Tuesday, March 31, 2020

If it’s April Fools, it must be Child Abuse Hype and Hysteria Month

I've reprinted this post almost every year since 2010.  But this year it's especially relevant. You can be sure that this year, the Astroturf fill-in-the-blanks op-eds that various advocacy groups send to their local chapters will be filled with references to an "epidemic" or a "pandemic" of child abuse - as though the moment white middle-class professionals can't have their "eyes" on poor children of color, their parents will rush to torture them.  

I hope that before pushing the send button on these generic submissions, people will at least have the decency to pause and think long and hard about just how racist that framing is.


Back in 2003, one of the groups most responsible for fomenting hype and hysteria about child abuse came remarkably close to admitting that they did just that – and that it had backfired.

Rather like Dr. Frankenstein admitting he’d created a monster, in a 2003 Request for Proposals concerning how to improve their messaging, Prevent Child Abuse America wrote:

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

This is especially worth remembering as we begin “Child Abuse Awareness Month” – a month, which, appropriately starts on April Fools Day.

So I’ve reprinted below our 2010 blog post on the topic – with some updates and links to newer data – since, unfortunately, aside from those data, nothing has changed. Because it's a lot easier to create a monster than to bring it under control.


Get ready for a seemingly endless stream of cookie-cutter news stories and Astroturf op ed columns (the kind written by national groups with blanks to fill in to make them sound home-grown) touting "Child Abuse Awareness Month" – based on the bizarre premise that the American people are blissfully unaware of child abuse.

There is something appropriate about the fact that "Child Abuse Awareness Month" starts on April Fools Day, since it involves fooling the public in order to push an agenda of hype and hysteria that obscures the real scope of the problem, and real solutions, in favor of approaches that only make a serious and real problem worse. Your typical Child Abuse Awareness month news story or op ed column follows a standard formula:

1.     Take the most horrifying case to occur in your community over the past year, the more lurid the better.

2.     Jump immediately from that story to a gigantic number which actually is only the number of "reports" alleging any form of child maltreatment. Ignore the fact that the vast majority of those reports are false and most of the rest are nothing like the horror story. Rather, they often involve the confusion of poverty with neglect. Or…

3.     Use only the total number of cases that caseworkers guess might be true, but call them "confirmed" giving the guesses, which are simply the opinion of a worker checking a box on a form, far more credibility than they deserve. A major federal study found that workers are two- to six-times more likely to wrongly label an innocent family guilty than to wrongly label real child abusers innocent.

4.     Throw in huge lists of "symptoms" or "warning signs" that "might" be "signs" of child abuse – and might as easily be signs of any number of other things.

5.     Instruct us all that it is our duty to phone the local child abuse hotline with any suspicion of anything no matter how vague and how dubious – instead of advising us to report when we have "reasonable cause to suspect" maltreatment, the same standard often used in law to guide "mandated reporters."

6.     Remind us that we are welcome to call the hotline anonymously – thereby encouraging those who want to harass an ex-spouse, a neighbor or anyone else against whom they may have a grudge to go right ahead, secure in the knowledge that they'll never get caught because they can conceal their identity.

It all comes from the same ends-justify-the-means mentality behind, for example an egregiously-misleading report published by Every ChildMatters – the mentality that says: What's a little distortion and exaggeration in the name of a good cause?

In fact, such distortion and exaggeration can do enormous harm to children. 

Hotlines wind up with more false reports and trivial cases; children are harassed and traumatized by needless child abuse investigations – often including stripsearches as caseworkers look for bruises - and some of those children are forced needlessly into foster care. The caseworkers wind up even more overloaded by these false allegations, so they have even less time to find children in real danger.  And at this moment this year, it also risks spreading a deadly virus.

Reality check

NCCPR has some resources on our website for any journalists and others interested in putting all this into context, countering the hype and hysteria and pressing for real solutions:

·         Our analysis of a comprehensive study of child abuse, which puts the scope of the problem into context
·         Our Solutions pages, Doing Child Welfare Right and our Due Process Agenda.
·         Our essay on how to really prevent child abuse: take a social justice approach instead of a public health approach.

If the people behind "Child Abuse Awareness Month"  (also known as "Child Abuse Prevention Month") really want to prevent "child abuse" then how about campaigning to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty.  

Poverty increases the stress that can lead to actual abuse and, as noted above, poverty itself often is confused with "neglect."  This can be seen by the fact that study after study shows even small increases in income significantly  reduce what child welfare systems call "neglect."

The problem of child abuse is serious and real, but the solutions have been phony. The distortion and exaggeration that typify child abuse "awareness" campaigns only promote phony solutions and make those serious, real problems even worse.

If only there were a Statistics Abuse Prevention Month.

Monday, March 30, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending March 29, 2020

Actually, it hasn’t been a week since the last round-up, but there’s so much going on …

● Have you seen all those stories about how, now that there are fewer calls to child abuse hotlines, there will be a wave – even a “pandemic” of child abuse?  On the contrary, the sky is not falling, and the hysteria that latter-day child savers are trying to sew will do far more harm than any drop in hotline calls. Indeed, fewer calls may make children safer.  Claims of an impending “pandemic of child abuse” also reflect the depth of the unconscious racial and class bias that permeates child welfare.  I have a blog post on it.

In another blog post, I highlight how the very process of removing a child from the home heightens the risk that the child will contract COVID-19.

● One of the few stories to provide the context that most have left out is this very good story Roxanna Asgarian in Vox.  And see also this outstanding story from Rachel Blustain in City Limits and this one from Abigail Kramer at the Center for New York City Affairs.

● In the Chronicle of Social Change Vivek Sankaran charts how child welfare should move forward after the crisis is over. He writes:

How courts and agencies proceed after we lift our finger off the pause button will reveal the true values of the child welfare system. Are we serious about our commitment to reunifying children with their parents? Do we care about principles of justice and fairness and truly believe that every parent and child should be given a fair chance to live together? While we often profess that the constitutional right of parents to care for their children is one of the most fundamental and bedrock principles our country values and protects, do we actually mean it?
This crisis gives us a chance to change this trajectory and to unequivocally express our commitment to keeping families together and reunifying families as quickly as safely possible.

● And Elizabeth Brico, writing in The Appeal, has an overview of the harm being done in many system for the most vulnerable, including child welfare.

There are excellent new resources out there.

● Most notably, the concern about child welfare’s poor response to COVID 19, which I discussed in Youth Today last week, goes all the way to the top.  Jerry Milner, head of the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Health and Human Services sent out this great letter to child welfare agencies and courts, urging them not to impose blanket bans on visiting and blanket bans on court hearings to reunify families.

● The Movement for Family Power has a great resource page – and see especially their FAQ on the real impact of COVID-19 on child welfare, and child’s welfare’s poor response.

● Texas groups from Left and Right have joined together to offer excellent recommendations for how child welfare agencies should respond to the crisis.

And finally …

● When Michael Fitzgerald of the Chronicle of Social Change first exposed a massive screw-up by the City University of New York, a private child welfare agency and the Administration for Children’s Services that led to the expulsion of foster youth from their dorm rooms in the middle of a pandemic - at the epicemter of that pandemic - I said there was one thing we knew for sure: ACS Commissioner David Hansell would insist it was all someone else’s fault.  Here’s an excerpt from the Chronicle’s follow-up story.

Julie Farber, the Children’s Services deputy commissioner who oversees foster care, emailed through a spokesperson. She flipped the blame, stating: “CUNY made the decision to close all of its dorms this week and set a very short window to implement this, once the governor decided that it was critical to turn CUNY into a medical facility to help save the lives of New Yorkers.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

No, the sky ISN’T falling because child abuse hotlines are getting fewer calls

In fact, it might clear some of the “pollution” of false reports from the system and make children safer – especially if we take this opportunity to rethink an approach that’s failed for more than half a century.


● Out of every 100 calls to child abuse “hotlines” 97 are screened out, false reports, or neglect reports – which often means poverty. So no, reducing the number of calls will not necessarily increase actual child abuse.

● In fact, fewer calls may wind up decreasing abuse. That’s because with far fewer false reports to deal with, workers may have more time to find children in real danger.

● In contrast, fear-mongering that encourages even more people to call in their slightest suspicions increases the risk of traumatizing children with needless investigations – and as workers poke and pry through home after home it increases the risk of families – and workers – contracting COVID-19.

● Even if one believes there might be some increase in actual child abuse, the notion that, as some have claimed, as soon as all those (mostly) white, middle-class professional “eyes” are averted from (mostly) poor children of color it could unleash “a child abuse pandemic!” -- is racist. It suggests that the only thing stopping those uncivilized poor folk from torturing their kids is white paternalism and omnipresent surveillance.

● Some child abuse has indeed been unleashed – by the response of the child welfare system itself.  It is child abuse to prolong needless foster care.  It is child abuse to deny a young child a visit with her or his mother.  Such wholesale policies are not necessary to curb the spread of the virus.

● Yes the increased stress we’re all under right now may cause some parents to lash out. It is even more likely to prompt the strangers taking care of foster children to lash out.  The threat of being reported to child protective services only decreases the likelihood of people reaching out for help.  And it’s hard to imagine much that would add more stress to a family than a needless child abuse investigation.

            Almost every news story about COVID-19 and its impact on child welfare focuses primarily, often exclusively, on one theme. Like the frantic robot on the original Lost in Space shouting “Danger, Will Robinson!” the stories cry out: Oh my God!  Calls to the child abuse hotlines are declining because schools are closed!  How will we find the child abuser under every bed?  Two stories have even included quotes warning of, as one official’s tweet put it “a child abuse pandemic!” [Exclamation point in original.]

            Two major exceptions I’ve seen so far: Impressive stories from Eli Hager in The Marshall Project and Roxanna Asgarian in Vox. [UPDATE: Here's another, from Rachel Blustain in City Limits and another from Abigail Kramer at the Center for New York City Affairs, and, one of the best: Kendra Hurley in Bloomberg CityLab. Even that bastion of the child welfare establishment, Chapin Hall, has debunked this myth.

            The assumption is that vast numbers of brutes and sadists have been lurking in the home all along, and the only thing stopping them from jumping out and torturing children is school personnel ever-vigilant to call child protective hotlines.  And, of course, the increased stress of coping with the pandemic will make things even worse as parents lash out at their children.

In fact, the reduction in calls might improve child safety, by giving workers more time to find children in real danger.  In contrast, encouraging everyone to call in their slightest suspicion, in addition to all the other ways it harms children, now increases the risk that families – and caseworkers – will contract the virus as the workers go through homes opening refrigerators and pantries and asking intimate questions of everyone in the house.

Meanwhile, this outpouring of mostly white middle-class angst ignores the real child abuse that has been unleashed by the pandemic – abuse that targets children who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite, abuse inflicted by the child welfare system’s own response to the pandemic.

            It’s not just the usual mainstream media suspects.  Mother Jones is a publication that prides itself in championing the poor, the working class and people of color. But they jumped on the same bandwagon.

            The profusion of these stories is a testament to two things: The first is the extent to which the unconscious biases about race and class that afflict child welfare itself also afflict newsrooms.  

            But also it’s a tribute to the success of America’s latter-day “child savers” in their decades-long effort to foment hysteria about child abuse by making selective use of horror stories and selective use of statistics. Indeed, at least one of the groups responsible for doing this decades ago has effectively admitted it – and even suggested it may have been a mistake.

The child abuse many stories ignore

 It is child abuse to prolong the anguish of a child’s time in foster care because court hearings are only for taking away children, not for sending them home.  (That also increases the risk the children will catch the virus in a crowded foster home or group home.)  It is child abuse to let white, middle-class foster parents veto a child of color’s chance to visit her or his mother and bond with her because the foster parent doesn’t want to “risk” it – even though there often are ways to do in-person visits safely.  And yes, that is happening in some states. In other states the visit cutoff is absolute.

These practices are so abusive toward children that one of the federal government’s top child welfare officials has sent out a letter strongly urging an end to these sorts of blanket restrictions.

  All of this is discussed in detail in NCCPR’s column last week in Youth Today.

This kind of abuse is inflicted almost exclusively on children who are poor and disproportionately on children of color. 

As the Movement for Family Power put it:

Every day our family courts are reminding us that Black and Brown families are not "essential," that keeping our families together is not a "priority," that our prolonged separations are not "emergencies"

Similarly, at its core the notion that taking (mostly) white middle-class “eyes” off families that are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite could unleash a “child abuse pandemic!” is racist. It suggests that the only thing stopping those uncivilized poor folk from torturing their kids is white paternalism and omnipresent surveillance.

Most journalists like to think of themselves as open-minded, and certainly not biased based on race or class -- and all of their stories about child abuse reporting were written with the best of intentions.  But what else can explain the near universal refusal to report on this kind of pandemic-related child abuse – even by news organizations such as Mother Jones?

Foster parents lose their temper, too

As for all the talk about added stress on families, of course that is true.  But foster parents lose their temper, too.  And you’re not going to ease a family’s stress by sending in an investigator to ask traumatic questions of children, possibly stripsearch them and maybe walk out with them (and in the process put everyone at greater risk of COVID-19).  Instead, you traumatize the children if you tear them from everyone they know and love.  And now the damage is compounded: Their risk of contracting COVID-19 increases further as they go from home to car to office to shelter to car to foster home. 

After all that, they wind up in a foster home where the foster parents are just as likely to be stressed.

Even in the best of times multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes – and the record of group homes and institutions is even worse.

Now, with all this additional stress foster parents are, if anything, even more likely to lash out at the newcomer in their home because these strangers don’t have the secret ingredient that increases patience in the most stressful of times: Love. Parents and extended family have that secret ingredient. That’s probably why, for example, kinship foster parents, such as grandparents are far less likely to demand that children be doped up on potent, sometimes dangerous psychiatric drugs.

Why the sky isn’t falling

            To understand why very few actual cases of serious abuse are being missed – and more such cases may now be found – we first need to look at all those reports to child abuse hotlines.

            In 2018, calls were made concerning 7.8 million children.  But many of them were to obviously false, or so clearly not maltreatment that they were screened out and never sent on for investigation.  Cases involving 4.3 million children were investigated.  But 83 percent of those cases involved false reports – usually well intentioned, but sometimes including CYA reports by “mandated reporters” such as teachers terrified not to report their slightest suspicion.

            So now, let’s look at the “substantiated” cases. The first thing to understand about them is “substantiated” doesn’t mean what many people think. It doesn’t mean a court convicted the accused, or even that the accused had a chance to present a defense to anyone. It means only that a caseworker checked a box on a form – it could be no more than a guess.

And in most states, the worker need merely guess that it is slightly more likely than not that abuse or neglect occurred; in some states the standard is even lower.  So consider again: Even with that incredibly low standard of proof and no chance for families to defend themselves, 83 percent of the time, the report was not substantiated. Oh, and one more thing: The only study I know of to second-guess those caseworker guesses found that workers are far more likely to wrongly substantiate an allegation than wrongly say one is unfounded.[1]   

            Of the cases that were substantiated by far the largest category is “neglect.” Yes, sometimes neglect can be extremely serious.  A parent locking a child in a closet and starving him to death is neglect.  But so is running out of SNAP aid at the end of the month. Guess which happens more often.  Two-thirds of all “substantiated” cases involve allegations of neglect – and nothing else. 

            So out of every 100 children who are subjects of calls to child abuse hotlines, 45 are screened out, 46 are false reports and six are neglect.  Sexual abuse and all forms of physical abuse, from the most minor to the most horrible involve three of those 100 children.

 When less is more

            One could argue that if even one case is missed then the sky really is falling.  And indeed, the only acceptable goal for child abuse is zero.  But fewer reports might well be the best way to bring us closer to that goal.
            As the pie chart makes clear, during normal times investigators for CPS agencies spend an astounding amount of their time – at least 83 percent of their time – spinning their wheels. They go to a home, often traumatize the children through the investigation itself – and find nothing.

The pandemic adds a whole new danger: An investigation means not just walking into a home, but walking all over the home, opening cupboards and refrigerators, looking into every bedroom. It also means questioning every member of the household.  The caseworker does this again and again going from home to home.  This, of course, greatly increases the risk of spreading the virus both to families and to caseworkers.  But more than four times out of five, it’s all for nothing. We should think long and hard before doing anything that’s likely to increase false reports.

            All this is a result of a jury-rigged system created more than half a century ago – put in place and expanded over and over with no evidence that it would work.  So huge numbers of people – most notably, at the moment, teachers – are mandated reporters. They can wrongly report as often as they like and there’s no penalty – but they could lose their jobs, or worse, for failing to report.  Now that research finally is being done, it turns out this system is backfiring – increasing the danger to children.

            That’s because all those false allegations, trivial cases, and poverty-confused-with-neglect cases overwhelm workers. Because of those huge caseloads, it’s often impossible to investigate any case thoroughly – so some children are needlessly torn from everyone loving and familiar while other cases involving children in real danger are missed.

            If hotline calls continue to decrease, that has the potential to significantly cut worker caseloads.  That means they’ll have time to make the extra phone call, question more witnesses, and even call a teacher at home to see if s/he had any concerns back when the child still was in class.  And it may reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus to families and to caseworkers.  Yes, the reduction in hotline calls might lead to some cases of children in real danger being overlooked – but it may well lead to more children in real danger being found, and rescued.

            At least that might happen if the fearmongering doesn’t ratchet up hysteria by telling us all, over and over, to report our slightest suspicion, now that teachers aren’t on-hand to do it.  If that happens, workers will remain overwhelmed and the percentage of false reports is likely to increase – as people are encouraged to report even the most trivial concern based on little or no evidence.

A chance to start over?

            But now we have a chance to do better.

An irony of the pandemic is that it led to far less pollution in China when all the factories were closed and traffic stopped.  

It’s possible that with schools and other places children congregate closed, the child welfare system may be less “polluted” by false reports and poverty cases – and workers may be able to more clearly see, and save, more children in real danger.

For example, in Vox, Will Francis, Texas chapter director of the National Association of Social Workers offers this lament:

“Normally, if a kid wasn’t getting fed at home or was having a bad day, it was a teacher that saw them. You’re losing a huge number of eyeballs on kids.”
But “a kid [not] getting fed at home” is not a reason to call child protective services – it’s a reason to call a foodbank!

None of this means we should keep the schools closed forever – just as we shouldn’t close factories and ban traffic forever. But perhaps from all of this we will learn lessons about better ways to reduce child abuse.  We now have a chance to rethink the entire report-anything-and-everything model that has failed for decades. We can start over and build a network of support for families instead of a network of omnipresent surveillance. 

In the process we’ll save more children, and do far less collateral damage.

[1] - Study Findings: Study of National Incidence and Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect: 1988 (Washington: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, 1988), Chapter 6, Page 5.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

How taking children from their families increases the risk they’ll catch COVID-19

On top of all the other harm done to children when they’re torn needlessly from everyone they know and love – the terrible outcomes for foster children, the high rate of abuse in foster care itself, and so on – now there’s a new threat.  Consider how taking away a child can increase the risk of that child contracting the coronavirus.  Look at the process of removal and placement step-by-step:

Step 1: The child may well physically resist removal – that means the ultimate in close contact with the strangers who have come to the door to take her or him away.

­Step 2: The child is forced into the car of caseworkers or police officers who may have transported any number of others.

Step 3: The child waits at an office while a foster home is found.

Step 4: If no foster home is found, the child is put back into a car and transported to the worst option of all – one of those godawful parking place shelters, where they will be thrown in with scores of other children and youth.  And every time the shift changes at the shelters – or at other institutions – the children are exposed to another set of strangers.

Step 5: When a foster home is found, it’s another car ride to another set of strangers.

And to top it off, if courts are continuing to hold hearings to take children away, but refusing to hold hearings to send them home, all those foster homes and shelters are likely to get more crowded.

So now there is one more reason to stop and think twice – then think again – before taking children from their parents. 

There’s more on all this in my column in Youth TodayChild Welfare’s Response to COVID-19 is Sickening.

Friday, March 27, 2020

NCCPR in Youth Today: Child welfare’s response to COVID-19 is sickening

All over America, there are people who can’t stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some always knew their jobs carried risks: Doctors and nurses, police and firefighters, and, yes, child protective services caseworkers. Others were, in effect, drafted into the fight: Letter carriers, pharmacists, truck drivers and all those people stocking shelves and running cash registers at grocery stores. And then there are the people who simply volunteer — like those delivering meals to the elderly.

But while so many others are stepping up, some foster parents in New Mexico and Kentucky are whining because they can’t step away. They’re complaining because — at least for now — they are not allowed to cut their foster children off from all in-person visits with their own families.

Worse, these states may soon be an exception. Other states and localities have, in fact, cut off in-person visits between foster children and their families — and even their siblings in separate foster homes. Many court systems, while continuing to hold hearings to rubber-stamp taking children away from their parents, have shut down hearings to send them home again — so foster children will not only be further isolated from their own families, the isolation will be prolonged. …

I’m sure there are individual foster parents who are extending themselves heroically to keep foster children in touch with their families. There are caseworkers putting themselves at risk both to investigate actual child abuse and to help families stay together when their poverty is confused with neglect. As always, the bad news gets the attention.

But the predominant institutional response of child welfare systems reveals greed, fear and selfishness. All sorts of other businesses are donating to help fight COVID-19 — including breweries converting their production lines to make hand sanitizer and already hard-hit restaurants donating meals. They say the same thing: We help now; we’ll figure out the money later. But not child welfare. 

In short, child welfare’s response to COVID-19 is sickening. …

  Read the full column in Youth Today

Thursday, March 26, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up: Response to COVID-19 edition

To the surprise of no one, most of the stories and columns this week focus on child welfare’s response to COVID-19.  But nothing better sums up that response than this tweet from the Movement for Family Power:


I have a column in Youth Today with an overview: Canceled visits, court hearings to take children away but not to send them home, no regard for the increased risk children will catch the virus when they’re taken away, agencies that seem more interested in where their next check is coming from than where the kids are going.  In short, Child Welfare’s Response to COVID-19 is Sickening.

● The Shriver Center on Poverty Law and several other law and advocacy groups have a great letter about how child welfare officials should be responding.  What is truly disheartening is that it ever needed to be written – and in particular that child welfare agencies actually need to be asked not to count it against parents if the parents can’t jump through all the required hoops -- when the agency’s own response to COVID-19 took away the hoops. 

The Marshall Project has an excellent overview of the impact of COVID-19 on child welfare – including the effects many other such stories leave out, such as the harm to children of wholesale cancellation of visits and trapping them even longer in group homes because the hearings to send them home have been canceled.  NPR also did a good job on this, particularly concerning visits.

● NCCPR Board Member Marty Beyer has a column in the Chronicle of Social Change on the importance of maintaining such visits, and how best to make them work now.  The Chronicle continues to track new developments.

And in other news:

Rise interviews Kelis Houston founder of Village Arms, on her efforts to get the Minnesota Legislature to pass the African American Family Preservation Act.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending March 17, 2020

● The Chronicle of Social Change is tracking the issues child welfare agencies will have to deal with during the COVID19 pandemic.  And family defender Amy Mulzer has a tweet thread predicting how those agencies will deal with it: Badly.  UPDATE: And, as if to prove Mulzer right, a judge in Arkansas is cutting off in-person visits between foster children and their parents - just when they need the comfort of their own families the most:

● Late last year, the Kansas City Star tracked down what happens to former foster youth by going to where so many of them can be found: Jails.  Over and over they talked about what the system had done to them and, often, about how they never needed to be taken from their own homes.  It is a testament to the power of those stories that some in the child welfare establishment, and right-wing allies such as Naomi Schaefer Riley (who proudly compares her work to that of Charles Murray – yes, that Charles Murray), are desperate to try to undermine the findings.  Riley even tried to dismiss the lived experience of foster youth themselves.  I have a blog post about it.

● But this issue doesn’t divide neatly along ideological lines.  Check out conservative commentator and former Fox Business anchor John Stossel’s commentary.

● A lawsuit in Pennsylvania illustrates so many of the problems in child welfare, from the persecution of certain mothers who smoke pot – or simply are wrongly accused of it – to how everything is made worse by “predictive analytics.” I have a blog post on it, with a link to the lawsuit.

● And there’s still another story about still another “child abuse pediatrician” allegedly out of control. This time it’s from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism – but you really should read it if you’re in Alaska.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Pittsburgh approach to child welfare: Harass the mothers and stigmatize the children

According to a lawsuit, UPMC Magee-Women’s Hospital tested a pregnant woman 
for drugs without her consent. Then, pursuant to “practices, policies, 
and/or agreements” the hospital reported the false positive result 
to child protective services  – which then harassed the family. (Photo by Piotrus)


● A federal judge has refused to dismiss the claims against the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.  As The Legal Intelligencer reported in May, the judge wrote that: 

“Averments set form in the amended complaint allege that [Allegheny County Children Youth and Families] used UPMC as a form of ‘cat’s paw’ to undertake inquiries and to administer drug tests on UPMC’s labor and delivery patients without their consent, and then to use reports of those ostensibly private and confidential medical inquiries and ‘provision and uncertain’ test results as a predicate to launch unwarranted and unconstitutional child abuse investigations.” 

The judge also rejected a claim by UMPC that boiled down to: Well, they didn't actually take away the kids, so what happened to the families is no big deal.

● Lawyers for the plaintiffs say that after the initial suit was filed, more mothers came forward with similar allegations. They are seeking class-action status. 

● Marc Cherna has retired.  Unfortunately he was replaced by Erin Dalton, who is even worse.

● A lawyer for the plaintiffs noted that the decision has implications well beyond Pittsburgh, telling the Legal Intelligencer: “Hospitals across the country need to take note of this decision and evaluate their practices.

● Although for years, media swooned over Pittsburgh's dystopian child welfare "predictive analytics" algorithm, known as AFST the first truly independent evaluation reveals that this algorithmic emperor has no clothes.



 ● The fanatical desire to persecute certain mothers who smoke marijuana – or even are just falsely accused of smoking marijuana – no matter what that persecution does to their children.

● The harm done by journalists whose work has the effect of encouraging that kind of persecution.

● The campaign in Pennsylvania to make it even harder to expunge records of false allegations of child abuse.

● The harm done by the behavior of some doctors who specialize in detecting alleged child abuse.

● How the latest fad in child welfare, “predictive analytics” makes everything worse.

            They should have been among the most joyful days in the lives of Cherell Harrington and her family.  But starting just before she gave birth to her third child, late in 2017, the hospital where she gave birth and the child protective services agency in Allegheny County (metropolitan Pittsburgh) brought the worst kind of stress into the family’s life – they effectively threatened the family itself.

            Everyone ultimately agreed that Harrington did not abuse or neglect her newborn in any way.  Now she is suing the county and the hospital.  And it’s not just Cherell Harrington.  According to the lawsuit there is a “plan and/or agreement” between the county and the hospital to do this to new mothers. 

The practices involved allegedly are so common that attorney Margaret Cook of the Law Offices of Timothy P. O’Brien and lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania are seeking class-action status for their suit.  (The ALCU of Pennsylvania’s legal director is a member of NCCPR’s volunteer Board of Directors.)

The hospital claims it just follows state law.  But even in Pennsylvania, where legislators take pride in passing ever more draconian laws so they can look tough on child abuse – no matter what that actually does to the children – there is no requirement to report Harrington and others like her to child protective services.

Even if Harrington wins her lawsuit, the nightmare may not end.  That’s because all this happened in Pittsburgh, home of the nation’s most advanced, Orwellian experiment in using “predictive analytics” in child welfare.

The algorithm used by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services and its Division of Children, Youth and Families (AC-CYF) doesn’t distinguish between true reports and false reports. So even though there were no grounds to report the mother at all, the mere fact that medical professionals reported her to the child welfare agency will raise the “risk score” for the child if the data are still in the system and anyone phones in some other false report against the parents.

 It’s not clear how long such information remains accessible.  Depending on how reports are classified and their disposition the information may be available for a year or for decades.  And there is a campaign underway to make things even worse.  So it’s possible that decades from now, the child himself may be labeled a higher risk for abusing his own children if anyone ever accuses him of abuse or neglect.

It all began with a drug test

            We don’t know why Magee-Women’s Hospital, a part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), decided to test Harrington for drugs.  We do know that Harrington is African-American – which makes such invasions of privacy more likely.

            Here’s what else we know, according to the lawsuit:

● Harrington never consented to the test. 

● The preliminary test came back positive, but only for marijuana.

● Such tests often are unreliable. Later, a more definitive test came back negative.

● The newborn tested negative for any drugs, including marijuana.

● Even were the tests positive, there is no evidence that marijuana use makes one a bad parent. Affluent parents even brag about it in Facebook groups.

Nevertheless, based simply on that one preliminary false positive test, the hospital reported Harrington to Allegheny County CYF.  And that false positive test was enough to launch an investigation.

Or was it just a “plan of safe care”?

This case illustrates that they’re really the same thing.  “Plan of safe care” is a term used in that repository for so much bad child welfare policy, the federal “Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.”  Both CAPTA and Pennsylvania law require medical professionals to turn in new mothers to child protective services agencies if there is evidence the infant was “affected” by parental substance use.  Officially these are not necessarily child abuse reports.  But they are, in all but name.

In the case of Ms. Harrington, according to the lawsuit:

● There were no grounds to turn her in, since the test was a false positive – and her newborn tested negative.

● Allegheny County responded anyway, and the response was identical to a child abuse investigation.

So as you read on, and see what happened to this family, keep in mind that what happened here is exactly the kind of behavior at least one Pennsylvania seemed to want when she wrote this story.

What happened to the Harrington family

            According to the lawsuit:

Less than three days after giving birth to her son by caesarean section, an Allegheny County CYF caseworker entered Harrington’s room and told her that whenever the hospital reports any kind of positive drug test, the agency investigates.

            Two days after Harrington was discharged, the same caseworker showed up at the family home, inspected it from top to bottom, required Harrington and her husband to answer all sorts of personal questions and even questioned their 11-year-old daughter about her mother’s “use of addictive substances.”  The caseworker would go on to question the daughter’s school social worker.

            Then Harrington was coerced into a “counseling” session with a drug treatment program and forced to let the program test her for drugs again.  If she didn’t, she’d be reported to a judge for “failure to cooperate” and forced to go downtown for drug tests every month. 

            Harrington was coerced into signing all sorts of release forms  – but given no copies of what she signed.  According to the lawsuit “Ms. Harrington signed the documents because she feared that if she did not comply with [Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families] directives, her children would be removed from her custody.”

Even after the drug treatment program concluded no treatment was necessary, the harassment continued. The caseworker returned, inspected the home all over again and – again – questioned the Harringtons’ 11-year-old daughter.

Based solely on the false positive drug test the caseworker wrote that Harrington “cannot or will not control [her] behavior” and her “protective capacity” for her children was “diminished.”

A second case

            The lawsuit also describes what happened to another African-American mother, Deserae Cook, when she gave birth at another UPMC hospital.  Asked upon admission to the hospital if she’d ever used illegal drugs, Cook replied she’d smoked marijuana in the past but stopped when she found out she was pregnant.

            The hospital secretly tested her – without her consent -- and the test came back negative, confirming Cook’s account.  A drug test on the newborn also came back negative.

            Nevertheless, UPMC reported Cook to Allegheny County CYF – and her family, too, was put through a needless, traumatic investigation.

            All of this happened in spite of the fact that UPMC settled a lawsuit over the same practices in 2014.

            The current lawsuit sums up the routine behavior of UPMC and the Allegheny County Division of Children, Youth and Families (AC-CYF) this way:

UPMC and AC-CYF knew that a new mother’s self-report to a medical professional regarding prior drug use [or a new mother’s ‘unconfirmed positive’ drug test] constituted confidential medical information which UPMC was neither privileged nor legally required to disclose to AC-CYF absent evidence that her newborn was affected by illegal substance abuse or had withdrawal symptoms resulting from prenatal drug exposure. 
Nevertheless, in accordance with past practices, policies, and/or agreements between the Defendants, UPMC routinely, and in bad faith, reported this confidential medical information to AC-CYF and AC-CYF routinely accepted and acted on this confidential medical information to conduct unwarranted highly intrusive, humiliating, coercive and/or unconstitutional child abuse investigations of new mothers.

Why would a hospital be so cruel?

            Why would a big prestigious hospital inflict so much trauma on families? Perhaps they haven’t thought things through.

            UPMC is where Dr. Rachel Berger heads the “Child Advocacy Center.”  Berger co-authored a notorious article that formed the basis for an essay urging medical professionals to – literally – think less before reporting child abuse.  She also has gone out of her way to minimize the harm of foster care – in an essay co-authored by Erin Dalton, a deputy director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, where she reports to longtime DHS director Marc Cherna. 

            The fact that it now appears Cherna’s agency has some kind of special “practices, policies, and/or agreements” with Berger’s hospital concerning reports alleging substance use by new mothers is one more indication that Cherna should be deemed to have overstayed his welcome.

            The other indication is his role in creating his agency’s dystopian predictive analytics experiment.

The AFST factor

            All of this would be bad enough anywhere – but this kind of trauma done to overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite families is actually worse in Pittsburgh. That’s because Pittsburgh is a pioneer in using a “predictive analytics” algorithm whenever a family is the subject of a report alleging child neglect. 

            There are two versions of the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST). The first version canvasses a vast trove of data (most of it collected on poor people) whenever CYF receives a report alleging child neglect.  It then coughs up a “risk score” which helps determine if CYF will investigate the call.  (All calls alleging abuse automatically must be investigated.  And now, it appears, Cherna and Berger have created another category of calls that must be investigated: All those that are part of some kind of arrangement between their respective institutions.)

            So the problem with AFST is not that it affected the initial reports on Harrington and Cook – the problem is what happens next time.

AFST counts reports workers later deem true, and reports they deem to be false. Past reports raise the risk score – period. And if those past reports come from medical professionals, they raise the risk score further.

The amount of time the county’s computers can gain access to such reports does depend in part on whether they are unfounded of not.  Unfounded reports are supposed to be expunged after no more than one year and 120 days.  So if, in fact, the report was labeled unfounded, the report might no longer be accessible to AFST.  But if the report was deemed "substantiated" Harrington and her family remain at risk of being labeled “high risk” and subjected to the whole traumatic process – or much worse – all over again.

            And there’s a move afoot to try to persuade the legislature to let counties keep even unfounded reports – perhaps for as long as they feel like it.  If that happens, then in the future, the danger to families such as the Harringtons could become vastly worse.

            There also is an even more dangerous version of AFST.  In this version, Cherna is trying to slap a risk score on every child – at birth.  Cherna promises this version will be used only to target “prevention.” But there is no way to stop him or a successor from changing her of his mind in the future.

So imagine what the score would be on a child such as the Harringtons’ infant if that version of AFST had been in effect when that child was born.  (In theory, this version is voluntary, but you have to affirmatively opt out and, as we’ve seen, that’s a risk families actually under investigation don’t dare take.)

            The reality of Pittsburgh child welfare under the rule of Marc Cherna was best summed up by Deserae Cook in an interview with the Associated Press:  She said her experience with the hospital and with Cherna’s agency

“…was like a kick in the stomach.  What’s the reasoning? It felt embarrassing and humiliating. It felt like they were trying to find something, trying to take our child away.”