She called for:

Universal assessments of all new parents that carry the dual mission of assessing parental capacity to provide for a child's safety, and linking families with services commensurate with their needs.

So, in effect, Allegheny County asked Deborah Daro to offer an opinion as to whether using an algorithm for the kind of intervention she herself has been promoting for decades is ethical.  Apparently, she said yes. 

I say “apparently” because the actual document does not appear to be available on the Allegheny County DHS website.  Neither is a second ethics review done by Michael Veale a “Digital Center Fellow” at the Alan Turing Institute in London.  In fairness, I am aware of no biases on Veale’s part concerning child welfare. But his biography reveals no knowledge of or experience in the field.  So he was at the mercy of those who commissioned him to understand how child protective services agencies really work.

An intellectually honest ethics review would require bringing together a panel of experts who have strongly divergent views on child welfare and predictive analytics and seeing if they could formulate an ethical framework for using such an algorithm in child welfare.  But of course if Allegheny County tried that they would risk getting answers they don’t want to hear.

You don’t need an algorithm to target help

A crucial false premise behind efforts such as “Hello Baby” goes like this: Funds are limited, so we need this kind of algorithm to target help to the families who need it most.  But no such algorithm is necessary.  That’s because the families that need the most help have one thing in common: They’re poor.  So all you have to do is offer the high-end “Hello Baby” services to families of infants born in hospitals that serve the county’s poorest communities.  And, while you’re at it, make sure the help addresses concrete needs of poor families instead of just forcing them to run a gauntlet of counseling sessions and parent education classes.

The “Hello Baby” overview paper claims this won’t work because it’s “based on the incorrect assumption that poverty is the singular driver for abuse.”  But that is setting up a straw man.  No one says poverty is the singular driver for abuse.  But poverty is, by far, the most important driver of what we deem to be abuse and, especially, neglect. 

The “Hello Baby” document goes on to claim that other causes are “untreated mental illness, substance use disorder and intimate partner violence.”  But if you’re middle class your mental illness probably won’t go untreated – because you have the money to treat it.  Your substance use won’t be deemed a disorder, because middle-class parents can use substances pretty much with impunity. And an algorithm that checks criminal justice and homelessness records to determine risk isn’t likely to catch wealthy drug users, now is it?)

Most important, there is now a wealth of research documenting the simple fact that what we deem to be child maltreatment can be fixed primarily by transferring just a little more wealth to poor people.

So why do we need a giant Orwellian child welfare surveillance state to “help” these families? We don’t.  We only need it to target them, control them, and quite possibly, take away their children.