Tuesday, February 11, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending February 11, 2020


● Eli Hager of The Marshall Project looks at a particular subset of foster care placements: Each year, an average of 17,000 children are torn from their homes – and then sent back within ten days.  But even these short stays can traumatize children.  And, of course, they raise the question: If you can send the children back home in a few days did they really need to be taken at all?

● Anna Claire Vollers of The Birmingham News looks at the harm done to mothers and newborns by child abuse investigations prompted by false positive drug tests.  It’s another example of harm encouraged by  the so-called "plan of safe care" provision in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.  Fortunately, there are journalists such as Vollers reporting the side of the story that the Boston Globe / ProPublica “Spotlight Fellows” left out.

­● Erik Gunn of the Wisconsin Examiner looks at the consequences of legislation that would help turn that state’s child welfare system into the ultimate middle-class entitlement: Step right up and take a poor person’s child for your very own.

● Also in Wisconsin, Mike Hixenbaugh of NBC News reports that doctors at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin are rebelling against their own hospital administration, and the behavior of the hospital’s  “child abuse pediatricians.”  A series of meetings were held in response to Hixenbaugh’s earlier, excellent reporting.  According to the latest story:

At one internal meeting this week, some Children’s Wisconsin doctors told administrators from the Medical College of Wisconsin — which employs physicians who practice at the hospital — that without swift policy changes, they would hesitate to bring their own children to the hospital following accidental injuries, fearing that a medical mistake or overreaction could lead Child Protective Services to break their families apart.

● Sanne Blauw of the innovative news site The Correspondent has a story that has nothing to do with the American child welfare system – and everything to do with the American child welfare system. It’s about how a Dutch court ruled that an algorithm that targets poor people who might be committing public benefits fraud is a violation of human rights. It’s a lot like the algorithm Pittsburgh is using to target potential child abusers – and, soon, to try to slap a risk score on every child in the county at birth.

● A new report from researchers affiliated with what should properly be called the Penn State Penance Institute is a frightening attack on the minimal due process protections afforded those accused of child abuse or neglect in Pennsylvania.  And that means more children traumatized by unnecessary investigations and unnecessary foster care.  I have two blog posts about it.

● Another NCCPR blog post asks if a New York City foster-care panic in 2016 contributed to a child abuse tragedy last month. (It sure looks like it.)

● And Marie Claire Australia profiles an activist fighting the racism in that countries child welfare system.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Child welfare in Pennsylvania: Dialing up the crazy, part two: Enter the “Penn State Penance Institute”


A new report is a frightening assault on the minimal due process protections meant to stop child welfare agencies from needlessly traumatizing children.

             In yesterday’s post to this blog, I described how the due process protections afforded to people who are listed on Pennsylvania’s statewide blacklist of alleged child abusers or in county child welfare agency records range from minimal to none.  I also discussed how State Auditor Eugene DePasquale launched an attack on the minimal due process protections that exist that was rife with inaccuracy, stunning for its ignorance and even veered toward conspiracy theory territory.

            Well, now it looks like DePasquale has an ally – from part of the latter-day “child saver”* wing of the child welfare research community.  I'm sure they have the best of intentions. But they’ve issued a report that amounts to an assault on due process. The extremism in the document manifests itself in many ways, including a flow chart from the report itself.  This is the lower left quadrant of the chart:
  Can you spot the problem?  I’ll discuss it below, but first, let’s look at the report.

            The report was commissioned by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, an arm of the Pennsylvania Legislature. They hired a team affiliated with the Penn State “Child Maltreatment Solutions Network.”  Though the report originally was intended to look only at commercial sexual exploitation of children, the authors kept expanding their own mandate, first to all sexual abuse cases and ultimately to broad, sweeping conclusions about the entire system – even though the case sample they examined involved only sexual abuse cases.

            Like DePasquale, the report’s authors express alarm at what they imply is an unusually high rate at which some blacklist decisions are overturned.  They’re also alarmed by the fact that, if a report turns out to be false, the state is not allowed to keep the report forever and use it against a family anyway.

The report acknowledges that blacklist decisions are overturned, by the authors’ own estimate, only 19 percent of the time.  That’s because most of those accused lack the knowledge and/or the resources or both to do anything but lodge a written appeal.  That appeal goes to the same division of the same state agency that runs the state’s child abuse hotline.  At that stage, in 2018 the number of times a child welfare agency decision was overturned was exactly zero. Among those who do have the resources and take it to a real hearing before an independent tribunal, the Board of Hearings and Appeals, about 70 percent are overturned.  (DePasquale mistakenly claimed it was 96 percent.)

            In fact, the 70 percent rate-of-reversal is roughly in keeping with at least three other states. It also makes perfect sense, given the sloppy, one-sided nature of many child abuse investigations.  The Penn State report itself devotes page after page to condemning the poor quality of these investigations. (DePasquale raised similar concerns.) 

The report even admits at one point that “the rate at which cases indicated by [county children and youth services agencies] are overturned on appeal is high, which may both affect and reflect the concerns raised in this research pertaining to the quality, scope, and documentation of investigations.” [Emphasis added.] 

            Yet the Penn State report warns darkly that if decisions by county CYS agencies “are frequently overturned on appeal, this could provide a disincentive to making a finding of indicated on a CYS case.”  This reflects a remarkably dim view of frontline child abuse investigators. It suggests they would rather let child abusers run free than actually work improve their investigations.

Taking out the trash


            Under Pennsylvania law, if the Board of Hearings and Appeals or the courts overturn a listing in the registry, or if the county CYS agency finds it unfounded in the first place, the state must expunge the record so the false allegation can’t be used against a family in the future.

            But the presumption of guilt in child welfare is so strong that many jurisdictions want to keep false reports on the theory that, if there are enough of them, then they can’t be false.  According to Marc Cherna who runs the Allegheny County system, the one that leads the nation in weaponizing false allegations and other junk information against families: “A lot of times, where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

            This is an open invitation for anyone who wants to harass a family – an ex-spouse, an angry neighbor, a school district that wants to collect lunch money, or even an upset dentist – to simply call in more and more reports. But also, in child welfare, where there’s smoke, there’s often just an overwhelmed inexperienced caseworker blowing smoke.

            But in the atmosphere of hysteria that has pervaded Pennsylvania since the scandal over former Penn State football coach, former foster parent and former group home operator Jerry Sandusky, the state now gives permission to counties to keep junk data about families forever.  According to the authors of the Penn State report, even that is not enough. They want to require it, and they want the state to keep all of its junk data as well.

            Their excuse for this recommendation is instructive, but not in the way they had in mind.  First they write that expungement 

…may result in wrongly-accused persons being repeatedly subjected to investigation for allegations that were already investigated when the investigation has been expunged and the exoneration details are no longer available.

            Aside from the fact that no one could read this report and believe that the authors give a damn about “wrongly-accused persons” (as is discussed below, it’s not even clear they think such persons exist) they contradict this argument in the very next sentence:

At the same time, expungement may also allow serial perpetrators of child sexual abuse to go undetected. That is, expungement of unfounded allegations disallows consideration of the accumulation of allegations, patterns, and reports that are often critical to exposing serial perpetrators of child sexual abuse.

            In other words, “Where there’s smoke …”  If they believe their own second sentence then there’s no way a pile of unfounded reports clears anyone – it just makes them more suspect.

            Indeed, this mindset is confirmed, accidentally, by a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services – which loves the prospect of being able to keep files on the innocent forever. She told the Daily Item:

“Prior abuse reports, regardless of substantiation, are a strong indicator of risk of future abuse … Counties should be aware of all prior incidents, including unfounded or invalid reports, when investigating a new report.”

           
But there is no real evidence for this. The research that supposedly shows this actually shows only that prior reports make it more likely that there will be more reports – in other words, it amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Workers who assume that where there’s smoke there’s fire are more likely to check the equivalent of the box marked “fire” when the next report comes in.

            And, of course there is a simple way to solve the problem of someone who is innocent not having a record of a false allegation: Send a copy of the record, minus anything that genuinely violates privacy, to the accused, so they can keep it and show it to the caseworker the next time that disgruntled neighbor, ex-spouse, dentist or school district demanding lunch money files a false report, or the next time a well-meaning reporter is simply mistaken.

            The report’s recommendation in this area appears under the header “Stop deleting data.”  But a key principle in any use of data is “garbage in, garbage out.”  Expunging false reports is not deleting data.  It’s taking out the trash.

Another assault on due process


            You can’t convict someone of murdering a child without proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  But in most states you can tear a child from a loving home and consign her or him to the chaos of foster care, indefinitely, using the lowest standard of proof in American jurisprudence – “preponderance of the evidence.” That means you were able to convince a judge that it is slightly more likely than not that the allegations are true and foster care is necessary.  It’s the same standard used to decide which insurance company pays for a fender-bender.

            That’s part of the reason it’s so easy to do so much harm to children. First, confuse family poverty with neglect, then take away the child (in every state workers can do that on their own authority or ask law enforcement to do it for them). Then, after-the-fact, go to court for a hearing – usually a secret hearing - where the family probably has either no lawyer or someone they just met five minutes before the hearing. The state has had plenty of time to prepare its case – and it barely has to “prove” it at all.

            In theory, Pennsylvania is a little different.  In Pennsylvania, CYS agencies eventually – though not immediately - have to meet the middle standard of proof, known as “clear and convincing.” That’s still lower than “beyond a reasonable doubt” but, theoretically, higher than “preponderance of the evidence.”

            In contrast, all it takes to blacklist the accused is a caseworker’s conclusion – with no hearing or impartial fact finding beforehand – using the preponderance standard.

            So what does the Penn State report say? While never explicitly calling for lowering the standard for holding a child in foster care, it’s clear where the authors come down. They write:

This creates a scenario in which it is known that a child is at risk of harm but no action to protect the child can be taken without the consent of the parent, who may themselves be the identified perpetrator.

           But that is inaccurate.  

            First of all, in Pennsylvania a child can, in fact, be in foster care for up to 13 days or more before this higher standard ever kicks in. That happens – in theory -- at a later hearing to determine if the child needs to stay in foster care.

But more important, the whole point of a court hearing is to find out if the child actually is “at risk of harm” and whether the parent is, in fact, the perpetrator. If a caseworker’s guess based on preponderance of the evidence were enough we could just abolish the entire court system.

The Penn State report’s framing also flunks the balance of harms test. It fails to acknowledge the enormous harm of intervention itself. It ignores the evidence that in typical cases children do better in their own homes even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.  It ignores the high rates of abuse in foster care itself.  One should, indeed, have clear and convincing evidence before putting a child at risk harm by needless placement in foster care.

And finally: The “clear and convincing” standard does not stop Pennsylvania from taking away children at a rate above the national average. And it doesn’t stop Philadelphia from taking away children at the highest rate among America’s largest cities.

So yes, there’s a problem with the “clear and convincing” standard in Pennsylvania law: Judges keep ignoring it.

The bias that permeates the report


            I noted above that it’s not clear the authors believe there’s really any such thing as a false report.  Indeed, the overall message conveyed in the report is: If you’re accused you’re guilty until proven innocent – and no one is really innocent.

That’s based on, among other things, the flow chart I mentioned at the top of this post.  The flow chart is misleading on one count and flat wrong on another.  Take another look: 


            It is misleading in that it suggests, as does the report narrative, that those accused of child abuse have a wondrous array of options before them and chance after chance to prove their innocence.

            In fact, that’s only true if they’re rich, can hire great lawyers, and convince court after court to hear their appeals.  In the real world, there’s the BHA – and often, not even that.  (And remember, in most neglect cases there is no right to appeal at all.)

            The error of fact appears over and over in the lower left quadrant of the chart. That’s where, time after time after time the report lists a tribunal’s options as either “ruling in favor of CYS” or “ruling in favor of perpetrator.” [Emphasis in original.]

            The problem, of course, is that if the tribunal says the allegation was false, then the accused is not a perpetrator.  To claim that ruling that the state could not meet the bare minimum required to “indicate” an abuse allegation equals “ruling in favor of perpetrator” is like saying “the jury found the murderer not guilty.”

           
Of course sometimes a jury gets it wrong and does acquit a murderer.  And a system as arbitrary, capricious, and cruel as child welfare undoubtedly errs in all directions – including wrongly exonerating some child abusers.  But both in the flow chart and often, though not always, in the narrative, this report labels the accused as perpetrators even after a finding of abuse is overturned.

            The fact that a document purporting to meet academic standards includes this mistake, over and over and over, and no one apparently noticed, speaks volumes about the mindset of the research team.  Indeed, in reading the report, I kept thinking of something said by a prosecutor who had falsely accused large numbers of parents as part of the mass molestation hysteria in the 1980s. Said the prosecutor: “I am sick to death of things like the presumption of innocence.”

Beyond the flow chart


            The whole report has a tone reminiscent of the worst excesses of that era, the time of  cases like the McMartin Preschool, allegations of mass child abuse by Satanic cults, and so on. 

            Particularly frightening is a section concerning non-offending parents in cases of alleged sexual abuse, including parents who were unaware of any alleged abuse. The report contends that any such parent (usually the mother) who does not immediately believe the allegations, turn against the alleged offender (usually the father) and do whatever is demanded by child protective services is herself a child abuser. 

According to the report, agreeing to keep the alleged abuser away while the case is being investigated is not enough.  In classic 1984 style, you must believe the charges, and the belief must be immediate, absolute and unwavering.  Because, apparently, those same caseworkers who do those slipshod investigations can’t ever be wrong when they accuse someone of sexual abuse.

            I know of no studies documenting how many families are destroyed when a parent either accepted these demands or rejected them – and it later turned out the allegation was false.  But having been around during the McMartin-era hysteria I can say that, anecdotally, such cases arose over and over.  Children were not only taken from both parents, but loving relatives were denied custody if they did not convince authorities that they believed the charges.

            The justification for this, according to the report: If a parent is not an instant true believer ‘it is possible” that parent may “[pressure] the child to recant or deny the abuse allegations.”

           
The report is filled with speculation about what “could” or “may” happen – with no evidence or studies cited. (Recall for example the claim that if the BHA does its job and reverses the results of slipshod investigations it “could provide a disincentive” to indicating a case. [Emphasis added.]) That’s not scholarship, that’s fearmongering.

            But, to put it as they might, it could be that this is only to be expected when the organization doing the research was born out of a quest to burnish an institution’s image.

            The Penn State Child Maltreatment Solutions Network should really be called the Penn State Penance Institute.

            The Network was a public relations tactic; part of Penn State’s effort to rehabilitate its image after the Sandusky scandal.  But for the p.r. strategy to work, Penn State has to show that it’s tougher than anyone on child abuse. That leaves little room for nuance or for recognizing the need to balance the harm that may have been committed buy the alleged perpetrator against the harm done to children by needless intervention.

            There is plenty in the Penn State report to suggest that the authors have a genuine passion for easing the plight of abused children.  But there is nothing in it to suggest the ability to keep biases in check that is needed for reliable scholarship.


*-In the 19th Century, advocates for tearing apart the families of impoverished immigrants proudly called themselves “child savers.”  They left a legacy of bigotry that permeates today’s system.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Child welfare in Pennsylvania: They’re getting ready to dial up the crazy again, part 1


            Every few years since the scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, the convicted child rapist, former Penn State football coach, former foster parent and former group home operator, Pennsylvania legislators churn out a new set of bad laws so they can then churn out press releases about how they’ve “cracked down on child abuse.”

            At least one statewide official, State Auditor Eugene DePasquale, has been quick to exploit the tragedy surrounding this former foster parent and group home operator to promote policies that are only likely to lead to more children needlessly placed in foster homes and group homes.  He also comes frighteningly close to trafficking in conspiracy theories.

            Now it looks likely to happen again.  This time the target is the bare minimum amount of due process that exists for families in which someone is wrongly labeled a child abuser, sometimes based on little more than a caseworker’s guess.

            A new report, from researchers affiliated with a group set up by Penn State to do penance for its role in the Sandusky scandal, is attacking the same minimal due process protections that DePasquale went after last year.  I don't doubt that the researchers have the best of intentions. But their bias is, literally, visible in the report itself.

The background


            As in most states, in Pennsylvania all it may take to be labeled a child abuser is for a caseworker to check a box on a form based on her or his belief that it is slightly more likely than not that the accused abused or neglected a child. 

In cases of abuse and what authorities deem severe neglect, that puts you in a statewide central register and can bar you from all sorts of jobs that involve coming anywhere near children. (Pennsylvania is unusual in that the statewide register doesn’t apply to all neglect cases.)  Being on the blacklist bars you from jobs ranging from teacher, to crossing guard, to school lunch aide, to clerk in a children’s bookstore. It also bars those blacklisted from working in home health care.  And, though not required by law, some employers even bar the blacklisted form working with the elderly.

Many of these are low-wage jobs – first-step-out-of-poverty-jobs. So, as with everything else in child welfare, being wrongly blacklisted does the most harm to poor families. The stress of the listing and potential job loss itself increases the harm to children. The harm worsens if the parent on the blacklist can’t get a job, making it more likely the family will be plunged into poverty that is confused with neglect.

            And, of course, being listed in the registry means the next time the same person is accused, it is that much more likely the children’s suffering will increase exponentially because the worker will be more likely to place those children, needlessly, in foster care.  After all, they were accused before so they must be guilty, right?

            “All too often, indicated reports are based on faulty or incomplete investigations, or on actions or omissions by parents or caretakers that simply do not meet the statutory definitions of child abuse,” writes Janet Ginzburg, a lawyer for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.  She cites this example:

A woman and her ex-husband shared custody of their 18-month-old daughter. After spending the weekend at her dad's house, the girl was returned to her mother's home with a case of diaper rash.
The dad notified the mom of the rash and gave her a tube of ointment that he had been applying. The mom watched the rash for several days, applying the ointment as directed by the medication's instructions. When the rash did not go away, she took her daughter to the doctor, who found that the rash had become infected and reported the mother to the local child-welfare agency for child neglect.
The mom had done what almost every parent would have under the circumstances - she had treated the rash, watched it closely, and ultimately made the decision that it required medical attention. However, she was placed on the civil statewide Childline Abuse Registry and lost her job as a home health aide. Until she was able to get a hearing and clear her name - a process that can take as long as a year - she was unable to get another job in the profession she had been trained in.

            Note that the mother did not get a hearing before she was blacklisted; she had to fight her way out afterwards.  As Ginzburg explains:

There is no hearing, no opportunity to present evidence. A caseworker checks off a box, and an individual is placed on the registry effectively for life - unless this person successfully appeals within a very short deadline.

            An appeal is the only way out.  That way already is foreclosed in many cases.  And in the latest example of ratcheting up the crazy, it looks like DePasquale and others are gearing up for an effort to make that one way even harder.

Pennsylvania’s weird system 

In Pennsylvania, the child abuse hotline and the central register are run by the state, but almost everything else is the responsibility of individual counties.  That’s unusual, but not unique. New York, for example, operates the same way.

            But here’s what is unique about Pennsylvania: Unlike every other state, Pennsylvania classifies abuse and what they deem the most serious cases of neglect as “child protective services” (CPS).  But other neglect cases are classified as “general protective services” (GPS).  In both types of case, a report can lead to an intrusive, coercive investigation and in both types of case that investigation can lead to consigning the children to the chaos of foster care. 

            The statewide central register applies only to CPS cases.  There is no statewide register for GPS cases – but counties still keep these records. They are not checked by employers, but they are used by county child welfare agencies in assessing future reports alleging abuse or neglect.  (This is especially dangerous in Allegheny County, where they’ve created an Orwellian automated predictive analytics algorithm that relies heavily on these data.)

            This makes it especially important that the accused have a chance to correct the record, since the record can be no more than a caseworker’s guess.

           
But in GPS cases, because there is no statewide central register, there is no appeals mechanism at all.  The caseworker’s word is – almost literally – law.  The family has no recourse against this stigmatizing and stereotyping – and in Pittsburgh, no recourse against such a false report raising an arbitrary risk score that can haunt not only the parents, but their children for life.

            Needless to say that’s not what has people like DePasquale upset.  Nope. They’re upset with the minimal due process protections that exist in CPS cases.

            In these cases, one can seek administrative review from the same state agency that runs the statewide child abuse hotline. But of the 982 such cases they reviewed for which they reached a decision in 2018 they overturned exactly zero.

            Clearly one’s only hope is to take the case to a neutral arbiter, still a state agency but one outside the human services bureaucracy. In Pennsylvania it’s the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals.  Only 955 cases reached the BHA in 2018. They ruled on 545 cases that year.

            If that name – Bureau of Hearings and Appeals -- is vaguely familiar, it’s because that agency was the subject of a bizarre rant last year by Auditor General DePasquale.  As I noted on this blog last year:

DePasquale claims that in hearing appeals, BHA upholds [county children and youth services agency] caseworker findings only four percent of the time.  As a result, he claims, “the system is potentially sending hundreds of children back into the homes where CYS caseworkers found they were being abused.”  Then he ratchets up the fear rhetoric with this:  “No child should ever have to go back into an abusive situation because bureaucrats have their heads buried in the sand.”
There are two problems with this: The four percent figure is contradicted by readily available data, and BHA decisions have no bearing on whether children are removed from or returned to their homes.

            BHA decisions apply only to whether someone stays on the state’s child abuse blacklist, nothing more.  Whether children are removed from the home and where they wind up is decided exclusively by county child protective services agencies and courts.  DePasquale held a news conference and went on his rant apparently unaware of this basic fact.

            But DePasquale went further.  Veering toward conspiracy theory territory, he even suggested that there is something nefarious in the agency’s name: Bureau of Hearings and Appeals.  The more likely explanation: It’s called the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals because it holds hearings and listens to appeals.

            DePasquale made all these bizarre claims during a news conference announcing an “investigation” into the BHA -- as opposed to doing it the old-fashioned way, in which one conducts the investigation first and then draws the conclusions.

            As for that claim that BHA upholds caseworker claims only four percent of the time, nobody outside DePasquale’s office knows where they got it.  What we do know is, it’s wrong.

            The state Department of Human Services claims that BHA overrules county child welfare agency findings 46 percent of the time.  But I don’t know where they came up with that number either.  In fact, in the relatively few cases that make it to the BHA, it appears that BHA reverses caseworker decisions about 70 percent of the time.  (When you count all cases that are appealed, both to BHA and administratively – where nothing gets overturned – the percentage drops to under 25 percent.)

            The statistic concerning the BHA can lead to two possible conclusions: 

            1. The BHA is made up of a bunch of biased and / or ignorant administrative judges who love coddling child abusers and hurting innocent children!

            Or:

            2. As soon as the accused, at long last, reaches an independent tribunal, it turns out the case was so flimsy and / or the investigation so slipshod that it isn’t even slightly more likely than not that abuse occurred. 

            Here are some reasons why Option 2 is more likely.

            ● Pennsylvania is not unique. In Kentucky between 56 and 66 percent of cases are overturned in a typical year. In New York and Illinois class-action lawsuits revealed that when people finally make it through the slow, cumbersome appeals process they win 75 percent of the time. (NCCPR’s vice president brought the New York suit.) 

            ● In Pennsylvania, the most serious cases never get appealed at all.  If the case results in a criminal conviction it usually can’t be appealed.  Of the rest, only parents with extraordinary determination can be heard before the BHA. That’s because there’s no right to counsel if you can’t afford a private lawyer.  You have to file your own appeal within a tight timeframe, go to Harrisburg and then you’re all alone against the might of the state.  In fact, as Ginzburg notes, you can’t even see the case file with the evidence against you.

            As Pittsburgh attorney Amanda Green Hawkins put it: “It’s like David taking on Goliath.”

● In North Carolina and Missouri state Supreme Courts found that putting someone in a registry first and then holding a hearing so stacks the deck that it’s unconstitutional. Several judges in Pennsylvania have   expressed similar qualms, quoting the Missouri decision with approval.

            ● As we noted last year, DePasquale has himself expressed alarm at the inexperience, overload, and high turnover among frontline caseworkers. Since these are precisely the conditions most likely to lead to errors in all directions, it’s no wonder the independent BHA finds error so often.

            But somehow I have a feeling that, when DePasquale gets around to issuing the report on the investigation for which he’s already drawn his conclusions, something reportedly expected in the summer, he’ll go with Option 1.

            And he already seems to be getting some support in a report that is biased on its face – specifically on page 13, where you’ll find this flow chart that purports to describe the appeals process. Take a close look and see if you can spot the bias. (Hint: It’s in the lower left quadrant).



            This new report doesn’t just discuss the issue of appeals. It’s a multi-front assault on due process. There's more about that in part two.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Did a New York City foster-care panic in 2016 contribute to a child’s death four years later?


            I have often written about how foster-care panics – sharp sudden increases in children needlessly removed from their homes after a child abuse death – make all children less safe.  They do terrible harm to the children needlessly removed, of course, but they also overload the system, making it less likely that authorities will find children in real danger.

            Now, it appears, there is another tragic illustration.  And this case also illustrates something else: Turning everything over the law enforcement is no panacea. Overloaded cops behave like overloaded caseworkers.

The current case


            Teshawn Watkins is under arrest, charged with killing his infant son, Kaseem.  The child’s mother, Cecelia Reyes, reportedly discovered the body.  It already looks like this is going to be one of those cases where the files had more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade.

            But New York Times reporter Ashley Southall dug deeper.  Her story suggests that many of the failures, at least initially, were committed by law enforcement, not necessarily the city’s Administration for Children’s Services.  And one of the most important failures may have been a consequence of foster-care panic.

            In December, 2016, Reyes’ mother called the police about bruises on one of the children. The allegations against Watkins were serious enough to prompt ACS to, apparently, keep the investigation in the hands of law enforcement.  The children were placed in foster care, but returned after the police “determined no crime occurred” according to law enforcement sources.  Southall writes:

The law enforcement officials interviewed for this article said the determination was troubling, given that Ms. Reyes’s explanation was inconsistent with doctors’ findings, and because the detective did not interview the children’s parents. …

            Did the police do a superficial investigation, and if so, why?

            Southall’s story suggests an explanation.  This case arose just three months after the child abuse death of Zymere Perkins.  There was a spike in calls to the state child abuse hotline, a spike in investigations, a spike in court-ordered supervision of families, and a spike in the number of children torn from their homes.

            But there was another spike as well: A spike in the number of cases referred to law enforcement.  Writes Southall:

After Zymere’s death in September 2016, child-welfare teams increasingly flagged incoming reports of child abuse as serious cases, triggering a surge in police investigations. Investigators in the Bronx handled 416 new cases between Sept. 26, 2016, and Dec. 21, 2016, a 41 percent increase from the same period in 2015, according to a law enforcement official.

By the time Ms. Reyes’s mother called 911 on Dec. 28, the police were already swamped.

Two years later, Southall reports, an audit revealed that

At the same time, the then-commander of the Police Department’s Special Victims Division, which investigates sex crimes and child abuse, was warning higher-ups that the unit was dangerously understaffed … The commander, Deputy Chief Michael Osgood, had written that the department could not be “the cause of a future Zymere Perkins.”

This time, can we learn the right lessons?


The 2016 incident was the first abuse allegation against Watkins, but Southall reports authorities investigated three additional reports. No details are available.  So we don’t know if those, too, could have been affected by the foster-care panic following the death of Zymere Perkins.

But we already know this much: If ACS, law enforcement, and politicians respond to the death of Kaseem Watkins the same way they responded to the death of Zymere Perkins, and before that Nixzmary Brown, and before that Elisa Izquierdo, then they are only putting the next Kaseem Watkins, and all the other vulnerable children of New York City, in more danger.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending February 4, 2020


● For the past year, reporter Brian Sheehan of WHP-TV in Harrisburg has done one outstanding story after another about families harmed by child welfare agencies in Pennsylvania.  Last week, they posted a round-up of their own that includes many of them.  Not included in the round-up, but also excellent: A primer of sorts on why, when it comes to your legal rights, child welfare agencies have far more power than the police.

These stories are especially worth another look now, because it looks like they're about to dial up the crazy in Pennsylvania again soon. I'll have blog posts about this in the next few days.

● The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a detailed account of the extreme lengths the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families went to in order to try to stop you from finding out what NBC News reporter Mike Hixenbaugh found out about the behavior of “child abuse pediatricians” at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.  So whatever you do, be sure to help Wisconsin DCF protect its bureaucracy! Don’t even think of reading or sharing Hixenbaugh’s story, which happens to be available here.

The Washington Post has aggregated stories about several cases in which newborns were separated needlessly from their mothers due to hospitals’ knee-jerk responses to false positive drug tests. This is made all the more likely by the so-called “plan of safe care” provision of the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.  But ProPublica and the Boston Globe ignored such cases as they wrote stories that effectively call for making this provision of a bad law even worse.  Here’s our response to those stories.

● Legislation has been introduced in Rhode Island to try to curb discrimination by child protective services against parents with disabilities.

● In Colorado, legislation has been introduced that, according to this news account, is similar to Utah’s “freerange parenting” law.


Thursday, January 30, 2020

NCCPR in Youth Today on debunking child welfare's "creation myth"

Racial and class bias are child welfare’s original sins. So it’s no wonder so many in the field are desperate to whitewash child welfare’s origin story. Now, an article in Children’s Bureau Express, a publication from the Administration for Children and Families, finishes the job of setting the record straight. In the process, it turns child welfare’s creation myth upside down. It’s been a long time coming.

Read the full column in Youth Today

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending January 28, 2020


● Two big stories illustrate the enormous harm wrought by our mad rush to enact “mandatory reporting” laws more than half a century ago.  One, from Rise, illustrates how these laws can devastate entire poor communities.  The other, from NBC News, includes this revelation: Five doctors at a prestigious hospital in Wisconsin are so afraid of false allegations – from their own “child abuse pediatrician” colleagues -- that they fear taking their own children to their own hospital.  I discuss both stories, with links to both in this blog post.

● The Associated Press reports on still another study documenting the harm of foster care.

● Child welfare has its own creation myth – and it’s dead wrong. The real story is much more interesting, and teaches profound lessons.  I wrote about it for Youth Today.  Here’s a spoiler: Mary Ellen Wilson was a foster child.

● A member of the Board of Supervisors in Yolo County, California, is beginning to worry about the foster-care panic in that county. Here’s his column in the Davis (Calif.) Vanguard.  And here’s some context.

● In Los Angeles County the police department is wisely refusing to do duplicate child abuse investigations concerning allegations of “emotional abuse.” The L.A. Sheriff’s office doesn’t understand that you can’t fight emotional abuse by inflicting emotional abuse.  I have a blog post about it.

● Speaking of emotional abuse, consider the lead anecdote in this column from Vivek Sankaran in the Chronicle of Social Change.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Two news stories illustrate how mandatory child abuse reporting laws terrorize families – and entire communities

Mandatory reporting can trigger a cascade of harm to children

Some doctors at a prestigious hospital in Wisconsin say they’re so afraid of false allegations from “child abuse pediatricians” that they fear taking their own children to their own hospital in a case of accidental injury.  And a new study shows how poor parents are driven away from help.


            A mother walks into a government office in Rhode Island seeking public assistance benefits for her family.  The worker demands proof of residency.  But the family is living in their car. The mother doesn’t dare say so for fear that the worker will turn her in to child protective services.  So they lose whatever help might be available – and spend the winter sleeping in the car.

            That anecdote is in one of two big recent stories documenting the terror we have unleashed as a result of “mandatory reporting” laws.  One story dealt with people who are among the most privileged in our society: white, affluent doctors.  The other, the one that includes the anecdote above, dealt with those who have the least: poor families.  Yet both illustrate the same tragedy.

         
   Mandatory child abuse reporting laws were passed in a mad rush more than half a century ago, with no study beforehand and not a shred of evidence they would actually curb child abuse. They require certain professionals to report any suspicion they may have of child abuse. Originally intended to cover only grievous cases of physical abuse, the scope of the laws expanded to include well, anything and everything.  So did the categories of professionals required to report. In some states everyone is a mandated reporter.

            The states did it on their own in the late 1960s, largely at the urging of the medical profession.  Though many of the original proponents of these laws have had second thoughts, states that might want to reconsider will find it hard to turn back. That’s partly because, since 1974, a bad federal law supported by, among others, some journalists – has required states to maintain mandatory reporting. Yes, it’s in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.

The devastation in poor communities


            The way mandatory reporting harms entire poor communities is illustrated in this story from Rise, a magazine written by parents who have had to deal with child welfare systems. Rise interviewed Kelley Fong, a Ph.D candidate, in sociology and social policy at Harvard, about a study she did in which she interviewed more than 80 low-income mothers in Providence, R.I.

            She found that child protective services is such an all-pervading presence in poor communities that even those who have never been turned in by a “mandated reporter” have to adjust all of their interactions with “helping” professionals – even when that means avoiding real help.As Fong told Rise:


We lean on schools and doctors and nonprofits to support families. The challenge is those services are in a position to turn moms in to CPS. To get help, you often need to open up about your challenges. Moms didn’t know if those admissions would lead to a CPS report. Given the high stakes, mothers would say: “It’s better safe than sorry — Even if there is a possibility I can get help I need, I don’t want to risk catching a case.”

            One of the child abuse prevention initiatives widely regarded as most successful, voluntary home visiting for new mothers, has been compromised by our obsession with mandatory reporting. Again from the interview:

I heard from several moms that they were offered home visiting and they decided not to take it, not because they didn’t think it would help them, but because they worried about someone coming into their home. Will it lead to a CPS report if my home is messy? So these families who could have benefited from home visiting services didn’t end up receiving them. The goal of the child welfare system is to keep children safe; however, the way it is set up can generate responses that actually make children less safe.

The revolution is devouring its own


            Mandatory reporting laws, considered revolutionary at the time, were pushed hardest by doctors.  But now, it seems, the revolution is devouring its own.

            That is made clear by the ordeal endured by the children of two doctors at Children’s Wisconsin hospital, an ordeal inflicted by so-called “child abuse pediatricians” at their own institution.  Their story is the latest in a long line of such stories told by Mike Hixenbaugh of NBC News.

            The story is so damning that the deputy district attorney who has brought criminal charges in  this case asked a judge to issue a temporary gag order -- which he then cited as reason not to comment.  It’s so damning that the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families “sent a reporter a cease and desist order warning of possible criminal charges for publishing information contained in a child abuse investigation file.”


            So before continuing, remember, Wisconsin DCF and the D.A. absolutely DO NOT WANT YOU TO READ THIS STORY. Remember, they really, really don’t want you do read THIS STORY RIGHT HERE.  And one can only imagine how upset they’d be if you shared it.
           
            Fifteen doctors ultimately attested to the fact that the child abuse pediatricians got it wrong. The injury to Dr. John Cox’s one-month-old adopted daughter was accidental.  But, Hixenbaugh writes, they found

a series of medical mistakes and misstatements by hospital staff members that has devastated Cox’s family and derailed his career. A nurse practitioner on the hospital’s child abuse team confused the baby’s birthmarks for bruises, according to seven dermatologists who have reviewed the case. A child abuse pediatrician misinterpreted a crucial blood test, four hematologists later said. Then, two weeks after the incident, armed with those disputed medical reports, Child Protective Services took the child.

Oh, and one other thing: One of the bruises that counted most heavily against the family actually was inflicted accidentally by hospital staff in the course of their child abuse investigation.

            The entire ordeal began when Cox did the right thing and took his infant daughter to his own pediatrician at Children’s Wisconsin, Dr. Al Pomeranz.  Dr. Pomeranz didn’t actually believe Cox had abused the child – but as a mandated reporter, he felt he had to notify the “child advocacy team” at Children’s Wisconsin.

“In hindsight,” Cox said in a recent interview, “taking her to our own hospital was the single most harmful decision that we made for our baby.”

            But even more damning than the behavior in this case is the extent to which the child abuse pediatricians at Children’s Wisconsin have cast a pall of fear over the entire institution. Writes Hixenbaugh:

Several emergency room doctors described an “out of control” child abuse team that is too quick to report minor injuries to authorities and that is too closely aligned with state child welfare investigators. Three of the doctors recalled being pressured by child abuse pediatricians to alter medical records, removing passages where they had initially reported having little or no concerns about abuse, though there’s no evidence that happened in Cox’s case.
“Essentially they’ve asked us to edit medical records to help the state prosecute parents,” one doctor said. “It’s completely inappropriate.”
Five doctors told a reporter they’re even afraid to bring their own children to their hospital after accidental injuries, fearing that a misdiagnosis or miscommunication might lead Child Protective Services to break their family apart. [Emphasis added.]

Birthplace of the “sentinel injury” theory


            Part of the problem is that Children’s Wisconsin is the birthplace of the “sentinel injury” theory – the one that goes: there’s no such thing as a minor bruise – because it just might be a sign that the parent is about to beat, maim, torture, or murder the child.  It makes no sense if you think about it – which is why they’d rather we didn’t.

            And if you think all this is so crazy that the Cox family must have been reunited - but you know better, right?  No. The child, now nine-months-old, is still in foster care. Wisconsin authorities are exploiting a technicality – the fact that the adoption has not been finalized – to deny her even visits with her parents. (So unfortunately, my guess is that even when the family finally is cleared, the child welfare authorities probably will try to prevent reunification by playing the bonding card.)  As for the “self-gagged” D.A. – he’s pursuing felony child abuse charges.

            Cox and his wife, Dr. Sadie Dobrozsi, have two other adopted children, ages 5 and 3. And they are very scared.  Again, from that story Wisconsin authorities absolutely don’t want you to read:

“Will someone come to take me, too?” [the older boy] asks sometimes. At one point, he filled a backpack with his favorite toys and stashed it away in the closet — just in case.

            As one doctor told Hixenbaugh:

“This is a disease in our hospital.  The way John’s case has been mishandled has opened all of our eyes to how big the problem is.”

            But has it opened their eyes to how much worse it is for families who can’t afford more than a dozen second opinions? Has it opened their eyes to families like those in the Rhode Island study?  And has it opened their eyes to the harm done by mandatory reporting laws?

UPDATE: In a follow-up story, Hixenbaugh reports that the hospital has now issued a memo to all staff. In that memo the hospital 1: totally defends the child abuse pediatricians. 2: Says in cases of any abuse allegation, the child abuse pediatricians know best. 3: Promises to "honestly and transparently" investigate the allegations in Hixenbaugh's original story.