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)


 ● 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 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 response that the Boston Globe “Spotlight Fellows” seemed to want when they exploited horror stories to demand even tougher enforcement of laws involving substance use and child welfare, and what at least one Pennsylvania seemed to want when she wrote a similar 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   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.”
she signed.

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.”

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Attn: former foster youth: Does Naomi Schaefer Riley think you don’t know your own life stories?

The advocate for tearing apart even more families, who proudly compares her work to that of Charles Murray, dismisses the lived experience of some young people themselves.

All of the former foster youth and people of color on the most recent
child welfare panel convened by Naomi Schaefer Riley at the
American Enterprise Institute gather for a group photo.
Michelle Voorhees finally has a permanent home – at least until 2033:  a cell in the Topeka Correctional Facility in Kansas.  The road that led her there began long before, when she was taken, needlessly, from the home where she was born.

            She tells her story in this video, part of a landmark Kansas City Star series, Throwaway Kids.

            Says Voorhees:

“Had my mom just had a little bit of help, had she had enough money to buy her own vehicle, had she had enough money to relocate herself from an abusive situation, had she not had to have been dependent on men in the first place for any kind of financial stability, I don’t believe that she would have made some of the decisions that she made,” Voorhees says. “I don’t believe that she would have struggled as a mother, because my mom is a good mom.”

            But apparently Naomi Schaefer Riley doesn’t think former foster youth like Michelle Voorhees know their own life stories.

            Lexie Gruber spent seven years in foster care in Connecticut.  She’s been a policy associate at the American Public Human Services Association, and she is a member of the Young Professional Leadership Council for the group known as Children’s Rights.  In 2015, she wrote this:

If the Family First Prevention Services Act had been in place when I was fifteen, my parents could have received the help they needed to keep me safe and at home and prevented me from entering the foster care system in the first place. And if I still needed to enter foster care, there would have been a greater focus on allowing my uncle to keep me in his home.

And five years later she told a forum in New Mexico:

“It’s important to understand that our foster care system only appears to be broken.  In fact, it is currently working exactly as it was designed — separating children from their loved ones and underinvesting in helping families in crisis … it’s one of the most violent acts that the government can do.”

            But apparently Naomi Schaefer Riley doesn’t think former foster youth like Lexie Gruber know their own life stories.

Nico’Lee Biddle also survived her experience in foster care.  Today she’s a licensed clinical social worker and trauma therapist.  Here’s some of what she wrote in Teen Vogue:

When I look back now on my family’s experiences, I realize that the child welfare system only saw our family’s trauma and hurt, our dysfunction and abnormalities. They didn’t see parents who raised me for fourteen years, who taught me the values of honesty, education, humor, and compassion. … The system only saw a missed appointment, or a positive drug test, and seemed to assume the worst about our lives. The system removed me first, and provided services second — after the trust was broken and the damage was done. …
My mom and dad made mistakes, but they were good parents who made me feel loved every day of my life. I miss them, and every day I wish things had been different. If they would have been offered treatment before I was removed, maybe they wouldn’t have ended up in jail, and would have been in treatment sooner. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to switch schools and become part of a statistic of teens in foster care. Maybe they would be alive today, and my father could have walked me down the aisle at my wedding. With better support for them before I was removed, maybe I wouldn’t have spent seven years in foster care. 
            But apparently Naomi Schaefer Riley doesn’t think former foster youth like Nico’Lee Biddle know their own life stories.

            Why does Riley seem so anxious to dismiss the lived experience of former foster youth such as these?  Because their real-life stories add power to what otherwise are dry statistics: the mass of data showing that they are among the tens of thousands of children and youth each year who could have remained safely in their own homes had their families gotten the right kinds of help.  And that undermines Riley’s crusade to take away even more children – and yes, she’s explicitly called for doing just that.

Riley's track record

            Riley is the “visiting fellow” at the American Enterprise Institute who was kicked off a blog run by the Chronicle of Higher Education after one of her columns was widely condemned as racist.  Not surprisingly, she’s found a warmer welcome in some quarters for her writing about child welfare. She proudly compares her forthcoming book on child welfare to the work of her fellow Fellow Charles Murray, who is best known for claiming that nonwhites are genetically inferior.

            At AEI, Riley’s approach involves convening panels stacked with speakers who more or less share her point of view.  That was the approach Riley took when trying to cope with all the positive attention being paid to the Kansas City Star series.

            The series was built around finding out what actually happens to former foster youth by going where so many such youth end up: Jails.  The Star surveyed nearly 6,000 inmates in prisons across 12 states, of whom nearly 1,500 had been in foster care.  The former foster youth often wrote additional comments on the backs of the survey forms.  In other cases, as with Michelle Voorhees, reporters Laura Bauer and Judy L. Thomas did follow up interviews.

            But they didn’t stop there. As they explain:
 Reporters interviewed dozens of other sources: social workers, child welfare experts and advocates, law enforcement, judges, foster parents, doctors, scientists and lawyers. … They reviewed decades of class action lawsuits filed against state systems. They pored over years of child welfare budget statistics as well as numerous reports and studies.

It all adds up to a powerful indictment of the massive removal of children into a foster care-to-prison pipeline.  What particularly seems to upset Riley is part two of the series, which ran under the headline “As U.S. spends billions on foster care, families are pulled apart and forgotten.” 

So Riley invited Bauer to discuss the series, and a bunch of other panelists to try to discredit it – not directly, of course. Instead they would sometimes praise it, but always insist that the terrible outcomes for former foster youth are everyone’s fault except the foster care system.  No former foster youth were on the panel, and, for this discussion of systems that vastly overinclude people of color, all of the panelists were white.

            One panelist actually seemed to suggest that it’s the fault of the youth themselves – he rattled off horror stories about delinquents in the foster care system and how they should be someone else’s responsibility. More often, of course, they blamed the parents.  But the only way to make that case is to discredit all that lived experience. 

At one point Riley turned to Bauer and said:

You did these just amazing interviews … some of them look back  and some of these young men and women have testified at statehouses and Congress and said, you know, my mother loved me and if I had just been allowed to stay in her home I think things would have turned out much differently in my life. And I think we are all moved by that  … But how much do these young men and women understand about what was happening in their family at the time and the judgments of the adults around them? And do they even have access to the case files, to the reports of what was going on in their families at the time? Because I think we are swayed by these things and I wonder to what extent we should be by these anecdotes?

            Foster youth often don’t have access to their records. Riley and I agree that they should. But it is ludicrous to think the second-hand compendium of some facts, but also quick observations, gut feelings, hearsay, guesses, impressions, misimpressions and defensive social work that often constitutes a case file is a more reliable indicator of whether a former foster youth really needed to be taken away than what that youth saw, heard and lived.

             And that’s often the best that can be said for case records.  At worst, they may be prepared by people like some of those at the scandal-plagued Court-Appointed Special Advocates program in Snohomish County, Washington. The behavior of that program was aptly summed up in a single headline from a local newspaper: “They lied, spied and destroyed evidence.” Are records from that program really more reliable than the lived experience of foster youth?  While such scandals are not the norm, there is plenty of reason to question the reliability of case records in general, something discussed in more detail here.

            When I said during the extremely brief question and answer period, that Riley was dismissing the lived experience of foster children, she denied that – and then proceeded to repeat her earlier remarks; this time suggesting that a hypothetical ten-year-old (at the time of removal) couldn’t possibly know what was really going on.

            For starters many ten-year-olds are, in fact, hyper aware of what’s going on around them. But also:

            ● Forty-seven percent of the inmates who responded to the Star’s questionnaire were 11 years old or older when they entered foster care.

            ● Though Voorhees was very young the first time she was removed, she also was taken a second time – at the age of 14.

● Nico’Lee Biddle also was 14.

            ● Lexie Gruber was 15.
            In their writing they make clear they know full well what was going on their families – but also that placement in foster care was the wrong answer.

A full range of experiences

            Riley could have made a reasonable point about such case examples without dismissing anyone’s lived experience.  She could simply have pointed out that the experiences vary widely.

            Some of those who filled out those questionnaires from the Kansas City Star said they absolutely had to be removed from their homes.  And consider what 24-year old Whitney Gilliard wrote about her foster parents in the Chronicle of Social Change:

Bill and Rosemary taught me unconditional love, something I’d never really felt before.
They were there for me through so much. When I moved out to go to college, they remained fixtures in my life. When I got my associate’s degree, they were there. When I got pregnant before marriage, they were there. When I was in a car accident that broke my back and legs, they were there. Bill and Rosemary never left me. When I walk out the door of work tonight, I’ll call them and ask how their day went. They’re still a big part of my life. … My foster parents were my big break, my saving grace.

            It would be just as wrong to dismiss Gilliard’s lived experience as any of the others.  Indeed since child welfare systems are arbitrary, capricious and cruel, erring in all directions, of course there are as many different experiences as there are foster children.  All of them deserve our respect and admiration for coming forward to share those experiences in the hope of helping others. None deserves to be demeaned, disregarded and dismissed.

            But Riley can’t take that position because once you acknowledge that former foster children usually are right about their lived experiences, then you have to ask: What do the data tell us?

            ● The data tell us that some children absolutely must be removed from their homes – but in typical cases youth left in their own homes typically fare better in later life even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

For example, in a massive study involving more than 23,000 children, the foster children were two to three times more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system than comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes. So yes, there is a foster-care-to-prison pipeline.

            ● The data from independent studies show us the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than shown in official figures.

            ● The data from independent studies show us there is widespread confusion of poverty with neglect – and that the solution is money.

            Schaefer argued that the research is “mixed” - a claim she's made before.  Of course there is nothing in social science for which the research is absolutely unanimous. But calling the research on foster care outcomes mixed is like watching a baseball game in which the final score is 21 to 2 and saying only: “Well, both teams scored runs.”  

So it’s not surprising that people such as Riley would want to dismiss the lived experience of so many of the former foster youth who spoke to the Kansas City Star from their prison cells.  Their stories bring the data to life.  The stories and the data add up to a demand that we reverse course, shut down the foster care-to-prison pipeline and stop the widespread needless removal of children from their homes.  Their stories, all of them, also bring to life the need to curb needless foster care in order to give workers to find more children in real danger – so foster care can save their lives.

            Nico’Lee Biddle concluded her Teen Vogue essay with advice to other current and former foster youth:
These days, I share my story because we need the system to change, and we need for workers and judges and attorneys to ask children and parents about their strengths, instead of focusing on weaknesses. I share my story because my workers and judges accepted when I said I didn’t want to be adopted, but didn’t accept that I wanted to go home. I share my story because I’ve witnessed the system repeat the same mistakes with more and more families, years after my own was torn apart. I’m sharing my story because I didn’t speak up then, but I know I must speak up now.
You should speak up, too. Your experiences, both bad and good, matter. Your voice can make a change. The agencies tasked with helping foster children are titled Children, Youth, and Families — and if you are ever in a position where someone forgets that, I encourage you to remind them. 
            I am sure that neither Ms. Biddle nor the other former foster youth who are now telling their stories will let anyone dismiss them.      

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending March 10, 2020 is a new website created by family advocates in Minnesota, which, year after year, tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the country. (Here’s one tragic example). They have a powerful new video in support of groundbreaking proposed legislation: the African American Family Preservation Act.

● It happened again. A child in Philadelphia was taken needlessly, the system stalled and stalled and stalled and then the stranger-care parents who had the child tried to play the bonding card. But unlike in Minnesota, the Legal Intelligencer reports that a Pennsylvania appeals court didn’t buy it – and now the family is suing. 

● Elizabeth Brico reports on the many ways families – including her own – are needlessly separated in this story for Prism. In the course of her reporting she found an incident that perfectly demonstrates the nature of racial bias in child welfare.  I have a blog post about it.

● Like all child protective services agencies New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services says it never takes away children because of poverty.  Yet now it’s bragging about starting a program to reduce the number of times it takes away children because of poverty.  Of course there are two ways one might try to do this: One way: Provide money. The other: Inflict more “counseling.” Guess which ACS chose.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Racism in child welfare explained in one easy lesson

A case from Virginia illustrates the perils of Parenting While Black

 A lot of people in child welfare get defensive when the whole issue of racial bias comes up. In fact, they’re so defensive that there’s a whole group within the field that claims it is magically immune from such bias.

The data, of course, show otherwise.

But the defensiveness is understandable.  I doubt very many child protective services workers spend their nights wearing sheets and burning crosses.  They don’t use racial epithets.  And some of their best friends … well, you know.

But racial bias in child welfare is far more subtle.  That makes it harder to explain.  Until a family defense lawyer comes along and explains it perfectly.

Valerie L’Herrou is a staff attorney at the Center for Family Advocacy in the Virginia Poverty Law Center.  She told the story to journalist Elizabeth Brico for a story for Prism.  (Brico, by the way, does outstanding reporting and writing about child welfare, even as she carries a burden borne by few, if any, other journalists covering this issue: She’s fighting to get her own children back from child protective services in Florida.)

In Brico’s story, L’Herrou recounts this incident:

“I was speaking to an African American judge who said she had a case where Social Services came to her to seek removal of a child because this mother had smacked her child right in front of a police officer,” recounts L’Herrou. The social worker interpreted the incident as indicative of extreme violence in the home. Essentially, if the mother would behave this way in front of the police, what would she do behind closed doors?"

In fact, the mother smacked the child in front of a police officer because the child was being disrespectful to the police officer.

I could stop recounting the story here and now and every person of color reading it would know exactly why the mother did what she did.  But for the benefit of my fellow white people, especially those who work in child welfare:

In a few years, if that Black child, now a teenager, mouths off to a police officer he could wind up, at best, thrown up against a wall, and at worst – dead.

So what, exactly, is an African American mother supposed to do? Smack the child and risk having him consigned to the chaos of foster care?  Or don’t smack the child and risk having him die in a future encounter with police? 

What the judge knew

In the case cited by L’Herrou, the judge understood the dilemma and did not take away the child. This judge believes that education, not removal, is what’s needed for families when the parent is trying to be protective but may appear abusive to those who don’t have better cultural understanding.  But how many judges, especially white judges, would have understood?  How many would have jumped to the same faulty conclusions as the caseworker?

Racial bias in child welfare rarely involves overt acts. Instead it involves assumptions – and biases - brought to the work because of the race, class and life experiences of the people who do it.  That’s why the whole field of child welfare needs to diversify, not only in terms of race, but in terms of class and personal life experiences.

And not just child welfare.  Even in their current reduced size, almost every American newsroom probably includes reporters and editors who have been or are or, at least, have personal friends who are child abuse investigators, foster parents, adoptive parents, and/or CASA volunteers.  How would our whole understanding of child welfare be different if there were more journalists like Elizabeth Brico?

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending March 3, 2020

● In Los Angeles, a group calling itself the Alliance for Children’s Rights makes selective use of data to promote ugly stereotypes about poor people and demean the lived experience of thousands of foster children. But while distorting data is easy, setting the record straight can require going deep into the weeds. Ready to take the trip?

● More than 50 years ago, states rushed to pass laws forcing people in certain professions to report any suspicion of “child abuse” to authorities.  In some states, everyone is a mandated reporter.  No one actually did any research to see whether this would work.  Now, at last, the research is catching up and – surprise – the laws backfire. They deter people from seeking help and they overload systems so workers have less time to find children in real danger.  

I review this recent research, and the ugly history of mandatory reporting laws in this column for Youth Today.  But in child welfare research is no match for politics. The bill discussed in the column that would have slightly curbed mandatory reporting in Idaho was defeated.

● Mandatory reporters almost always include school personnel, and their reports often are among the most damaging.  The parents who report and write for Rise magazine have some excellent recommendations for curbing the damage done  by needless reporting by school personnel.

Rise had its start as a column in Represent, a magazine written by and for foster youth. Represent was an outgrowth of a publication known as New Youth Connections.  And it all began with one visionary, Keith Hefner.  As Hefner retires, the Chronicle of Social Change looks at his legacy.

● Also in Youth Today, the director of a child welfare agency that provides, among other things, residential treatment  has co-authored a column that calls for – a lot less use of residential treatment.

Jeremy Kohomban and Sara Kroon Chiles write:

With Family First Act implementation underway, editorials and articles proliferate, many articulating nervousness among residential providers. With their revenue models under attack, some institutions are fighting back in the press and in the halls of statehouses to defend child welfare models that can be frightening, backward and protectionist of ineffective practice.
While short-term residential placement is a necessary part of the continuum of care for some high-needs children in foster care, it is never an effective long-term solution. …

● Last year, in still another column for Youth Today I wrote about how child welfare agencies and middle-class foster parents play the “bonding card” to take – and keep – poor people’s children. WXYZ-TV in Detroit has an update on one of the cases I cited in that column – and this time the news is good.

● But, so far, at least, you can get away with playing the bonding card to take a poor person’s child for your very own in Minnesota.  The Chronicle of Social Change has an update on a case they’ve been following closely.

● For the online news site Crosscut, Tara Urs, special counsel for civil policy and practice at the King County Department of Public Defense, writes about things Washington State can do to stop forcing children into out-of-state institutions and night-to-night placements in hotels – including the one thing Washington State media never like to talk about.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Child welfare and statistics abuse: fact-checking the “Alliance for Children’s Rights”

A presentation by the group dredges up ugly stereotypes about poor people and demeans the lived experience of thousands of foster children. 

Distorting data is easy. Setting the record straight can require
going deep into the weeds. Ready to take the trip?

I have written previously about how, back in 2003, one of the groups most responsible for fomenting hype and hysteria about child abuse at the end of the 20th Century 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 (PCAA) 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.

Although PCAA may have reformed, it seems the same cannot be said for other groups, such as the Los Angeles-based “Alliance for Children’s Rights.”

We recently came across a power point presentation for a webinar conducted by the Alliance. Speakers included Sean Hughes, a former director of congressional affairs for a child welfare agency trade association. He’s now a partner in a lobbying and consulting firm called “Social Change Partners.” Their list of clients since 2014 includes trade associations for private child welfare agencies. The Alliance also is on the client list.  Many claims in the power point presentation are similar to Hughes’ other writing.

Were there a hotline to which one could report statistics abuse, the authors of the power point presentation would have their rights to their pocket calculators terminated.  The power point packs into one presentation almost every common misuse of data to leave the false impression that children are not needlessly torn from their parents, there’s no such thing as confusing poverty with neglect and, in any event, child abuse is rampant. 

In the process, the presentation dredges up ugly stereotypes about poor people and demeans the lived experience of thousands of foster children.  The presentation also repeatedly uses the term “bio parent” for children’s parents – a pejorative term that suggests someone no more important to a child than a test tube.

The missing slide

Before we get to some of the actual slides, consider the slide that is missing.  There is no slide describing the actual outcomes for children torn from everyone they know and love and consigned to the chaos of foster care.

That, of course, is because the outcomes are so dismal.

One study after another has done direct comparisons of children in typical cases seen by child protective services.  Over and over, in these typical cases the children left in their own homes typically fare better in later life even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

So as you examine the Alliance’s presentation, consider: If children really are removed only when absolutely necessary for their safety, if all of them really are being horribly treated and in grave danger in their own homes to the point where foster care is the only alternative, how is it possible that, in typical cases, children still do better when left in their own homes?

In fact, the outcomes from these studies make clear that a lot of children are being removed needlessly, either because of poverty or because of other real problems that could be fixed without resorting to foster care. 

Now, on to the slides.  One slide is headed:

Understanding the Scope of Maltreatment  

It seeks to debunk the entirely accurate “perception” that, as the slide puts it:

serious maltreatment is an issue that only impacts a small percentage of children (federal data shows less than 1% of U.S. children are confirmed as victims per year.)

The Alliance then claims that “Research shows that the cumulative child maltreatment rate is much higher …”

Let’s stop right there. The Alliance is trying to shock us by pointing out that more children are abused or neglected over the course of 18 years than over the course of one year.  This is like saying: Of all the 90-year-olds in America, far more will die in the next ten years than the next year alone.  Can’t really argue with that.

So what is the supposedly shocking cumulative figure?  “1 in 8 American children are confirmed as victims by the age of 18 (1 in 5 African-American children.)”

There is an amazing amount of rhetorical sleight-of-hand packed into that one sentence.

● Notice how the single-year figure is characterized as applying to “serious maltreatment.” But in fact, the figure applies to every case in which a caseworker has decided it’s at least slightly more likely than not that there was any form of maltreatment. (In some states the standard is actually even lower!)  Overwhelmingly that means neglect – and broad, vague neglect laws make it easy to confuse poverty itself with neglect.

● The error is compounded when the Alliance uses no qualifier at all for the 1-in-8 figure – leaving the impression that figure also refers only to “serious maltreatment.”  Again, it doesn’t.

Both the single year and the 1-in-8 figures refer to anything and everything that caseworkers say is maltreatment – including all those poverty cases.

● The term “confirmed” also is grossly misleading. The term is not even used in most state laws.  It is a way to suggest something equivalent to a court conviction.  It’s nothing of the kind. 

In most states, “confirmed” (or, as most state statutes call it “substantiated”) means only that a caseworker checked a box on a form saying it is at least slightly more likely than not that something the caseworker deems to be abuse or neglect actually happened.

This determination is made without any sort of hearing before a neutral arbiter, much less a full court hearing. 

If the Alliance’s claim about “Reality” stayed true to reality it would read like this: Caseworkers have determined it is at least slightly more likely than not that, over the course of their entire childhoods, 1 in 8 American children may have been abused or neglected – or they were so poor that their poverty was confused with neglect.

The next slide declares:

And It’s Only Getting Worse … Child Safety Indicators During Opioid Crisis

But take a close look at the indicators the Alliance uses – a series of bar graphs, taken from the federal government’s annual Child Maltreatment report for 2016.  (We added the big arrow.) They show calls to child abuse hotlines and calls accepted for investigation have increased. But the actual rate of child “victimization” -- the last of the bar graphs -- has barely budged.  In other words, what has increased is false reports.

 In the subsequent two years, the rate still remained unchanged.  You don’t suppose there’s been a little too much hype about the role of opioids?  Let’s see.  The next slide is headed

Impact of the Opioid Crisis.

It discusses a “research brief” from the federal government.  But it takes the findings out of context.  Click here for a full discussion of that brief, and the real role of opioids in child welfare.

Then come slides seeking to persuade us that, really, children are never needlessly thrown into foster care.

One slide seeks to refute the “perception” that “The child welfare system is too punitive, frequently break [sic] up families unnecessarily.”

But the data they present in the slide itself prove otherwise.  The Alliance acknowledges that of the 676,000 children for whom workers checked the “substantiated” box on the form “Just 203,582 of these children were placed in foster care.”


What they’re saying is that 30 percent of the time, when the worker checks that box on the form, the child winds up in foster care.  (Also, by the way, the actual number of children taken in 2016 was far higher, at least 273,000, according to a federal database to which states are legally required to report all entries into foster care. The Alliance figure comes from a survey in which participation is voluntary, and states are freer to fudge the figures.)

So, how do you make a number the size of the entire population of Rochester, New York or Toledo, Ohio (depending on which database you use) look small? Simple. You add a bunch of irrelevant numbers.

So the Alliance compares the 200,000+ figure to the vastly higher numbers of children who are subjects of calls to child abuse hotlines (about 7.4 million,) and who are subjected to investigations (about 3.2 million).  But what that actually tells us is not that the number of children consigned to the chaos of foster care is low, but that the number of false reports of child abuse is astoundingly high.

Even more disturbing is the implication that horrible errors are unimportant if the number of times those errors are made is deemed low enough.

The number of children known to die of child abuse in 2016 was 1,750.  If you double the official figure, as some advocates say we should, it’s 3,500.  Yet no one would say this national tragedy should be minimized because the number is “low” compared to the number of children in America or even the number who are the subject of child abuse investigations.  On the contrary, we are shocked and outraged – as we should be.

Similarly, America was shocked and outraged by the needless sundering of families at the Mexican border.  The total number of such cases was estimated at roughly 3,000. It may really be thousands higher, but it still is a small fraction of the number torn apart by child protective services agencies.  Yes, there is a difference: CPS caseworkers almost always mean well.  But that’s no consolation for the child needlessly taken from everyone she or he knows and loves. Regardless of intentions, the children shed the same sorts of tears for the same sorts of reasons.

So now, let’s do another comparison. Compare the figures for removals at the border and child abuse deaths to the number of children thrown into foster care.  

Does the foster care number still seem so low?

The only acceptable goal for child abuse deaths is zero.  That also should be the only acceptable goal for needless removal of children from their homes.  Neither should be dismissed because someone decides the number is low.

The next slide is labeled

Foster Care Caseload SWINGS

In this slide, the Alliance seeks to persuade us that “Systems across the country aggressively reduced caseloads for more than a decade until the opioid crisis hit.”  By “aggressively” they mean a 30 percent decline between 1999 and 2012.  Once again this is misleading on several counts:

● There is nothing “aggressive” about foster care numbers inching down by an average of 2.5 percent per year.

● 1999 was the year when foster care reached its highest level in decades – with 567,000 children trapped in foster care on any given day.  In contrast, a Department of Health and Human Services estimate from 1985 put the total number of children trapped in foster care on any given day that year at 265,744.[1]  If that’s correct, then the real story is that foster care numbers skyrocketed, and then declined slowly.  They remain far higher than they were in 1985. 

● All of these figures represent only the number of children in foster care on a particular day.  So they actually tell us very little about whether states are reducing the number of children who are taken from their parents over the course of a year.  The Alliance doesn’t show you that number – perhaps because long after 1999 – all the way until 2005 -- it was still going up each year. It declined for only four years before increasing again.[2] 

● Again according to the federal government’s Child Maltreatment reports, the rate of known child abuse in the United States peaked in 1993 – it’s never been as high since. Yet entries into foster care kept going up all the way to 2005, and now they’re going up again.  This tells us that while many factors contribute to rising rates of foster care, actual child abuse ranks low on the list.

● To take an even longer view, check out Prof. Leroy Pelton’s book For Reasons of Poverty, in which he shows how the rise and fall of foster care numbers through the 20th Century was linked not to actual child abuse, but to federal financial incentives.

So the real record of most of America’s child welfare agencies, when it comes to reducing the number of children taken from their parents each year is dismal – and has been dismal almost every year for decades.

Then comes a slide headed

Misunderstanding the Use of Neglect

We’ll quote the beginning of this one in full:

“Perception: Federal data tells us that most children come into foster care due to “neglect” so that must mean that children are often being removed from their homes just because their parents are poor and lack the resources to care for their children. Reality: Children cannot legally be removed simply because of poverty – there must be a significant present threat to their safety.”

Wrong again – on so many levels.

● The two parts of that “reality” sentence are not mutually exclusive. If a child is living in terrible housing because it’s all the parents can afford, that may indeed pose a significant threat to safety. But the solution is to fix the housing or move the family, not traumatize the child with needless foster care.  If a child is removed under these circumstances it is indeed a needless removal due to family poverty. 

The same is true if a parent leaves a young child home alone because she can’t afford to lose her job and can’t afford child care.  The solution is child care, not foster care.

● The Alliance cites no specific statute requiring “a significant present threat” to a child’s safety before a child can be removed. In fact, state law definitions of neglect often simply define it as lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter.

● Families almost never have high-quality legal representation and judges are more likely to wield rubber stamps than gavels. In most states it all happens at secret hearings – or, sometimes, no hearing.  Caseworkers have the power to remove children entirely on their own, or to ask law enforcement to do it for them, before even going to a judge to seek after-the-fact approval. In most places, it doesn’t matter what the statute says. The caseworker’s word is, almost literally, law.

● Most important, study after study has found that children are indeed removed because of poverty.  You can read a summary with citations here.  Still another set of studies finds that providing even minimal additional cash to families dramatically reduces what agencies call “neglect.”  If poverty isn’t the problem, why is just a little bit of money so often the solution?

The Alliance continues:

“Neglect allegations are usually the easiest to substantiate, but other forms of abuse are often also present in the same families.”

The Alliance offers no evidence for this claim.  Of course neglect and "other forms of abuse" will be present in some cases, but where is the evidence that neglect is “easier to substantiate” than say, bruises and broken bones? 

But wait, there’s more:

Moreover, neglect involving a dangerous lack of supervision or failure to provide the basic necessities of life often indicates the presence of drug abuse and/or mental health issues in a home.

Here again, there is no citation, no evidence – only class bias (and racial bias, since poor families are disproportionately families of color). What the Alliance is really offering are ugly stereotypes suggesting that if you’re poor you must be mentally ill or on drugs. It’s a genteel equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” stories. Stripped of the niceties, what the Alliance really seems to be saying is: If you’re poor you must be mentally ill or one of those “druggie moms.”

Of course, in some cases neglect results from mental health or drug abuse problems. But in these cases as well, treatment for the parents almost always is a better, safer, option than foster care for the children.

But the Alliance isn’t done. They add:

“Chronic neglect has devastating impacts on brain development, and, as a predictor of child fatalities, neglect is just as dangerous for children as abuse.”

But neither neglect nor abuse does a good job of predicting fatalities – and that is something for which we all should be grateful.  As noted earlier, caseworkers check the “substantiated” box for nearly 700,000 children.  The official estimate of child abuse fatalities in 2016 was 1,750.  The Alliance subtly juxtaposes statements to leave the impression that every case of neglect is a horror story that constitutes a good predictor of a fatality – so of course we need to remove the children.

Neglect is such a broadly defined term that it can indeed include horrifying cases that do terrible harm – a child locked in a closet and starved for example.  But it also includes cases in which the SNAP benefits run out at the end of the month or the sitter doesn't show when Mom needs to work, or the housing is inadequate.  But which happens more often?

Then the presentation moves into the area of child welfare finance with a slide headed

Dollars and Sense

In this slide, the Alliance seeks to refute the “perception” that “The federal government spends $7 on foster care for every $1 spent on prevention.”

The Alliance argues this “perception” is wrong because the 7-to-1 ratio applies to all forms of substitute care, not just foster care.  But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Yes, if you look at foster care alone, the federal government may spend “only” six dollars for every dollar spent on prevention.  But based on a detailed breakdown from Child Trends it appears that when you combine foster care adoption and other out-of-home "care," the federal government probably spends ten dollars on those for every dollar spent on prevention.

In its analysis, the Alliance also wrongly implies that kinship care – when a child welfare agency places children with extended families – is not foster care. Kinship care is the least harmful form of foster care, but it’s still foster care.

But what really upsets the Alliance is the $1 part of the ratio. They argue that it’s not fair to count only the federal child abuse prevention program actually targeted toward child abuse prevention – a program known as Title IV-B.  After all, they argue, what about Medicaid, and the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) and  Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Shouldn’t they also count as child abuse prevention?

Apparently not. Because when you do count them, there’s almost no change!

The Child Trends analysis cited earlier also includes an estimate of how states spend child welfare money from every available federal source, including the ones singled out by the Alliance.  It turns out states devote 83 percent of all their federal dollars to out-of-home-care and child protective services – and only 13 percent to prevention. 

 In other words, for every federal dollar, from all sources, spent on prevention, states spend $7.60 on taking away children and substitute care. 

How can this happen?  The programs the Alliance cites as potential sources of prevention funds are available for an enormous number of uses, largely at the discretion of state or local governments.  And – surprise – big, powerful foster care and child protective services agencies have managed to scarf up a large amount of these dollars as well.

Take SSBG. According to Child Trends in 2016 “The most commonly reported child welfare agency services and activities funded through SSBG were foster care for children and child protective services.”

A bigger scandal is what’s happened to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF replaced “welfare as we knew it.”  TANF funds are supposed to be used to help families become self-sufficient.  But TANF has become a child welfare slush fund, with money diverted to child protective services investigations, foster care and adoption subsidies.  In Georgia, for example, in 2013, more TANF money went to foster care than went to support needy families.  You can find many more examples here.

In fact, even the money the Alliance suggests is exclusively for prevention and family preservation – Title IV-B – really isn’t. Some of those funds can be used, indeed must be used, for substitute care.

We’ve saved the worst for last: A slide that carries the innocuous heading

Length of Stay in Foster Care

This slide is in some ways the cruelest of all. It dismisses and trivializes the lived experience of hundreds of thousands of children traumatized by needless foster care.

The slide points out that half of children in foster care eventually are reunified and average length of stay in foster care has decreased. As the slide says: “Almost half of [foster] children spent less than a year in foster care and about ¾ spent less than 2 years.” In other words: They don’t stay that long and eventually we throw back half the ones we catch, so what’s the big deal?

Try asking a former foster child. They’ll tell you the big deal.

Just last month, The Marshall Project reported on how much trauma is inflicted by foster care even when it’s for just a few days:

Although short stays in foster care may seem too fleeting to matter, they often inflict lasting damage, much like that experienced by children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Experts and studies on child development say that the moment when a child is taken from her parents is the source of lifelong trauma, regardless of how long the separation lasts.
In interviews, nearly a dozen children and young adults who were temporarily removed from their parents as minors echoed that sentiment. It “felt like being kidnapped, even though it was just for a few days,” one said. “I didn’t know how long it would last.”

The so-called Alliance for Children’s Rights doesn’t seem to want to listen to these children. But the rest of us should.

For anyone who wants to go even further into the weeds, particularly about child welfare finance, check out this series of columns in which I debate Sean Hughes.

1.      1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Child Welfare Statistical Fact Book 1985: Substitute Care (I am not aware of this publication being available online.)
2.     2. Unfortunately HHS only posts data for the past ten years. But NCCPR has these data for earlier years.