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. 

Monday, January 27, 2020

You can’t fight “emotional abuse” by inflicting emotional abuse

Even CPS agencies should be extremely wary of intruding on families based on such allegations.  There’s no excuse for sending in the cops.

The Los Angeles Police Department has wisely decided that
it is not a good idea to send out latter-day Joe Fridays to
investigate allegations of "emotional abuse."
           In Los Angeles County, the Department of Children and Family Services and various law enforcement agencies have an agreement: What are thought to be more serious cases alleging child abuse, in particular those alleging violation of criminal law, are automatically referred to law enforcement.  In some of those cases they must do their own investigation, in other cases it’s discretionary.  In all cases, these investigations are in addition to – not instead of – investigations by DCFS.

            Last October, based on the best information available at the time, the Chronicle of Social Change reported that in the City of Los Angeles, from January 2018 to July 2019, the police department had not investigated 4,000 such cases - 11 percent of the total.  In contrast, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office investigated all but three percent of these cases.

            So the LAPD did an audit.  In a follow up story, the Chronicle reports:

The report found that “the department appropriately handled” 99.7 percent of the cases, and that many of the cases noted as no investigation were clerical errors, duplicates or had been investigated by other agencies. But it also confirmed that Los Angeles Police routinely chose not to investigate “emotional child abuse” allegations that are often investigated by other major law enforcement agencies in L.A. County.

The LAPD is right. The other agencies are wrong.

The reason for that should be obvious. There are few things more emotionally abusive for a child than enduring a child abuse investigation.  Imagine for a moment being a small child. Suddenly strangers come to your home – or you’re taken from your classroom to a school office.  You are questioned intently about the most intimate aspects of your life. If you’re old enough – and poor enough –you know that if that interrogator is from DCFS there is a risk you won’t be going home. (You know this because it happens so often in poor communities that everyone in those communities knows it).

In calling for much narrower legal definitions of child maltreatment, three of the nation’s leading scholars of child welfare in the 20th Century, Anna Freud, Joseph Goldstein and Albert J. Solnit wrote that children

react even to temporary infringement of parental autonomy with anxiety, diminishing trust, loosening of emotional ties, or an increasing tendency to be out of control.  The younger the child and the greater his own helplessness and dependence, the stronger is his need to experience his parents as his lawgivers --  safe, reliable, all-powerful and independent.

No matter how sensitively it’s handled, it’s a trauma. And there’s no guarantee it’s going to be sensitive.  Consider this example, cited by Prof. Vivek Sankaran in a recent column for the Chronicle:

“Your father is as worthless as your mother.”  Those words – said by a caseworker to a 13-year-old child whose parents were addicted to heroin – jumped out at me as I read the case file. My heart immediately sank.

Do we  really want people so willing to inflict emotional abuse themselves investigating “emotional abuse”?

Now, imagine the trauma if, say, the next day the same process is repeated all over again, but this time the interrogators are carrying guns.

Even when an allegation is so serious that law enforcement involvement is justified, there is considerable risk that their presence will contribute to traumatizing the child, as happened in this case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  There is no legitimate reason to put children at such risk over an allegation of “emotional abuse.”

In fact, unlike allegations of physical and sexual abuse, when the allegation is emotional abuse, Los Angeles County law enforcement agencies can use their discretion and decline to perform this second, redundant investigation.  As the Chronicle story notes, the 2015 agreement setting up this system urges police to investigate these reports.  The LAPD has wisely decided not to take that advice. They’ve decided to exercise their discretion and refuse to inflict that additional trauma. They deserve praise for that.

The usual excuses

            Why in the world would anyone even think of sending in the cops to investigate emotional abuse?

            The Chronicle story cites two studies concluding that emotional abuse “can cause as much lasting damage as physical or sexual abuse.”  Well, yes.  That’s analogous to the argument used by those who dismiss child welfare’s widespread confusion of poverty with neglect. They say sometimes neglect can be as bad as abuse.  That’s because neglect is such a broad, vague category that it can encompass everything from deliberately starving a child to death to running out of food because the SNAP benefits didn’t last the full month.  But which is more likely?

            Nor does it follow that the fact that emotional abuse might, in some rare cases, be as bad or worse than physical abuse, it requires the police to detect it.  LAPD’s decision does not mean no one investigates emotional abuse cases; DCFS still does.

It’s a gateway allegation!

The story then quotes Commander Carlos Marquez. He oversees the Special Victims Unit in the Sheriff’s Department, where they proudly investigate almost everything:

“A lot of times if you really understand child abuse, you understand that emotional abuse is only one aspect,” Marquez said. “There are usually other issues in the home: domestic violence, sexual abuse. Very rarely have I seen where emotional abuse is just emotional abuse without something else in the home.

In other words, it’s a gateway allegation!

That’s always the excuse for the exercise of untrammeled state power over the lives of impoverished families. It’s the same reason poor mothers can lose their children for smoking marijuana when rich mothers can brag about it; the same reason schools can exploit "educational neglect" allegations to silence parents fighting for, say, a better special education plan. It’s also much like the excuse for stop-and-frisk – well, you never know when they might be hiding something!

There are several problems with this. First, reports that include emotional abuse as even one category of alleged maltreatment are relatively rare. In Los Angeles County 15 percent of reports include emotional abuse as the predominant allegation – there is no breakdown for when it is the only allegation, but it’s likely to be much smaller. So the chances are if there’s supposedly “something else” that something else already is in the allegation.

Second, Commander Marquez cites no actual evidence, only his personal impressions.  If there is a study showing that allegations of emotional abuse alone typically hide much worse, I am unaware of it.  There is, however, a study of that other gateway allegation, “educational neglect” – and it found that educational neglect allegations almost never indicated a deeper problem. There no reason to think emotional abuse allegations are different. 

Indeed, if police or DCFS workers, go into emotional abuse cases with a “gateway allegation” mindset, it can make the trauma for children even worse.  After all, if you believe that the emotional abuse allegation is just the surface manifestation of, say, physical abuse, then it’s hard to resist a common practice across the country in physical abuse cases: Stripsearching the child looking for bruises.  If you think it’s hiding sexual abuse; well, the examination for that is even more traumatic.

            The case for coercive intervention in emotional abuse cases is so weak that Goldstein Freud and Solnit (whom, it is widely conceded, “really [knew] something about child abuse”) argued that no one should investigate it at all – the risk of the state inflicting emotional abuse while seeking to detect it was simply too great.

            The authors took particular aim at a model statute first drafted in the 1970s by an American Bar Association committee with the intent of narrowing the definition to reduce the likelihood of abuse by government authorities.  That definition allows coercive intervention

when a child suffers serious emotional damage, evidenced by severe anxiety, depression, or withdrawal or untoward aggressive behavior toward self or others, and the child’s parents are not willing to provide treatment for him/her.

            Goldstein, Freud, and Solnit spend two pages explaining why this is still too broad. 

            I mention this because some of the language in question was adopted, word for word, by the California Legislature. But they made the statute even more of a fishing expedition by adding the catchall words “including but not limited to” the relatively narrow list in the model law. They also eliminated the part restricting intervention to cases where parents are not willing to provide treatment.  So now, in California, emotional abuse means whatever DCFS – or the Sherriff’s office – wants it to mean.

            When I wrote my book about child welfare, Wounded Innocents, in 1990, I thought Goldstein, Freud, and Solnit had gone too far, and we should give wording along the lines of the ABA model statute a try.

            Thank you, Commander Marquez, for showing me why I was wrong.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending January 21, 2020

● A project by Boston Globe “Spotlight Fellows,” published by the Globe and ProPublica was extraordinary in its enterprise and noble in its goals. But it failed, and that failure is likely to hurt children. One reason for the failure: They did a massive project on a system that has a vastly disproportionate effect on children of color, yet the only national experts quoted are white. NCCPR has a full response here.

● One of the reporters who did the Globe/ProPublica stories made similar errors in covering a trial in a tragic case in New York City for The New York Times. In this blog post I compare the reporter’s actions to the Times’ Code of Ethics.

● Two important stories in recent weeks from Elizabeth Brico. Both, as it happens, deal with issues the Spotlight Fellows left out of their reporting. First, from Salon (via Undark): How when we take a swing at mothers who use drugs, the blow almost always lands on the children.  And, in The Appeal: How getting the journalism of child welfare wrong sets off foster-care panics.

● I’ve said before that white middle-class professionals and foster parents often turn child welfare systems into the ultimate middle-class entitlement: Step right up and take a poor person’s child for your very own.  For a classic case-in-point, check out this outstanding three-part series from the Chronicle of Social Change.  As soon as I started reading it, I knew the foster parents and the child welfare agency would try to play the bonding card.  So here’s some context about that, from I column I wrote last year for Youth Today.  Nor is there anything unusual about powerful foster parents working to bend systems to their will. Here’s another example.

Also in the Chronicle of Social Change:

Prof. Jessica Pryce makes the case for race-blind foster care removal decisions, in which, before a child is removed from the home, a committee conducts a “blind removal meeting” in which all the information about the case is presented – except information that would give away the race of the family. 

● Jill Cohen, director of programs for the Colorado Office of Respondent Parent Counsel, writes about the success Colorado is having with the same kind of high quality family defense that has accomplished so much in New York City and elsewhere.

● The San Diego Union Tribune has a story about the latest in a string of lawsuit victories for families in which children were needlessly removed and/or subjected to behavior which, if anyone other than child welfare agencies did it, would be child sexual abuse.  The story asks why the county doesn’t seem to learn from its mistakes.

Monday, January 20, 2020


“Spotlight Fellows” writing for the Boston Globe and ProPublica misunderstood a key federal law and got the causes of child abuse fatalities wrong.  Their massive project, reported and written with the best of intentions, is likely to make children less safe.

Today, NCCPR releases an in-depth analysis of stories that are a sad example of the way the journalism of child welfare often fails. The full report is available here.  Below are the key points.  As you read the report, I'm sure you'll understand why we decided to release it on Martin Luther King Day.

● Though reported with the best of intentions, stories written by two Boston Globe “Spotlight Fellows” and published by the Globe and ProPublica are likely to endanger the children they are meant to help.

The stories will encourage public policy that

          --Promotes foster-care panic, sharp sudden increases in removals of children from their homes that do terrible harm to children needlessly removed and overwhelm caseworkers so they have less time to find children in real danger.

          --Discourages women, particularly poor women and women of color, from seeking prenatal care or giving birth in hospitals, increasing the risk to their newborns.

          --Opens even wider the spigot of the “foster-care-to-prison pipeline” which leads to disastrous outcomes for children.  At the end of 2019, in fact, at almost the same time the Spotlight Fellows stories were released, this was documented brilliantly by the Kansas City Star.

● More than four decades of experience tracking child welfare – and the journalism of child welfare – make clear that the failure to provide context and diverse points of view concerning how to solve the problems the series exposed leads to such panics by workers, judges and child welfare agency leaders, all of whom fear being in the spotlight if they leave a child home and something goes wrong. 

● The reporters misunderstood the history and the politics of the law at the center of their stories, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. They made erroneous assumptions about key provisions of the law.

● There is far less consensus about CAPTA than is implied by the stories, in which only sources who reinforce the “master narrative” of the reporters are quoted.  That narrative suggests that CAPTA is fundamentally a good law that needs to be clarified, toughened and given more funding.  There is a vigorous debate among child welfare experts over this, with many believing CAPTA is a fundamentally bad law that harms children and should not be encouraged with more funding. But those viewpoints were entirely shut out of the stories, leaving readers in the dark.

● This was caused, in part, by a startling dichotomy in sourcing. Child welfare is a system that overwhelmingly polices the poor and, disproportionately the nonwhite.  But every national expert quoted is white. 

To understand how harmful this is, consider: In poor communities and communities of color, child protective services agencies are viewed, for good reason, in much the same way as the police.  It is inconceivable that a major series of any kind about the criminal justice system would leave out the voices of all national experts who are not white. It should be equally inconceivable when the topic is child welfare.

● The journalists’ view of CAPTA is seen most clearly in the series’ de facto endorsement of one of CAPTA’s worst provisions, the “plan of safe care” provision, which ratchets up surveillance of pregnant women and infants “affected” by parental substance use.  There is no evidence base for this provision – no research indicating it makes children safer.  What research does exists suggests that this sort of approach makes children less safe – by driving their mothers away from prenatal care and away from giving birth in hospitals.

● The stories show a fundamental misunderstanding of who winds up in the child welfare system and why, including a misunderstanding of crucial data about “substantiated” child abuse and neglect reports.

● Even as she was working on these stories, one of the reporters did pro-bono work for an advocacy group that takes strong stands on these same issues. That is a conflict of interest.

● None of this means everything about the stories was wrong. The reporters are right to highlight the need for a standard national definition for child abuse fatalities and near fatalities.  They also are right to call for far more public disclosure concerning such fatalities. In fact, they don’t go far enough. NCCPR is on record calling for much more transparency: a strong rebuttable presumption of openness for all court hearings and almost all records in all child abuse and neglect cases. 

● Contrary to what reporters who are called out for these sorts of failings often say, none of this means that child abuse deaths should be ignored.  No, it does not mean that, as sometimes has been alleged over the years, “you don’t want us to report it when children die!”  On the contrary, we need more coverage of such fatalities - coverage that gets at the real causes and real solutions.  At least one newspaper, the Dayton Daily News has done that.  And we need more stories about the consequences of getting the solutions wrong – which, as noted above, the Kansas City Star did  at almost exactly the same time as the Spotlight Fellows’ stories were published. 

● The Spotlight Fellows had the chance to advance the debate over how to reduce child abuse fatalities, a debate that has been going nowhere for decades. Instead, they offered only more of the same.  Perhaps others will do better.  Because the solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism.


Wednesday, January 15, 2020

UPDATED: A New York Times reporter with a conflict of interest misunderstands the impact of a child abuse tragedy


New York Times reporter Emily Palmer has been covering the trial of the man who tortured and ultimately killed six-year-old Zymere Perkins in New York City in 2016.  She wrote a story which was published a short time ago, after the man was convicted.  But she’s been editorializing about the case on Twitter as she’s been covering it.

Because of that, and because of a conflict-of-interest issue, yesterday NCCPR appealed to New York Times Metro Editor Clifford Levy to intervene.  Perhaps he did. The story is not as bad as the tweets.  But it still allows the city’s claims that its response to the tragedy improved the system to go unrebutted.

In fact, many advocates argue that the city’s response has made the system worse, and made another tragedy like the death of Zymere Perkins more likely.  That’s partly because the overwhelming majority of cases seen by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services don’t involve torture and murder – far more often they involve the confusion of poverty with neglect, as the Times itself has documented well in recent years.

The story is not just harmful to the city’s most vulnerable children. It’s also an insult to Palmer’s colleagues at the Times who have done careful, finely-nuanced reporting like this  on child welfare in recent years.  I hope this story is not a signal by Levy that he is moving Times coverage of child welfare backwards.

Here is the email NCCPR sent to Levy yesterday:

Your forthcoming story on the Zymere Perkins case trial

Dear Mr. Levy:

            This morning one of your reporters, Emily Palmer, posted this tweet about a story she will be writing concerning the trial in the death of Zymere Perkins:

This a.m. the judge is instructing the jury on the law ahead of deliberations in a child abuse and death case. The case of Zymere Perkins, a 6-year-old who died in Harlem in 2016, did much to improve the city’s child welfare system. Story coming soon!  [Emphasis added.]

As I said in a tweet thread about this, I know Ms. Palmer has a deep and abiding passion for protecting children and I admire that.  But I, and other family advocates, also believe that passion has led to some serious misjudgments, most notably in her recent package of stories as a Boston Globe Spotlight Fellow.  Those stories, of course, are not your concern.  But similar problems appear to affect her approach to the trial in the Perkins case.  There is also a matter of conflict-of-interest which I’ll get to below.

            There are advocacy groups and scholars all over New York City who believe the Perkins case made New York City child welfare worse.  We believe it undermined reforms that were making children safer, set off a foster-care panic – a sharp sudden spike in needless removals of children from their homes – and vastly increased needless surveillance of impoverished families of color.  Indeed, the response to the Perkins case worsened the very problems documented so well by the Times in its story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow.”

            My point here is not to try to convince you that we are right and those who say the Perkins case made the system better are wrong (though I would greatly appreciate the chance to try in the future at the time and place of your choosing).  At this point, I am asking simply that a story written by a reporter who’s already taken a clear editorial stand both in today’s tweet and earlier receive extra editing to ensure that well-informed viewpoints from all perspectives are well-represented. 

            For the record, in response to my tweets about this, Ms. Palmer said that she was “alluding to data-oriented improvements.”  Frankly, I’m not sure what she means by this, but I do know that there are serious questions about whether ACS has been misleading in its use of data. I discuss some of those issues here More generally, there is documentation for our concerns about the system getting worse here and here.
            But second, Ms. Palmer has editorialized about this trial before.  In another tweet, she records a video about this case in which she declares at the end that “there is one man on trial, but there’s an entire agency at fault.”

            Really? Every single caseworker? Every supervisor? Every manager?  This is exactly the kind of rhetoric that makes everyone in the system run scared and rush to take away more children needlessly, doing those children enormous harm – and overloading the system making it even less likely that the next Zymere Perkins will be found.  An editorial writer or a columnist is free to do this, of course. Although I realize there have been vast changes in the industry since I was a reporter, I thought the news side was still supposed to refrain from this, even on Twitter.

            So now we have a reporter about to write a news story concerning a trial about which she’s taken a clear editorial position.  These concerns are reinforced by the fact that, even as she covered child welfare as a Boston Globe Spotlight Fellow she also moderated a panel discussion and wrote a fact sheet for Children’s Rights, an advocacy group that is active concerning these same issues.  In fact, in the past, they’ve sued the Administration for Children’s Services and its various predecessor agencies.

            When I tweeted about this, Ms. Palmer replied:

 Re the fact-sheet: I led a panel discussion that brought together a diverse group of voices on all sides. Parent advocacy groups attended and asked excellent questions.

            In response I tweeted this:

(1/2) I saw a tape of that discussion. All sides were *not* represented. Family defenders were in the audience; they literally did not have a place at the table. But more important, you did this for an advocacy group.

[2/2] Would it be OK to moderate a panel and do a factsheet for the NRA *or* for Everytown for Gun Safety and also cover gun control?

            I would add one thing more. This link goes to a flyer about the panel Ms. Palmer moderated. Take a look at who is on the panel, and, especially who is not: Separately, on its website, Children’s Rights has this link inviting readers to Download this fact sheet on Opioids and Foster Care, produced by reporter Emily Palmer. 

            I am sure Ms. Palmer is sincere when she said this group represented “all sides.”  And that’s precisely the problem with the way she has approached child welfare reporting. Who is missing? The Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem, the Center for Family Representation, the writers from Rise, the magazine written by parents who’ve “caught a case” and so on.  Of course they didn’t all need to be on the panel – but surely if you want to present all sides you’d fit in one of them. 

            Thank you for your attention to this matter.

What does the Times Code of Ethics say about all this?

 As noted above, New York Times reporter Emily Palmer, who covers child welfare, moderated a panel discussion arranged and sponsored by the group that calls itself “Children’s Rights.” That group works hard to influence public policy on child welfare issues.  It also regularly sues child welfare agencies across the country.  Ms. Palmer also wrote a “Fact Sheet” for Children’s Rights, linked to the event.

Here are the relevant sections of the New York Times Code of Ethics:

The Times freely acknowledges that outside appearances can enhance the reputation of its bylines and serve the paper’s interests. Nevertheless, no staff member may appear before an outside group if the appearance could reasonably create an actual or apparent conflict of interest or undermine public trust in the paper’s impartiality. …
Staff members should be especially sensitive to the appearance of partiality when they address groups that might figure in coverage they provide, edit, package or supervise, especially if the setting might suggest a close relationship to the sponsoring group. Before accepting such an invitation, a staff member must consult with the standards editor or the deputy editorial page editor. Generally, a reporter recently returned from the Middle East might comfortably address a suburban synagogue or mosque but should not appear before a group that lobbies for Israel or the Arab states. A reporter who writes about the environment could appropriately speak to a garden club but not to conservation groups known for their efforts to influence public policy. ...
Staff members may not collaborate in ventures involving individuals or organizations that figure or are likely to figure in coverage they provide, edit, package or supervise. Among other things, this prohibition applies to collaborating in writing books, pamphlets, reports, scripts, scores or any other material and in making photographs or creating artwork of any sort.

And for those wondering about the references to Ms. Palmer’s work as a Spotlight Fellow: Here's our full response to those stories.          

Friday, January 3, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending January 2, 2020

In a previous round-up, I noted the lead story in the latest issue of the Administration for Children and Families publication Children’s Bureau Express.  It’s called “It’s Time to Stop Confusing Poverty With Neglect.”  That column is excellent – but there’s more. The entire issue is devoted to this theme.  Among the other excellent stories:

I’ve written before about child welfare’s “creation myth” – how the story of Mary Ellen Wilson, a little girl abused in the 1870s, supposedly proved the need for untrammeled state intervention into families.  In fact, Mary Ellen was a foster child.  And now, Katie Albright, who runs a family support center in San Francisco, adds another key fact:  Mary Ellen was taken from her mother in the first place when her mother’s poverty was confused with neglect.

● Jeremy Kohomban and his colleagues at The Children’s Village write about how what was once one of the most regressive, hidebound “residential treatment centers” (and a media darling, especially beloved by author Anna Quindlan) has had a reckoning. They acknowledge that their previous approach was rooted in racial and class bias, and they’ve transformed into a place that emphasizes serving families in their own communities.

● And Jey Rajaraman, chief counsel for Legal Services of New Jersey, writes about “How to Help Agencies Stop Confusing Poverty With Neglect.” Lesson 1: Focus on housing.

In other news:

I have a column in Youth Today about who’s trying to push to the front of the line to exploit the Family First Act to “leverage” more money for themselves. Hint: It’s not families.

● In Canada, where the child welfare system is depressingly similar to ours, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has a story about a social worker who made it her mission to defend families whose children were taken needlessly – and what happened to her. (It’s what you think.)

● And there is sad news from Connecticut, where a federal court ruling may effectively give the state free reign to tear children from parents whose alleged mental illness is said to indicate they may abuse or neglect their children in the future.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

NCCPR in Youth Today on who’s first on line to scarf up scarce $ thanks to the Family First Act. Hint: It’s not families

Remember the Family First Act? That’s the vastly overhyped federal legislation touted as a revolutionary change in how child welfare is financed. Supposedly, under Family First, lots of money that used to be reserved only for foster care will, at last, go to better alternatives. That was never going to happen. Very little additional money actually will go to those better alternatives.

And now it looks like the very first to benefit from Family First may not be families at all. It may be “providers” of the worst form of “care” in a state that is always a candidate for foster care capital of America. Yes, the first beneficiaries of Family First may be residential treatment centers (RTCs) in Wyoming, a state that regularly tears apart families at a rate nearly triple the national average, even when rates of family poverty are factored in.