Wednesday, November 27, 2019

NCCPR News and commentary round-up, week ending November 26, 2019

● Have you heard about the judge in child welfare cases who actually follows the law? The child welfare establishment is throwing a fit.  The Washington Post wrote about the judge. I have a blog post about her, with a link to the Post story.

● I’ve written before about hidden foster care – a massive, parallel system of child removal in which parents are coerced into “voluntarily” giving up their children to relatives with no court hearings or due process protection of any kind. (The threat: Do this “voluntarily” or we’ll throw the children into foster care with strangers.)  In many places, this is standard operating procedure and no one in “the system” bats an eye.  But things have been different in North Carolina.  After the Associated Press exposed the practice in one county, the state took over the system in that county.  Days after the AP report, a judge found the practice unconstitutional. She also found that the coerced “voluntary” agreements were “the product of both actual and constructive fraud …”  Now there’s a civil lawsuit, and the possibility of criminal charges against county child welfare officials.

We know all this because of some outstanding reporting by Kate Martin of the nonprofit news site Carolina Public Press.  This story outlines the scope of the problem. Then came stories about missing meeting minutes, massive document shredding, an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation, delays in state action, allegations of falsification of records, allegations of lying under oath, and on and on.  You can find those stories here and here.

But they leave one question unanswered: Why haven’t the abuses of hidden foster care prompted the same aggressive response anywhere else?

● On the Rethinking Foster Care blog, Georgia attorney Emma Brown-Bernstein writes about a case in which a homeless mother made the terrible mistake of asking the state child protective services agency for help to find housing.  Instead, Brown-Bernstein writes, the child was removed “because his family was homeless and no one could help the family obtain housing. That’s it.”  A trial court rubber-stamped the removal, but the state Court of Appeals unanimously overturned it. “This choice cannot be the only one we have,” Brown-Bernstein writes. “Sending children to foster care because their parents cannot find a house not only undermines families but, as the Court of Appeals reminded us … also runs afoul of the law.”

As you read about this one case, it’s also worth remembering: Multiple studies find that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if the families had decent housing.

● Two stories have nothing to do with child welfare – and everything to do with child welfare: WNYC Public Radio’s On The Media, has an excellent interview with Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction – about how, in field after field, supposedly objective algorithms turn out to be biased.  Guess who’s on the losing end every time.  And it’s hard to imagine anything that could be easier to keep free of bias than determining creditworthiness.  It should be a matter of pretty basic math. Yet somehow, the algorithm Apple and Goldman Sachs came up with to set credit limits on their fancy new credit card wound up allegedly discriminating against women.

All of which is all the more reason to be worried when a child welfare agency starts trying to use predictive analytics algorithms to figure out things that are vastly more complicated – such as predicting who supposedly is likely to abuse a child.  In Allegheny County, Pa., they’re about to start trying to slap risk scores on every baby at birth.  In Talk Poverty, Elizabeth Brico has a story about how they’re doing it.  And I have a blog post about it here.

● In New York State, both the city Administration for Children’s Services and the state agency that oversees it were doing their usual song and dance before a state legislative committee: Of course we want fewer children in foster care, they say, just give us more money to inflict more “counseling” and “parent education” on families as we keep them under our thumb and everything will be fine.  But, as this story in the Chronicle of Social Change makes clear, there are signs lawmakers aren’t buying it anymore. They understand the real solution is giving families the tools to fight back from the moment agencies such as ACS enter their lives.

As Emma Ketteringham of The Bronx Defenders told legislators:

When you’re hungry, and you don’t know where you are going to sleep, and your children were taken in the middle of the night — therapy’s not going to fix the situation … We have to back up and really explore how we respond to families that struggle … because of poverty and because of structural racism.

Monday, November 25, 2019

A judge in child welfare cases is actually following the law. The foster care establishment is throwing a fit.

Judge Ernestine Gray

The full Washington Post story discussed in this post is available here.

            Imagine if the presumption of innocence that is, at least in theory, at the heart of the criminal justice system were turned upside down.  Suppose everyone hauled into court was presumed guilty – and had to prove their innocence.

            As a practical matter that upside-down burden of proof is how the child welfare system works.  Only instead of calling it “guilty until proven innocent” it’s sanitized behind phrases like “err on the side of caution.”  But there is nothing cautious about tearing apart a family. When done needlessly, it is a profoundly reckless act that endangers not just the mental health of children but often their physical safety as well.

            One judge in New Orleans, Louisiana, Ernestine Gray, understands this. So she has decided to actually apply the law.  She’s demanding that the state child protective services agency, the Department of Children and Family Services, actually show evidence that a child would be unsafe in her or his own home.  The judge also is putting into practice the stated values of the child welfare system itself.  After all, how many times have we heard people in that system say: “We never take away children because their families are poor” or “We only use foster care as an absolute last resort.”

Because Judge Gray is practicing what the system only preaches, between 2011 and 2017 the number of children in foster care in metropolitan New Orleans fell by 89 percent.  There is no evidence this has compromised safety – and a key child safety measure has improved.

            Since this is exactly the way they say it’s supposed to work, the child welfare establishment in New Orleans is thrilled with Judge Gray, right?

            Of course not!  The child welfare establishment is throwing a collective fit – appalled that families no longer have to prove their innocence.

            I learned all this thanks to a very good  in-depth story in The Washington Post by  Richard A. Webster.  Though I take issue with some of Webster’s premises, the story was a thorough, open-minded account by a reporter who took pains to reach out to all sides.  While that should be the norm, in the journalism of child welfare, it’s still more of an exception.  So my concerns notwithstanding, first I want to thank Webster for trying to uphold the highest standards of journalism.

What the story reveals

            So much is revealed by this story, often unintentionally, that it’s worth examining in detail. I’ll begin with how Webster frames what the judge is doing:

While many judges often err on the side of caution, placing children into state custody until all of the facts can be sorted out, [Judge Gray] moved in the opposite direction.

            In fact, as I noted above there is nothing cautious about what those other judges are doing. Because of everything we know about foster care, and the extensive research comparing outcomes for children placed in foster care to children left in their own homes in typical cases, (discussed in more detail below), we know that “placing children into state custody until all of the facts can be sorted out” is a profoundly reckless act, deeply harmful to children.  (It is, however, the most cautious approach judges can take to protect themselves.)

Now let’s turn to the heart of the criticism of Judge Gray’s decision to follow the law. Webster writes:

In New Orleans, however, child advocates reacted cautiously. In the collective fervor to remedy the system, they fear the lives of hundreds of boys and girls are being endangered by returning them to families in chaos.
Virtually no data are available to allay their concerns.

            Whenever I read something like that, I am reminded of what I was told by the head of an adoption agency – yes, you read that right – when I was a reporter 40 years ago: “The burden of proof should always rest with those who think children don’t belong with their families.”

            So what is crucial here is that there is absolutely no evidence to support these so-called “child advocates’” concerns. They are just standard child welfare establishment fear-mongering. 

            The only data available suggest that child safety has improved.  Webster writes:

Championing New Orleans’s low numbers is problematic. … The only available metric is whether a child reenters the system at some point.
By that standard, Gray’s strategy is working. The city’s reentry rate of 7 percent is slightly lower than the statewide average, according to DCFS. But everyone, including Gray, concedes that is an imperfect data point for measuring success. It requires a child to be re-victimized and for someone to notice the abuse or neglect and again contact protective services.[Emphasis added.]

First, championing New Orleans’s low numbers is only problematic in the world of guilty-until-proven-innocent.  What cannot be legitimately championed is high numbers of removals, since there is no evidence that this improves child safety.

The measure of foster-care recidivism – the term for the data the story cites – can be problematic, but not in a way that invalidates its use to compare jurisdictions.

That’s because while it is true that no jurisdiction will discover every case of reabuse, there is no reason to think that the same statewide agency that trains workers the same way will detect a lower proportion of reabuse in New Orleans than elsewhere. So as a method of comparison within a single state agency, it is valid.  And it is one data point more than those who prefer a take-the-child-and-run approach have got.

The harm of foster care

Webster does better than most reporters in pointing out something else: the mass of data we have on the harm of foster care. But he adds some premises that should be questioned:

Few disagree that the system is severely broken nationwide because of decades of mismanagement and inadequate funding. Instead of protecting children, it often traumatizes them further. They have poorer outcomes in education, employment, housing and early pregnancy, studies show. By 17, more than half will have been arrested, jailed or convicted, according to a University of Chicago study.

He’s right about the data, but the implication is that if only the system got more money and were better managed then these outcomes would change.  They would – but not by much.  One study, which found that in later life only one in five former foster children was doing well, also tried to calculate what would happen if the foster care system were made perfect.  Their conclusion: Outcomes would improve – by 22.2 percent. 

So instead of churning out walking wounded four times out of five a “perfect” foster care system would churn out walking wounded three times out of five.

Notice also the phrase “traumatizes them further.”  That assumes all foster children were traumatized in their own homes.  What Judge Gray understands is that sometimes the children are not traumatized until they are placed in foster care.

But the most damning evidence isn’t included in the story (not on purpose, I’m sure Webster just didn’t know about it).  That evidence comes in the form of  the many studies, including two that are massive in size and scope, that directly compare the outcomes in typical cases for children placed in foster care and comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes.  Over and over these studies find that the children left in their own homes typically do better.

So, in fact, there isn’t just one data point – there’s a mass of comprehensive research showing that Judge Gray’s approach is better for children.

In contrast, Judge Gray’s critics have no evidence that her approach (also known as following the law) is dangerous for children. In fact, it seems, they don’t even have a horror story! (If they did, I’m sure they wouldn’t have kept it secret.)  They don’t have one yet, that is.  Sooner or later there is a horror story in every system. And if Judge Gray is still on the bench (she’ll reach mandatory retirement age in a year) you may be sure she’ll be scapegoated, notwithstanding the fact that jurisdictions that tear apart vastly more children have the same sorts of horror stories.

Gray understands all this. As the story notes:

The greatest threat of harm for most of the children who appear before her, [Gray] stresses, is being unnecessarily removed from their families.
“Foster care is put up as this thing that is going to save kids, but kids die in foster care, kids get sick in foster care,” she said. “So we ought to be trying to figure out how to use that as little as possible. ...”

Here again, Judge Gray has the data on her side. Study after study reveals rates of abuse in foster care far higher than shown in official figures, which involve agencies investigating themselves. The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.

As the ironies pile up …

But now, back to Judge Gray’s critics:

Chabre Johnson remembers the “revolving door” she saw while a DCFS child welfare specialist. She and colleagues would respond to calls, discover evidence of either abuse or neglect, and remove children, only to take them home a few days later because Gray decided the case they’d built didn’t pass muster.

            The ironies abound here.  First, recall how in almost every story that even slightly criticizes child welfare decision-making someone will say: “We can’t remove children on our own, a judge has to approve everything we do.”  Too often, reporters believe it.

            Well, now the cat is out of the bag. Johnson admits that she and her fellow DCFS workers routinely removed children on their own authority – traumatizing them with a foster care placement that Judge Gray realized – days later - was unnecessary.  (This is not unique to New Orleans, of course.)

            But wait, it gets better. 

In most jurisdictions, judges routinely approve child protective services agency decisions. Then the agencies say they must be right because those wise, independent judges are constantly approving what they do.  But behold what happens when one judge starts wielding a gavel instead of a rubber stamp.  Suddenly judges don’t really know anything!  Or as Johnson put it:

 “A lot of times it was infants and babies being returned to the home. It got frustrating …The people making the decisions are not the ones going into these homes putting their lives in danger. They’re not the ones sitting outside of these homes waiting for police officers.”

            And then there’s this, a constant theme among Judge Gray’s critics:

Child advocates say the drastic reduction in foster care would make more sense if it came with greater resources to support struggling families — for mental health care, substance abuse treatment, case management or housing assistance — but that’s not the case.  
Paulette Carter, president of the Children’s Bureau of New Orleans, said it takes at least a month for the organization to line up services. And the answer isn’t just a couple of parenting classes. In the vast majority of cases, the issues that led to a child being removed from a home take months, if not years, to resolve.

            This is a classic example of a provider pathologizing families because that bolsters the provider’s prestige and self-image.  This was perfectly explained decades ago by Malcolm Bush in his book, Families in Distress:

The recognition that the troubled family inhabits a context that is relevant to its problems suggests the possibility that the solution involves some humble tasks … This possibility is at odds with professional status. Professional status is not necessary for humble tasks … Changing the psyche was a grand task, and while the elaboration of theories past their practical benefit would not help families in trouble, it would allow social workers to hold up their heads in the professional meeting or the academic seminar.

What makes Judge Gray such a threat to the child welfare establishment is the fact that she understands this.  Again, from the story:

In cases of abuse, she said she does not hesitate to remove children, but that is not the norm. More than 85 percent of foster children in Louisiana are removed from their homes due to neglect, which is defined as a parent’s failure to provide food, shelter, clothing, supervision or medical care, to the point where the child’s safety is at risk. In many cases, Gray thinks, DCFS investigators mistake poverty for neglect.
“No food in the house? Send them to the food bank rather than taking [their children] into care,” she said.

            Once again, Judge Gray has the evidence on her side, including the numerous studies documenting the transformative power of cash.

            But even in those cases when more than a little cash really is needed, the very fact that there is a readily available dumping ground for children – foster care – means there will never be any pressure to actually provide those additional services. Those who say: “Wait for the ‘services’ before we curb needless foster care” are really saying: “Wait forever and never curb needless foster care.”

            And finally:
 [Judge Gray] won’t speculate on whether her approach could serve as a model nationally.

            Then allow me: YES!!!!

One key factor, she offered with a laugh, is having officials who are not afraid of negative publicity or losing elections.

            She’s right again.  One reason New York City now has a model system of high-quality family defense is because, nearly 20 years ago, judges actually admitted rubber-stamping removals even when they didn’t think the city’s child protective services agency had made a good enough case – because they were afraid of landing on the front page of a newspaper if they sent a child home and something went wrong. 

            In New York City, these judges are appointed by the mayor.  And at roughly the same time, when two judges tried to do what Judge Gray is doing, the mayor at the time refused to reappoint them.

            What was that mayor’s name again?

            Oh, yeah. Rudy Giuliani.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Adoption of children from foster care: National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day, 2019

This post originally appeared in 2008. Since the event is annual, I've reprinted it on several occasions since, with revisions and updates as appropriate.  

How do we know what's really important to a person, or to a corporation, or to an institution?

    One way, of course, is how we choose to spend money, and I've written before about how child welfare agencies do that. But there's also another good measure: what we choose to celebrate.

    The father who has memorized the schedule of his favorite football team but always forgets his children's birthdays is sending a message. So, too, is the child welfare agency which claims that its first priority when a child is taken away is to reunify that child with her or his birth parents, with adoption as the second choice, but chooses to celebrate only the supposed second choice.

    Often, adoption is the right second choice; for some children it is the right first choice. Adoption can be, both literally and figuratively, a life saver for a child; it should be one important component of any good child welfare system; and there is nothing wrong with celebrating it as one avenue to permanence.

How child welfare systems view keeping families together

But if the true intent of child welfare systems is revealed by what they celebrate, then one of the most noble concepts in child welfare, giving children permanence, has been perverted into a synonym for adoption and only adoption. 

Reunification gets lip service until everyone in the system, from frontline workers, to agency chiefs to top judges can get what they really want: children taken from poor people and placed with middle class families; families like their own. 

The real agenda of most child welfare systems, and most of the people in them, is made apparent every year on National Adoption Day; or, as it should properly be called, National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.

Everybody knows the drill

How child welfare systems view adoption

    The day actually is celebrated on different dates in different states, but it's always in November and most places will hold their celebrations on Saturday. 

You know the drill. Open the court on a Saturday, bring in cake and balloons, finalize foster-child adoptions en masse – and reinforce every stereotype about how the system rescues children from horrible birth parents and places them with vastly superior adoptive parents. 

And, of course, get a guaranteed puff piece in the local newspaper, with no tough questions. This one, from the St. Petersburg Times (Now Tampa Bay Times) in 2008, is typical:

In general, a courthouse is not a happy place. People go there to get divorced, to fight eviction, to file for bankruptcy, to watch loved ones sent away to prison. You see a lot of suffering, and you hear it in the cries and cursing that echo through the hallways. Forty children, sugar-laden with sheet cake and bouncing around a lobby with balloons, made Friday an exception at the county courthouse in Tampa. As part of a National Adoption Day celebration, they were legally united with "forever families," mothers and fathers giving them a one-way ticket out of the foster care system. …

The treacle aside, it's almost certainly inaccurate. Given what we know about adoption "disruption" for some of the children, it may well be round trip. And, as is discussed below, stories like this one make such tragedies, and others, a little more likely.

(As for how the Tampa Bay Times regards birth parents – see this post from 2017.)

    If nothing else, this is the day when almost all the people in almost every child welfare system in the country, from frontline workers to agency chiefs, show their true colors. This is the day that makes them genuinely happy. Yet all these same players will turn on a dime and blather on about how their first priority is reunification. 

Well, if that's your first priority, why aren't you celebrating it? Why do so many fewer communities take part in National Reunification Day, a project that only began in 2009? Why is there no happiness expressed over doing what you yourselves claim is priority #1?  Why don't reporters note that, when a child finally gets to return to the birth mother she loves after months or years needlessly separated, that, too, can bring some happiness to a courtroom?

Clearly, reunification is not priority #1. Priority #1 is carrying out those middle-class rescue fantasies – taking children from people like them and placing them with people like us; people of the same race and, especially the same income level, as your average caseworker, judge, lawyer – or reporter. (No newspaper took the whole "people like us" thing as literally as Foster's Daily Democrat and its sister papers in New Hampshire. In 2008 -- a four story 4,900-word Sunday package of glop and goo about adoption day included a sidebar in which the saintly foster mother – who kept complaining about not getting enough taxpayer money for her adoptions – was none other than the newspaper's managing editor!)

For almost everyone working in the system, the truth is that keeping families together is the broccoli on the child welfare menu and adoption is the dessert. National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day is another way to bring out the dessert tray before anyone's eaten their broccoli.

The exceptions are few and far between. The first to recognize the hypocrisy was Marc Cherna, long-time reform-minded leader of the human services agency in Allegheny County, Pa. He was the first to create an annual celebration of reunified families and push it at least as hard as the adoption celebration. After NCCPR started spreading the word about this, a few other communities followed suit.

Then the Parents’ Representation Project of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law sponsored the first National Reunification Day – but even now that's it's become National Reunification Month, relatively few places take part, compared to the hundreds of Adoption Day events.  And some of the best reunification events are sponsored not by child welfare agencies or courts, but by groups like the Family Defense Center and Legal Services of New Jersey.

The dangers of Adoption Day

    It's not just hypocritical, it's also dangerous.

    When the only kind of "permanence" that receives any reward is adoption, the message to the frontlines is obvious: Don't try to reunify, rush to terminate parental rights. And that's exactly what happens. In Kentucky it led to a scandal, as the Lexington Herald-Leader exposed "quick trigger adoptions" with workers rushing to terminate parental rights in cases where children may never have needed to be taken from their parents. 

The only difference between Kentucky and the rest of the nation is, in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader was paying attention. That caught the attention of NBC Nightly News which offered an excellent overview of the Kentucky scandal.

But there are other dangers as well. Year after year, terminations of parental rights outrun actual adoptions. The result: A generation of legal orphans with no ties to their parents and little or no hope of adoption – with or without cake and balloons - either. The combination of these non-financial incentives, plus the adoption bounties paid by the federal government goes a long way to explain the sharp increase in the number of children who "aged out" of foster care over the past 20 years. 

We estimate that the mad rush to embrace adoption-as-panacea has contributed to creating more than 100,000 additional children who age out with no permanent home.  And data compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation show that of all the children who leave the foster care system at age 16 or older, half have no permanent home.  It's even worse for nonwhite foster children.

And then there is the matter of where these children wind up.

Another reason for the mad rush to adoption-at-all-costs is the fact that getting those adoption numbers up is the one time a child welfare agency is guaranteed good press. Everyone knows the reporters will write a story like the one quoted above and not ask any tough questions about whether the children really needed to be taken, and how carefully the adoptive parents were checked out. 

And then, the same journalists will wonder how it could happen that children like Ricky Holland and Timothy Boss in Michigan and others across the country could be murdered by adoptive parents - in effect, adopted to death. In 2017, in Iowa alone, there have been four cases of horrific, sometimes fatal abuse, involving children adopted from foster care.

Of course abuse in adoptive homes is rare – just like abuse in birth parent homes. The bigger problem is adoption "disruption," when agencies rush children into a bad match and the parents change their minds. No one really knows how often that happens – child welfare systems almost never ask questions to which they don't want to know the answers. Some rough estimates are in NCCPR's Issue Paper on adoption.  And journalists rarely follow up on those adoption "happy endings" - unless the adoption itself got an exceptional amount of attention - as happened here.

But whether the problem is legal orphans, disruption or, rarely, severe, even fatal abuse in adoptive homes, it's all encouraged by adoption bounties and the adoption day mentality, both of which promote quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements.

Even Marcia Lowry, who used to run the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" has said that "… Congress should realize that far too many states … when they do, for example, raise their adoption numbers, are doing so by including many clearly inadequate families … along with the genuinely committed, loving families who want to make a home for these children, just to 'succeed' by boosting their numbers." That her own lawsuit settlements have been known to push states the same way is a contradiction someone might want to ask her about someday.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

NCCPR News and commentary round-up, week ending November 19, 2019

Philadelphia Weekly is two-thirds of the way through a three-part series on “the great mindf--k that is Philadelphia's child welfare system.”  Those aren’t my words – they come from a column about the series from Philadelphia Weekly’s editor.  He seemed particularly struck by what happened when their reporter sought comment from the Philadelphia Department of Human Services. I have a blog post about the series, with links to all of the stories.

● The Houston Chronicle and NBC News have a follow-up to their series on the harm inflicted on children when so-called “child abuse pediatricians” jump to conclusions. The full series is available here. 

● Those stories have had an impact beyond Texas.  In Washington State, a pediatrician writes about the trauma endured by a family whose child she treated. A “child abuse pediatrician” who had never actually seen the child contradicted the author – and a police detective - and made a determination of suspected abuse based only on looking at photos. (The family pediatrician had better be careful though. She may wind up accused of doing too much thinking.)

● In Santa Clara County, California, they’re moving to close the shelter that replaced the shelter they closed about ten years ago. As San Jose Spotlight reports:

To Supervisor Dave Cortese, there’s a bitter irony in what has become of the center. Cortese said the county opened the [Receiving, Assessment and Intake Center] RAIC in 2009 because the county’s childrens shelter had become dangerous and was ultimately shuttered.
“The RAIC has sort of morphed into the old shelter system,” Cortese told San José Spotlight. “We slipped right back into the same pattern. It’s history repeating itself and it is so unfortunate.”

The “receiving center” was never meant to be a shelter. But as long as you build a place where kids can be discarded, they will be stuck there. If you build it, they will come. If you keep it open, they will stay.  That’s why it will never work to wait around for every i to be dotted and t to be crossed on some other way to deal with these children.  The only way to put on enough pressure to find alternatives to shelters is to close the shelters.

● Huffpost has a pretty good video primer on the Indian Child Welfare Act.

● Last week, I noted that a Kansas news organization had reported on a protest by parents whose children had been harmed by the state child welfare system, treating the parents with dignity and respect.  In this blog post,I have some context on Kansas child welfare.

● I had missed this excellent story from The Appeal when it first came out in September.  It concerns the harm done to children when marijuana use becomes an excuse to put poor families of color under surveillance – and take away children. (It rarely happens to middle-class white families.)  One startling finding: In Colorado the problem actually got worse after marijuana was legalized.

● I found out about the story in The Appeal thanks to this excellent column in The Daily Targum, the student newspaper at Rutgers University.  I hope the author considers a career in child welfare law.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Child welfare in Kansas: They’ve been knocking on doors for nearly 30 years. Maybe someone is starting to listen.

When parents picketed the Kansas State Capitol last week, something unusual happened.

The first time I heard from a grassroots group of parents fighting for their children against the child welfare system in Kansas it was 1990 – shortly after my book, Wounded Innocents, was published.

Any such group has all sorts of strikes against it from the start: Most of the members will be poor – because that’s who is targeted by child protective services agencies – so they won’t have much in the way of resources.  Most have watched their children endure the trauma of needless foster care.  And then, when they organize, they are demonized; viewed at best as sick and at worst as evil.

So after several years, the members can’t keep up the fight anymore.  Then, perhaps a few years later, a new group forms and the pattern repeats.

That’s because among those who view them as sick and/or evil are many in the state’s media. For example, they have faced only contempt from the largest newspaper in the state, the Wichita Eagle.

But last week, when parents organized and picketed outside the State Capitol in Topeka, something heartening happened: They were treated with respect by the reporter who wrote this story; Peggy Lowe of public radio station KCUR.  Perhaps that’s because Lowe has partnered with Sherman Smith of the Topeka Capital-Journal to take a careful in-depth look at what happens to children after they are taken.

It also may be because Kansas has become a de facto laboratory experiment proving that child welfare systems routinely confuse poverty with neglect.  As Lowe and Smith explain:

Kansas added thousands of children to the state foster care system as former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his appointed DCF secretary, Phyllis Gilmore, imposed policies that reduced aid to struggling families.

A University of Kansas study found that was not a coincidence.  That is in line with multiple studies suggesting a good solution: When you increase cash assistance to poor families, what the child welfare system calls “neglect” declines.

How the system hurts children

The reason it’s so important to listen to these parents is not because the system hurts them – though of course it does. The reason to listen is because the system does so much to hurt children.

● It hurts children needlessly removed by inflicting upon them the same enormous emotional trauma felt by children separated at the Mexican border.  So it’s no wonder study after study of typical cases finds that children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

● That harm occurs even when the foster home is a good one.  The majority are.  But the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than generally realized and far higher than in the general population.  Multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.  The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.

● But even that isn’t the worst of it.  The more that workers are overwhelmed with false allegations, trivial cases and children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find children in real danger.  So they make even more mistakes in all directions.  That’s almost always the real reason for the horror stories about children left in dangerous homes.

So in case there are any other Kansas reporters who want to reconsider old assumptions, here’s some context.

● Kansas tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation – nearly double the national average.  The number of children trapped in foster care on any given day in Kansas is higher than all but four or five other states.

● And those are just the official figures.  Many states use a system of hidden foster care to hide large numbers of placements.  But Kansas has another dodge that, as far as I know, is unique.  If Kansas were required to count these placements as well, the state might well be the child removal capital of America.  You can read all about how Kansas gets away with it here.

● One former Kansas human services chief, Don Jordan, was apparently caught in a bald-faced lie; we just don’t know which was the lie.  While meeting with parents in 2008, he said:

In Sedgwick County [metropolitan Wichita] oftentimes we end up writing things because it's what our social workers get bullied by the District Attorney's Office into writing. So they really have no belief in what it says. [Emphasis added].

Later in the meeting, Jordan said:

I am working on our staff that we do our assessments properly and we not get bullied into writing things we don't believe. But then the reality comes down to, you send a 25-year-old social worker into a room with a 15-year county ADA (assistant district attorney) who is willing to yell at them, cuss at them, scream at them and threaten them, you know.

But when he found out the comments would become public, Jordan, told the district attorney that he was just “pandering” to the parents.  That gives a sense of just how abysmal Kansas child welfare leadership has been. 

By the way, that didn’t happen under Brownback.  Both the apparent lying and the inventive method for hiding foster care placements took place under former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. In Kansas, child welfare has been bipartisan: both parties have failed miserably.

● Another former Kansas human services chief effectively admitted that large numbers of Kansas children are in foster care needlessly – in the most bizarre way possible.  Confronted with the fact that so many Kansas foster children were running away – and how little she seemed to know about it, Phyllis Gilmore sought to reassure people that children running away from foster care isn’t always so bad. So, according to The Kansas City Star:

(Gilmore) said that in many cases, children have left to go back to their biological families or other people with whom they have a relationship in order to try to not be in foster care. … “So it isn’t always a tragedy but some certainly can be and that’s why we have to take it all very seriously,” Gilmore said.

But wait a minute. The Kansas Department of Children and Families, as the agency now is called, says children are taken away only when they have been harmed or are at imminent risk of harm — harm so severe it can’t possibly be prevented without resorting to foster care. And, of course, children are not supposed to be returned as long as those harmful conditions exist.

So how can it not be a tragedy when children go running straight back to these supposedly horrible parents who are such a danger to them?

Unless, of course, many of those parents are not actually a danger — and Gilmore knew it.

● A group that should be helping to fix all this may make things worse; not on purpose, of course, but because of naiveté about how child welfare works and what’s needed to fix it.

Kansas Appleseed has partnered with the group that calls itself “Children’s Rights” which has brought another of its McLawsuits in Kansas.  There’s an excellent chance the suit will actually make Kansas child welfare even worse.  That’s because you can’t solve these problems by hiring a bunch more caseworkers and launching another foster parent recruiting campaign. 

Kansas doesn’t have too few foster parents.  Kansas has too many foster children.  And if all you do is go on a caseworker hiring binge, without changing what those caseworkers actually do, all you get is the same lousy system only bigger.

Wrongful removal drives everything else. The only way to fix foster care is to have less of it.  And that won’t happen until we start seeing everyone in that system, children and parents, for who they really are.

For more about Kansas child welfare, see the comprehensive report issued by NCCPR in 2007. Unfortunately, it's not out of date.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Philadelphia DHS has a new scapegoat for the City’s obscene rate of child removal: Philadelphians!

DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa seems to be suggesting that Philadelphia is a cesspool of depravity so much worse than other cities that it explains why they take away so many children. (But they’re commissioning another study of the problem.)

            The Philadelphia Department of Human Services has been taking so much heat for tearing apart families at the highest rate among America’s biggest cities, (worst among the top five, a close second to worst among the top ten, even when rates of child poverty are factored in) that it has commissioned a new study of the problem.  At the same time, the department has a new scapegoat for the swath of family destruction it cuts through the city’s poor neighborhoods: Philadelphians.

            Those are among the takeaways from agreat story by freelance writer Courtenay Harris-Bond in Philadelphia Weekly – the first in a three-part series. (Links to the rest of the series are at the end of Part One.)

            UPDATE, NOV. 15: When I first saw the story, I overlooked the excellent column that accompanies it, from Philadelphia Weekly editor Kerith Gabriel. Don't make the same mistake!

            The story includes chilling accounts of the harm done to children by needless removal from parents or extended families -- to which DHS and its commissioner, Cynthia Figueroa, respond with a litany of excuses, some familiar, some new.

            The good news: DHS no longer appears to be denying its extreme outlier status outright. (Remember the Pyramid of Bulls**t?)  And DHS even is commissioning a study of the issue.  (At least I hope that’s good news. DHS already has a study, but apparently prefers to ignore it, which raises the question of whether DHS is just going from consultant to consultant until they find one that will tell the agency what it wants to hear.)

            The bad news: Having acknowledged its outlier status, DHS can’t face up to the fact that the fault lies with DHS. They can’t admit that they are the primary reason why Philadelphia tears apart families at nearly triple the rate of New York City and nearly quadruple the rate of Chicago.  So we get the excuses:

            ● First DHS tries to divert our attention from the number of children taken away over the course of a year – entries into care – to a different statistic, the “snapshot number,” which shows the number of children trapped in foster care on a given day. Philadelphia does badly in both categories, and both numbers are important. But it’s entries that really shows a jurisdiction’s propensity to tear apart families.

            ● Then a p.r. person for DHS says that “We’re all reporting in the same categories to the federal government, but how you define that category can be different.”

           But what we’re measuring here is foster care, not subcategories. The federal government does have a clear, standard definition of foster care that every jurisdiction is expected to follow.  There also is a clear, standard definition of an entry into care.  It’s true, some places cheat.  But unless DHS has evidence that every other big city is engaged in a cheating scandal that would make Felicity Huffman blush, there is no reason to doubt Philadelphia’s outlier status.

            Indeed, a consultant hired by DHS itself came to the same conclusion, and issued an exhaustive report on how to fix the problems – a document DHS apparently wants to ignore.

            ● Then DHS points out that they’re placing a greater proportion of children with relatives instead of strangers than they used to.  That’s true – and that is an improvement. But kinship care is still foster care.

            ● Then DHS dredged up the Sandusky excuse.  All those new laws passed in the wake of the scandal surrounding former foster parent and group home operator Jerry Sandusky prompted many more people to report their slightest suspicion of child abuse, so of course that would lead to a spike in child removals.

            That is the standard excuse offered up by child welfare systems whenever there is a foster-care panic – a sharp, sudden spike in removals of children from their homes following a high-profile child abuse tragedy.  And it doesn’t hold up.

            First of all, every big city has foster-care panics – New York City has had at least three since 1995 – but in spite of that, Philadelphia takes away children at a far higher rate.  And Philadelphia has been an outlier for well over a decade. The problem goes back well before the Sandusky scandal (and, in fairness, well before the current leadership at DHS).

But also, during a foster-care panic, what rises most is the proportion of bulls**t reports alleging child abuse and neglect.  That’s because anyone and everyone is constantly encouraged to report anything and everything, so they do just that.  And, of course, “mandated reporters,” such as school personnel, who can be punished for failing to report, are even more scared than usual, so they’re even more prone to report cases they know are ridiculous.

Those same new state laws that Philadelphia blames also apply in Pittsburgh, of course. But in metropolitan Pittsburgh, the longtime director of the human services agency knew that a lot of the new reports would be absurd and demanded that his staff not panic. So there was no increase in foster care in Pittsburgh.  (Though it should be noted, the rate of removal in Pittsburgh also is way too high.)

DHS suggests it’s all YOUR fault

            ● But the most striking excuse of all is the one in which Figueroa seems to be blaming Philadelphia’s high rate of removal on – Philadelphians.  From the story:

“The number of children in DHS care reflects the safety, risks, and environments of children in Philadelphia,” Figueroa said. “We are doing everything we can to keep families together.”

            Now that’s odd.  Because Philadelphia’s rate-of-removal is out of line with all of the five biggest cities and all but one of the ten biggest cities even when you factor in rates of child poverty.  In other words, compare entries into care to the number of impoverished children in each city and Philadelphia is still an extreme outlier.  Indeed, those consultants DHS hired and then ignored did a special comparison to other high-poverty cities – and Philadelphia still was an outlier.

Citing cities such as Detroit, Baltimore and Milwaukee, the consultants noted that these places “also have high rates of children in poverty, but do not experience out-of-home care rates even approaching those of Philadelphia.”

            So what Figueroa really seems to be saying is that “the safety risks and environments of children in Philadelphia” are far worse than the “the safety risks and environments of children” in other impoverished cities. In other words, Philadelphia is some kind of cesspool of depravity beyond what is found in any other of America’s biggest cities.  She prefers to blame the people of Philadelphia rather than take responsibility for her agency’s failure.

            As for the part about “we’re doing everything we can to keep families together” – I believe that. In fact, that’s the problem. The Philadelphia Department of Human Services is doing “everything we can.”  But the leadership at Philadelphia DHS doesn’t know how to safely keep families together - and they don’t want to learn.

And there’s more about the DHS Excuse Machine in these blog posts. (Scroll past this one after clicking on the link.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

NCCPR News and commentary round-up, week ending November 12, 2019

● The Austin American-Statesman has a good story about that giant study of Texas CASA that shows CASA makes things worse for kids.  CASA’s response is depressingly familiar: They crank up the excuse machine.  I discuss CASA’s response, and include a link to the full American-Statesman story, here.

● Also from Texas: The latest installment in the joint Houston Chronicle / NBC News investigation of children harmed when doctors rush to conclude that illnesses or accidental injuries are child abuse.  Here’s the print version; here’s a link to the full series, and this excerpt ran on NBC Nightly News:

● The observation that the “child protection” system is really a parent punishment system is nothing new.  But when someone who has worked closely with that system for decades effectively admits as much – that is new. That admission is one of many revelations in an excellent story form the Arizona Republic.  I have a discussion of the story, with a link to the full story.

● When family defenders get so beaten down they don’t fight enough for their clients, writes Vivek Sankaran, it becomes “Injustice Without Objection.”  “Systems don’t automatically bend toward justice,” he writes. “They only do so when lawyers say the magic phrase: ‘I object.’”

● In several posts to this blog, I’ve highlighted the problem of “hidden foster care.” CPS agencies coerce parents into “voluntarily” surrendering their children to foster care with relatives – but they come up with some euphemism or other so they don’t count it as foster care in official statistics – and deny parents even the minimal due process protections of the formal foster care system. Most recently, I discussed this in connection with Nebraska.  Other states known to be plagued with this problem include North Carolina, Texas and Virginia.  Now, add Missouri to the list.

● And in Kansas, which long has taken away children at obscene rates, families once again are fighting back.  And for once, at least some Kansas media are taking notice.