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.