Thursday, April 30, 2020

NCCPR in Youth Today: Is California’s ACEs Questionnaire a ‘Trap’ For Poor Families?

I’ve written about a study that found that poor mothers often avoid revealing their problems or accepting much-needed help because those asking about the problems and offering the help are mandated reporters — they are required by law to report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect.

In that study, one mother from Rhode Island reads aloud from a questionnaire she receives every two months from her child’s school. She is asked to respond to a series of statements, such as: “I feel little interest or pleasure in doing things.” “I feel too stressed to enjoy my child.” “I get more frustrated than I want with my child’s behavior.”
“It’s like a trap,” the mother said. “If you say yeah, I get more frustrated with my child’s behavior, that means you’re gonna hit ‘em or something, they probably think …”

That trap may soon be sprung on millions of poor families in California.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Once again, COVID-19 reveals child welfare’s double standards

Are you a parent who just can’t handle the demands of your own work, the stress of coronavirus and educating your child from home while schools are closed?

If you’re middle-class you can get indulgence, sympathy and helpful hints. Your kids can “play Fortnite for the next eight hours.”

If you’re poor you can get a caseworker at the door investigating you for “educational neglect.”

            All over America, parents are finding out just how hard it is to be a teacher – particularly when it’s your own child and everyone has to master new technology and new lessons at the same time.

            The New York Times feels your pain.  In a story filled with examples of middle-class parents struggling to cope – or even giving up – the story declares:

With teachers relegated to computer screens, parents have to play teacher’s aide, hall monitor, counselor and cafeteria worker — all while trying to do their own jobs under extraordinary circumstances. …
Kindergartners need help logging into Zoom. Seventh-graders need help with algebra, last used by dad circa 1992. “School” often ends by lunchtime, leaving parents from Long Island to Dallas to Los Angeles asking themselves the same question: How bad am I if my child plays Fortnite for the next eight hours?

            If you’re middle class, not bad at all. In fact, you can give up entirely! Again, from the story:

The litmus tweet of the moment came from Sarah Parcak, an archaeologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“I told our son’s (lovely, kind, caring) teacher that, no, we will not be participating in her ‘virtual classroom,’ and that he was done with the 1st grade,” she wrote on Twitter in early April. “We cannot cope with this insanity. Survival and protecting his well being come first.”

Yes, that’s right – if you’re white and middle class you can announce to the whole world that your child is “done with first grade” and not have to worry. It’s similar to how middle-class moms can brag about using marijuana.

            To the surprise of, I’m guessing, pretty much no one, whether its pot or education, it doesn’t work that way if you’re poor.

If you’re poor, it’s “educational neglect”

Shortly after New York City schools closed, I started hearing rumors that schools were actually calling in “educational neglect” reports on parents when their kids didn’t “show up for class” online – because, after all, every child living in poverty has immediate access to all the necessary
technology, right?  And what could be better for kids and families in this time of stress than a caseworker from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services caseworker showing up at the door?

Thanks to some good reporting from Eileen Grench at the online news site The City, now we know: The rumors were true.  From Grench’s story:

Joyce McMillan, family advocate at Sinergia and founder of the Parent Legislative Action Network, says mothers she works with in homeless shelters have been threatened by children’s school staff with a call to the child neglect hotline — even as they struggled to get diapers, much less share internet limited shelter hotspots.
“If we know this is the population of people that we’re working with,” asked McMillan, “why are you using informants if you know [families] can’t comply?”

            The city’s Department of Education (DOE) says teachers and others are supposed to check first to see if the problem is lack of technology. But teachers are mandated reporters – subject to severe penalties if they don’t report.  So it’s easier – for them – to just call in the report. 

          Don’t worry, though, says a spokesperson for DOE, “If an investigation finds a report was due to lack of access to technology, it will be dismissed.”  Right. So all you and your children have to endure is the stress of a child abuse investigation – and possibly increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, depending on exactly how much of a home inspection is required.

And, of course, there is no exemption for parents who just can’t cope, are too tired, or just decide it’s not worth it – like those middle-class parents in the Times story who get a free pass even when they do have the technology. The City quotes attorney Gabriel Freiman of Brooklyn Defender Services:

 “People are sort of being told two things, which is: ‘It’s OK to do the best you can. You know, you’re not being expected to do more than what’s possible.’ And also: ‘If you can’t do the things that were requested, do you know you’ll get a report against you called in.’”
The result, he says, is compounded stress in a crisis: “That kind of increased anxiety, in my opinion, is not good for situations that are already incredibly tense for families.”

            All this is on top of the fact that there is abundant evidence that “educational neglect” is so useless when it comes to finding actual child abuse, so harmful to children, families and to education, and so easily abused, that it probably should not even be something that can be reported to child protective services at all.      

Meanwhile, back at the Times, the story offers some advice for stressed-out parents. According to the story:

[P]arents should take it easy on themselves on days when things don’t go as planned.
“Are your kids killing each other, or have you killed your child?” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, an education researcher and a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. “Is there anything they’re eating that resembles healthy food in between the chocolate and sugar? If the answer is yes, give yourself a break.”

            I think the “yes” applies only to the second part.  But in any event, the advice should come with a warning label: Do not try this at home – if you’re poor.

            Poor people can never give themselves a break. They can never take it easy on themselves. Because no one else ever will.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

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

● There’s a story in the news now about a foster care scandal that is so startling it’s worth starting the round-up with it, even though it has nothing to do with COVID-19.  The story, by Jackie Rehwald of the Springfield, (Missouri), News-Leader begins simply enough: “A Missouri mom says she is in an unfair battle with the state Children's Division as she tries to reunify with her children” and now the Children’s Division is moving to terminate parental rights.  So what’s so startling?  Well, there’s this: The foster mom is also the head of the Missouri Department of Social Services, which oversees the Children’s Division.  And that’s just the beginning …

Of course there’s also plenty related to coronavirus.

● When Big Pharma gets together with Big Foster, it’s never good for the kids: In California, Karen de Sa of the Chronicle of Social Change reports that “a special interest group with close ties to the pharmaceutical industry” is trying to use the pandemic to undermine highly-successful state legislation that curbed the misuse and overuse of powerful, sometimes dangerous psychiatric medications on foster children. The meds sometimes are used by group homes and institutions to keep the young people docile for the benefit of overloaded staff.  If it’s happening in California, what about other states?

● Every time I think a child welfare agency can’t sink lower in its response to COVID-19, another agency with the word “children” in its name steps up to take the worst-response-in-America challenge.  This week's candidate: The Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families, where the director actually said this: “There are some things we’re finding with visits on video that are actually more positive than in-person visits.”  And, once again, that’s just the beginning.  I have a blog post on it and another about how the story that revealed the problems also reveals many of the failings in how news organizations cover child welfare.

● There are two excellent analyses and a data-filled blog post out on child welfare’s response to COVID-19.

--Prof. Jane Spinak of Columbia Law School analyzes the failures and urges child welfare agencies to take advantage of “an unexpected opportunity for systemic change.” Her analysis also challenges the fearmongering stories about how fewer mostly white, middle-class “eyes” on overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite children means their parents will unleash a “pandemic” of savagery against them.  Writes Spinak:

First, it is clear that the vast majority of reports do not result in state action because a child has been mistreated; there is a lot of noise in reporting. Hunches, vague suspicions, better-safe-than-sorry beliefs, passing the buck to someone else instead of figuring out how to be helpful, anonymous calls and instances of malicious false reporting still require state investigations that cost time and money.
Reducing those types of reports because children are not as casually observed will reduce unnecessary family disruption and trauma and will give investigators more time to scrutinize when children are actually in danger, usually of serious physical or sexual abuse.
Fewer reports based on unsubstantiated feelings and just passing the buck will also mean workers will have to do fewer in-person investigations, leaving them and the families they are investigating less exposed to COVID-19.

           The article is part of an e-book from the law school, available in full, or chapter-by-chapter, here.

-- Prof. Robert Latham, associate director, Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law also has a degree in computer science.  He puts both skills to use in blog posts that pore over data about the Florida child welfare system.  So while everyone else has been speculating, his latest blog post is well worth reading in conjunction with Prof. Spinak’s article.  Latham examines actual data on key child welfare measures in the first month since COVID-19 changed everything. There are some useful insights at the conclusion of the post, but he begins with this caution:

A lot of people have been asking, hypothesizing, and, frankly, guessing about what effect a global pandemic and quarantine coupled with unprecedented levels of governmental and community response will have on child welfare measures. Anyone who claims certainty right now is selling something. We really don’t know.

--Child welfare agencies are responding just as badly in Australia – the same fearmongering about fewer calls to hotlines and the same wholesale bans on visits between foster children and their parents.  The Family Inclusion Network, which  advocates “for the rightful place of parents, family and community as key stakeholders when children are involved in the child protection system” has a report out on the consequences, with excellent recommendations for how authorities in Australia – and everywhere else – can do better.

● Of course, even when some agencies try to do better, others will undermine those efforts. In New York City, some private child welfare agencies are ignoring both federal guidance and policy from the City’s Administration for Children’s Services concerning visits.  As I note in this blog post, they want their staff to be deemed “essential workers” but they don’t want to do the essential work.

● Andrew Brown of the Texas Public Policy Foundation has an op-ed in The Hill about how the child welfare establishment wants to grab billions of dollars to make the system bigger instead of better. And here’s my take on they’re after.

● In last week’s round-up I noted that some divorced parents in custody disputes were trying to leverage COVID-19 to deny custody or visitation to their exes – because those exes are first responders.  Mike Hixenbaugh of NBC News reports on more such cases. I am aware of no court that has issued a blanket ban on visits when a child is moving between spouses – yet somehow child welfare agencies and court systems think it’s fine to impose such bans when middle-class foster parents want them in order to thwart visits from overwhelmingly poor birth parents.

● While all the fearmongering is about the supposed danger posed by birth parents, here’s a reminder from Hawaii about how sometimes the danger lies elsewhere.  And here are some data to put that story in context.

In other news:

● A New York Daily News editorial supports the state’s recent reforms to its blacklist of alleged child abusers – reforms won thanks to the efforts of family advocates and family defenders.

● The Chronicle of Social Change reports on that good change to the federal Child Welfare Policy Manual mentioned in last week’s round-up – the one that allows federal funds to be used to partially reimburse expenses for child and family defense teams – including social workers and parent advocates – not just the lawyers themselves.

● And finally: The website Healio reports on another threat to children’s lives. According to a new study, children in foster care are significantly more likely to die during their youth than children in the general population. The “child abuse pediatrician” who did the study took great pains to emphasize she was not claiming that foster care caused the increased mortality rate.  Heavans, no!  But we do know that foster children fare worse on a whole slew of other measures compared even to comparably maltreated children left in their own homes.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Flawed system, flawed journalism: COVID-19 brings both into stark relief

In Washington State, as in many other places, the flaws in the child welfare system are mirrored in the flaws in how child welfare is covered.  But at one online news site there are the first signs of improvement.

Second of two parts. Read part one here.

            The story was a searing expose of ill-treatment visited upon families by a child protective services agency. It told of families repeatedly being harassed, threatened and treated with disrespect. 

            Did I say families? Sorry, I meant mostly white, middle class foster families.  Because for the online news site Investigate West in Washington State, they have been the only families who really counted.

            The story dealt with repeated acts of alleged retaliation by the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families against foster parents who dared to challenge the agency.  But apparently, in the entire 4000-word story, it never occurred to any of those foster parents, nor to the reporter, to pose one simple question:

            The state really needs foster families. If this is how they are treated, how do you think the agency treats birth families?

            For Investigate West, and many other news organizations, the real answer is: Who cares? 

They are more subtle about it, more genteel (and more grammatical) than the  crude, cruel petition posted by a Washington State foster parent demanding a wholesale cutoff of visits between foster children and their parents due to COVID-19 (something discussed in detail in the previous post to this blog). But the message is similar: Birth parents, overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite, are essentially so subhuman they’re barely even worth speaking to.  Sure, they may not be evil, but they’re all sick, sick, sick! If they’re ill-treated, they brought it on themselves. 

            Investigate West also presents as fact the claim that there is a shortage of foster parents in Washington State.  But Washington State doesn’t have too few foster parents, it has too many foster children – because it tears apart families at a rate well above the national average when rates of child poverty are factored in.  Investigate West also accepts at face value claims about child welfare and substance use.  Once again, they shouldn’t.  And they’ve bought into the conventional wisdom about the supposed need for more group homes and  residential treatment. Again, a mistake.

   The problems with the attitude reflected both in the petition and in much of Investigate West’s reporting are legion, but here’s the most important: Almost always, when you take that kind of swing at parents, the blow lands on their children.

            Most recently, those blows come in the form of states, including Washington, cutting off all in-person visits between foster children and their parents.  Wholesale cutoffs of visits, as opposed to case-by-case decisions, are contrary to federal recommendations, and are not necessary to curb COVID-19.

            In fairness, we know about Washington State’s appalling behavior in large part thanks to a story from Investigate West.  Those failures are discussed in detail in the previous post to this blog. 

This most recent story is a real improvement. This time, two birth parents actually are quoted – and some parents’ attorneys are included.  The federal guidance is noted. The story also exposes DCYF’s false claim that, in banning all in-person visits, the agency is just following orders from Gov. Jay Inslee. And it exposes DCYF’s failure even to provide the necessary technology so all foster children can have video visits with parents too poor to afford it themselves.

It’s also the case that, when it comes to the journalism of child welfare, there is far worse out there.  This most recent story, and the general output of Investigate West, are worth a close look precisely because it is so typical.

Flunking the “balance of harms” test

            As with so much about both child welfare and the journalism of child welfare, the story flunks the “balance of harms” test.

            The story plays up the serious and real risks of coronavirus, without also discussing the enormous risk to children posed by the trauma inflicted when visits are cut off.  In contrast, this story form the Chronicle of Social Change gets it right.  Here’s some of what parents said:

It breaks my heart that I can’t see my child right now.  I can’t hold her. I can’t comfort her when she’s getting frustrated.
She sees me on the screen and then she’s looking around to see if I’ll pop out. She’s reaching out to me, she wants to grab me but she can’t. She tries. It’s a very unbearable thing.
My kids are hurt, they’re crying. They don’t understand. My daughter is thinking we don’t want to see her.

You won’t find that in the Investigate West story.  Instead, the deck is further stacked by suggesting the issue is a matter of public health vs. parents’ rights. Thus we are told that:

The emergency measures are raising the issue of whether Washington officials and judges have the authority to limit the legal right of birth parents to see their children in person … 

But the real issue is whether foster children have the legal right to see their parents in person.

The foster care system itself is described as a place for “young people whose parents have been unable or unwilling to care for them.” In some cases, of course, that’s true.  In other cases it’s for young people whose parents were simply caught being poor or nonwhite or both. 

One of the lawyers Investigate West cites in their story, S. Annie Chung, earlier told Seattle Times columnist Naomi Ishisaka

A vast majority … of the families that are in the dependency system are actually struggling with the effects of poverty and structural racism.  These families are struggling, but they’re not bad parents. They don’t have less love or less of a bond with their children.

If Chung pointed this out to Investigate West, they weren’t interested.

Fortunately, Ishisaka was. She wrote:

Poverty should not be punished with the lasting psychological and emotional damage of family separation. In the meantime, a one-size-fits-all visitation policy will not work.

            In contrast, Investigate West presents the selfishness of foster parents as almost noble:

Foster parents got that public health message and they acted on it.

            Or consider this paragraph, which combines subtle class bias with condescension:

State legal requirements make reuniting foster kids with the birth parents the paramount goal, in line with national recommendations. Yet those birth parents often are struggling with poverty, addiction or other issues that caused the state to remove their children in the first place. Often the hope of recovering their kids is what drives them to do better, child-welfare advocates say.
            Strip away the genteel veneer and this is what Investigate West is saying: Not only is it perfectly o.k. to tear apart a family when parents are “struggling with poverty,” the removal is just the kick in the pants those lazy good-for-nothings need to “drive them to do better.”  There is no acknowledgement that some of “them” were doing just fine as parents until child protective services entered their lives.

Investigate West also neglects to mention that the goal of reunification is based on decades of research showing that, in typical cases, children placed in foster care fare worse even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

What the headline writer knew

             The overall message sent by the story is clear from what one headline writer made of it.  Reporters almost never write the headlines for their stories (something almost every reporter really wants you to know, by the way) but the overall impression a story leaves sometimes can be gleaned from what a headline writer made of it.

            The Investigate West headline was simply: “Birth parents fight to visit kids in foster system during pandemic.”  But at Crosscut, another online news site which reprints Investigate West’s work, someone added a lurid “subhead,” (sometimes called a “deck”). It reads:

Seeing their children in person may put parents, as well as foster families and social workers, at risk, but can the state stop them?

I hope that wasn’t really the message Investigate West was trying to send.  If it wasn’t, then I hope they will go back and try again – and try not to see every child welfare issue almost exclusively through the eyes of white, middle-class foster parents.

In  an outstanding column urging child welfare systems to rise above their fears and their prejudices, Jerry Milner Associate Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau and his Special Assistant, David Kelly, wrote:

There will also be leaders and individuals who will learn from these difficult times and chart a new course, inspired by this stark reminder of our common humanity. For such leaders, this crisis is an opportunity to reorient our system.

Perhaps there also will be journalists inspired to chart a new course and reconsider the assumptions that have guided their coverage.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Foster care in Washington State: Selfish foster parents, and the child welfare agency chief who panders to them

First of two parts. Read part two here.

            Every time I think a child welfare agency can’t sink lower in its response to COVID-19, another agency with the word “children” in its name steps up to take the worst-response-in-America challenge.

            Today's candidate: The Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families.  Thanks to a story from the online news site Investigate West, and an interview DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter did with the Seattle Times, we now know this:

            ● Hunter effectively admits he cut off all in-person visits between foster children and their parents largely to appease foster parents who, though asked to do no more than letter carriers and grocery clerks, are threatening to quit.

            ● Hunter may have felt pressured by a petition posted by an anonymous Washington State foster parent that got nearly 300 signatures. The petition is striking for its cruelty, and well worth reading in full. 

            ● Hey, don’t worry, Hunter says. “There are some things we’re finding with visits on video that are actually more positive than in-person visits.”  Yes, he really said that.  
           ● But, Investigate West found, Hunter’s agency isn’t even keeping its promise to provide all impoverished parents with the technology they need for video visits.

            ● And some foster parents have taken cruelty to a new level, refusing even to allow video visits.

            ● Hunter’s agency also claims it’s just following orders – from Gov. Jay Inslee.  But Inslee’s office says his COVID-19 orders still allow in-person visits, on a case-by-case basis.  In fact, says a spokesman, that’s how it should be done.  A reading of the actual order confirms as much.

            Hunter gives away his game when he says that, were the pandemic to continue for six months “I would go figure out how to make [in-person visits] practical.”

This reveals, at best, disturbing lack of concern for how children perceive time.  Six months is a lifetime for a newborn, a quarter of a lifetime for a toddler – and, for them, it feels like an eternity.  That’s part of the reason that the younger the child the greater the trauma of separation. And of course, these also are the very children for whom video visits work worst. 

So, if you say you can figure out how to make in-person visits work after waiting six months, Mr. Hunter, you should be able to do it right now.  But apparently pandering to some Washington State foster parents is more important.

            ● The story is a notable improvement for Investigate West, which up to now has served as a de facto public relations factory for the state’s foster parents.  But the story still barely acknowledges the enormous psychic trauma cutting off visits inflicts on children.  And it accepts the view of foster parents that any and all in-person visits are extremely dangerous. 

Visits should be determined case-by-case

            No one is saying all in-person visits should continue. In some circumstances they are unsafe, and in some cases foster parent fears are reasonable.  But there is no need for a wholesale ban on such visits, and indeed, like Gov. Inslee, top federal child welfare officials specifically recommend against such a ban.

Infectious disease experts say that often families still can visit each other.  And many of the assumptions about visits always being unsafe are based on doing them the same old way, supervised in crowded offices. There are other alternatives.  But foster parents aren’t going to extend themselves if they think visits are just a favor for birth parents, and they hate the birth parents, as is apparent in that foster parent petition.

            Investigate West fails to point out that the risks these foster parents are being asked to take are similar to the risks they take if they go to the grocery store or the pharmacy. And they are no greater than the risks taken every day by the pharmacists and grocery store clerks who help shoppers.

The “shortage” that isn’t

            Hunter's desperation to appease foster parents is due to a so-called “shortage” of such parents. But, contrary to what DCYF and Investigate West repeatedly claim, Washington State doesn’t have too few foster parents. Washington State has too many foster children. The shortage is artificial, the result of decades of tearing apart families at rates above the national average when rates of child poverty are factored in, and far above the rate in states that are, relatively speaking, models for keeping children safe.

  What no one seems to recognize, not the fearful foster parents, not Hunter, and not Investigate West, is who is being hurt most by all of this. The issue is not, as all of these parties suggest, the rights of parents vs. public health.  As the nation’s top child welfare officials have made clear, the issue is not what parents want, it’s what children need. 

            For the child, “It is not merely a matter of longing for contact,” write Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner of the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Health and Human Services and his Special Assistant, David Kelly. “It is a matter of healthy brain development, maintaining critical bonds, and prevention of trauma that can persist for generations.”

            They continue:

There will be those who use the crisis to serve their own interests or those of their constituencies. There will be those whose implicit or even explicit biases are drawn out into the light. There will be those who choose to weaponize our systemic shortcomings and use them against parents.

            And that brings us to that foster parent petition.  At one point the anonymous author says:

They say what about the bio parents who will miss [their children]? I say to this. [sic] They are the ones who made the choices which in turn lead [sic] to losing their children in the first place. They should not be worried about missing visits at this time.

            Even were that true – and much of the time it is not – the anonymous foster parent apparently thinks that because she or he has such contempt for birth parents (note the patronizing, dehumanizing description of them as “bio parents”) their children do, too.  That’s not how child development works.  If a young child gets the message from a foster parent that their own parents are contemptible human beings – or worse – s/he is likely to think: “They are horrible and they made me, so what does that make me?”  Why is Washington State tolerating foster parents who broadcast such messages?

As Milner and Kelly make clear, almost always, children in foster care desperately need contact – including touches and hugs – from their parents.

            What the anonymous foster parent is saying is almost exactly what the Trump Administration said about the kids they caged at the Mexican border: It’s the parents’ fault, they shouldn’t have crossed the border.

            That’s no reason to keep kids in cages – and alleged failings by the parents are no reason to deprive their children of visits.  Anyone who heard the cries of the children in detention on the border should understand this.  How can anyone be trained and licensed to be a foster parent in Washington State and not know this?  Why tolerate foster parents who are supposed to work with birth parents, but clearly loathe them – and can’t see past that loathing to do what’s best for the children?

            Yet Hunter is doing handstands to keep foster parents like these. He made clear that fear of losing them is at the heart of his reasoning for banning in-person visits.  In fact, were foster parents such as these to quit, the system could only improve. Foster parents whose attitude toward families drips with contempt would be gone. We would be left with the many outstanding foster parents who bring real love and real courage to their work; we would be left with those willing to step up in a crisis instead of stepping away, and take as much risk as a grocery clerk.

Visits are fine – if they’re people like us

            There also is an underlying hypocrisy – and racial and class bias – in some of the foster parent fears.  This can be seen in the rush by some to cut off even video visits.

It can be seen even more clearly at the conclusion of the Investigate West article.  It ends with the story of noble foster parents who are “putting their health on the line” and “risk[ing] coronavirus exposure” to arrange in-person visits for their foster children – two such visits, in fact, each involving at least seven people, adults and children.  The visits even took place in the foster parents’ own home!

            But these were not visits with those at-worst-evil-at-best-sick-always-suspect- overwhelmingly-poor-disproportionately-nonwhite-birth-parents. No, these were visits with fellow white, middle-class foster parents preparing to adopt the children this couple had taken in on a short-term placement. 

            Why are the risks of contracting coronavirus deemed insurmountable for visits with people like them, and worth taking for visits with people like us?

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Some NYC private foster care agencies are doing what they do best: Putting themselves ahead of the kids

They want their staff to be designated “essential workers” while ducking the essential work.

Things have changed a lot since the New York Daily News published
this expose in 1975. But, unfortunatetly, in a crisis, some of them return to form.
             One of the things that first got me interested in child welfare decades ago was reading a searing 1975 New York Daily News series called  “Big Money, Little Victims.” The story exposed how New York City’s enormously powerful private foster care agencies were prolonging foster care because they were paid for every day they kept hold of a child.

            Among the findings:

● …[M]any private [child welfare] agencies regularly deny thousands of children the chance of finding permanent homes so that they can continue to collect millions of dollars each year in city child support payments.”
●…[C]hildren … have become the lifeblood of these private agencies, which thrive on the millions of dollars the city pumps into them each year. These agencies systematically keep the children in their jurisdiction so that a constant level of government funding is maintained.

            Things have changed a lot in 45 years.  There are fewer of these agencies and they are not as powerful. That’s part of the reason the whole system is significantly smaller now than it was then.  Occasionally, leaders of these agencies are prime movers behind real reform.  But all it takes is a crisis for some of them to return to form.  Now, of course, there’s a crisis: COVID-19.

            Even though New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services has said that in-person visits between foster children and their parents and siblings should continue whenever possible; even though federal guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services says the same; and even though a total ban on in-person visits is not necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19,  private agencies have been cutting off foster children from such visits with their parents.  And, oh the litany of excuses:

            Excuse #1: Well, we can’t very well have all those families come to our offices and ride the elevators.  But offices were always a lousy place for visits.  The parks are still open in New York City.  Hold the visits there. 

            Excuse #2: But the visits need to be supervised.  Supervisors can go to the parks, too. Or, maybe it’s time to reconsider, case-by-case, whether supervision is necessary. 

            Excuse #3: Parents can’t always get to the visits. It’s can be too risky to ride the subway and too expensive to take a taxi or a ride share (which also, of course, has had other passengers). Then how about bringing the kids to the parents, in designated vehicles that are cleaned after every use? And for those willing to use a taxi – why can’t the agency pay the fare?

Flunking the balance of harms test

The behavior of child welfare agencies in response to COVID-19 is in many ways a microcosm of their behavior and thought process in general.  Child welfare systems almost always flunk the “balance of harms” test.

Agencies constantly tell us about the supposed risk of leaving a child in her or his own home. They fail to balance that against the enormous risks of foster care – both the psychic damage and the high risk of abuse in foster care itself.

            Similarly, there are risks involved in continuing visits right now, and no one is saying that all visits can or should be conducted as they were before.  But in each case, the risks of visits need to be balanced against the enormous risk of traumatizing children by cutting them off from their families. 

Yes, there are risks for agency personnel. But those risks are no greater than the risks taken every day by grocery clerks, delivery drivers, letter carriers and so many other essential workers.

            Indeed, I’ve seen many tweets from the child welfare establishment calling upon Congress to designate child welfare agency staff as “essential workers” – so the agencies can get emergency federal aid.  That’s a reasonable request.  And those agency staff who continue to make visits possible deserve to be thought of as heroes – just like those grocery clerks and delivery drivers.

            But if you want your staff to be designated “essential workers” then they need to actually do the essential work.

            Otherwise, it’s just another case of big money, little victims.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

NCCPR News and commentary round-up, week ending April 21, 2020

● Remember that classic scene in The Matrix – the one people know even if they haven’t actually seen the film? Take the blue pill and go back to living in a dreamworld, take the red pill and see the ugly reality. When it comes to how the child welfare system works, for decades most of us, including, sadly, most journalists have been swallowing the blue pill handed us by the child welfare establishment. In the world of the Blue Pill it is a purely benevolent system which, of course, has some flaws, but only because it’s underfunded. 

If you’re finally ready for the red pill, if you’re ready to see the system as it really is, watch the video of this webinar, featuring Erin Miles Cloud of the Movement for Family Power, Miriam Mack of The Bronx Defenders and Tiffany McFadden, a former foster youth now a professor at the City University of New York. (The video starts at about 4:30 in.)

● Speaking of myths too readily accepted by journalists: Here’s a thought experiment. How do the arguments in favor of rushing to report anything and everything to child abuse “hotlines” because fewer white, professional “eyes” on Black children differ from the arguments in favor of the racist practice by police known as stop-and-frisk?  Spoiler: They don’t.  I have a blog post about it.

● Also relevant, this New York Times column, which has nothing specifically to do with child welfare, but in fact has everything to do with it.  The link on the Times website summed it up: “The Seductive Appeal of Snitch on Thy Neighbor.”

● “My kids are hurt, they’re crying,” says a mother whose children in foster care no longer can visit her. “They don’t understand. My daughter is thinking we don’t want to see her.”  That’s from an excellent story in the Chronicle of Social Change exploring the real harm being done to children by child welfare’s failed response to COVID-19.

● COVID-19 hasn’t changed the fact that many times, the removal of a child to the chaos of foster care is unnecessary to keep the child safe. Now there are new data from New York City illustrating the extent of the problem, and how COVID-19 has made it worse. That’s because it’s as easey to put children in to foster care as ever but now, often, there is almost no way out.  I have a blog post on it with a link to the story that revealed the new data, from the Center for New York City Affairs.

● This story involves spouses fighting for custody. But I suspect it’s only a matter of time before a child protective services agency pulls the same stunt: Denying visitation and/or custody to a first responder – because s/he’s a first responder!

In other news:

● Two excellent stories form Rise:

--One is about how all children are safer when poor families have access to lawyers the minute they even think child protective services is about to enter their lives (you know, the way rich families always do – in those incredibly rare cases in which CPS comes anywhere near a rich family.)  As Emma Ketteringham of The Bronx Defenders explains:

When a CPS worker comes to your door and asks to look through your cupboards and in your fridge, asks you questions, sends you for a drug test, asks you about whoever lives in this home, and wants to talk with your child without you present—that’s not social work, that is an investigation. There are fundamental legal rights at stake.

In the other story, family advocate Joyce McMillan discusses the new law in New York reforming the state’s blacklist of people accused – often falsely – of child abuse or neglect. A listing on the state’s “central registry” effectively blacklists the accused, denying them access to some of the very jobs most often filled by low-income workers.

● Once again, top federal child welfare officials have been poring over their child welfare policy manual, and once again they’ve made a change that will allow more funding to be used to help keep families together, as well as to support the least harmful form of foster care, kinship foster care. And though it’s not yet online they’ve added a useful clarification to the last change they made, involving federal aid to help pay for lawyers for parents and children in child welfare cases.  The new language makes clear this aid also is available to help pay for social workers and parent advocates used as part of family defense teams.

● And for anyone who still thinks taking away a child because family poverty is confused with neglect and putting him in foster care is no big deal because, after all, “what’s the worst that could happen?”  Here’s the answer.

Monday, April 20, 2020

New York City Family Courts continue to put children at risk by rubber-stamping needless foster care – with little or no way for kids to get out

(And if you’re not in New York City, take no comfort from that; your system almost certainly is worse.) 

As in most places, when COVID-19 struck, the child welfare system in New York City revealed its true priorities.

The order was issued on March 15, effective two days later: The juggernaut of pro-forma Family Court hearings to rubber-stamp removals of children by the City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) – hearings that often occur after the removal takes place and usually without a parent, much less a parent’s lawyer, present – would continue.  But the hearings that are supposed to happen a few days later – the first real chance for children to get their parents back – were postponed, along with almost everything else.

Now, those hearings are very slowly resuming, via videoconference.  So now we have statistics showing just how much children are being hurt by these skewed priorities.   

The Center for New York City Affairs reports that from March 26 through April 9 there were initial hearings seeking reunification in cases involving only 37 children.  Parents challenged the removal in cases involving 19 of those children.  And in cases involving 10 of those 19 the judge said, in effect, that ACS screwed up. The judge sent the children back home, much the worse for the experience and, of course, at greater danger of contracting COVID-19 due to the very process of removal itself.

So this means that, at a minimum, ACS inflicted foster care and all the attendant trauma on children needlessly more than 25 percent of the time. That’s not some fluke related to the pandemic. The 25-percent-ordered-returned rate is consistent with ACS’ track record even before COVID-19.  The real figure almost certainly is higher. That’s because we don’t know how many parents simply were unable to challenge removals – and because it is extremely difficult to get a court to rule against ACS only a few days into a case.

So now let’s think about all the removals in New York City where there have been no hearings – because the court was only holding hearings to take away children not to return them home. Odds are, at least 25 percent of those children should have been returned home, too.  But some of them continue to languish in foster care, and will stay trapped there until the courts get around to them.  

And what about the rest of the country? Most court systems have displayed the same skewed priorities – in spite of federal guidance urging that hearings continue.  And most of the country is even quicker – sometimes vastly quicker – to tear apart families than New York City. 

It is terrifying to contemplate how much wrongful removal – and needless exposure of children to the risk of coronavirus - is taking place in, say, Philadelphia, which takes away children at the highest rate of America’s biggest cities, and where the child welfare agency is lying about another key element of federal guidance.

And it’s terrifying to think of what is happening to children in states like Montana, Wyoming Vermont and West Virginia; states that, year after year, tear apart families at among the highest rates in the nation, even when rates of family poverty are factored in.

All across America, how many children have they needlessly traumatized by removal to foster care – and needlessly exposed to COVID-19 – thanks to the failures of child welfare systems and courts?  And why aren’t more journalists asking about it?

Sunday, April 19, 2020

A thought experiment illustrates the racial and class biases that underlie child welfare’s COVID-19 messaging

Why are so many journalists amplifying that message without a moment’s thought?

An advocate in Pennsylvania says videochats are a great way to
spy on a neighbor. If you get a gut feeling something is wrong,
she says, you should turn in the family to the child abuse hotline!
(Photo by aehdeschaine.)

UPDATE, JUNE 6, 2020: Thanks to this blog post from Robert Latham, I learned that several months ago, Michelle Burrell, former managing attorney of the Family Defense Team at Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, wrote an excellent law review article on exactly this topic.

Let’s try a thought experiment.  Suppose a police sergeant, giving orders to officers about to go out on patrol said this:

“It’s really dangerous on the streets right now. So if you see someone and something doesn’t seem quite right, don’t hesitate. Listen to your intuition: Stop him, throw him up against a fall and frisk him.”

What if one of the officers said: But what if I don’t have any evidence the kid is doing anything wrong?

“Doesn’t matter,” the sergeant replies. “Just trust your gut.” 

If that ever happened and word got out, the reaction from much of the public, and editorial boards across the country, would be swift and fierce: There is no excuse for that kind of blatant racism, traumatizing predominantly young men and boys of color with no reasonable cause to suspect they’ve done anything wrong.

That’s why the way New York City used stop-and-frisk was rule unconstitutional. That’s why, during his brief run for the presidency, the first thing former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg had to do was apologize for it.

For those unfamiliar with the practice, here’s an excellent tutorial from Trevor Noah:

Oh, and one other thing about stop-and-frisk: It didn’t reduce crime.  Even a National Review columnist admitted as much.

Child welfare’s version of stop-and-frisk

So now, let’s consider this recent advice to everyone in Pennsylvania, quoted in one of those ubiquitous “Oh, no! The sky is falling because fewer people are calling child abuse hotlines” stories:

State Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller urges residents who suspect a child is in danger to call the hotline. “Listen to your intuition and if you have concerns, make the call to ChildLine,” Miller said.”

Another advocate, Angela Liddle even suggests perverting the idea of helping out a neighbor – She says it’s a great chance to spy on your neighbor. According to the story, Liddle thinks

Those video chats offer an opportunity to check in on a kid who may not have the best home situation.

Then she makes clear what “check in” means:

If you’re on a vidochat “and something doesn’t seem right” don’t jump to conclusions, she says

“But she also said people should trust their gut if they sense a kid may be in real trouble.
“If you feel a child is being harmed, you don’t need to be a mandated reporter to call ChildLine,” Liddle said.

But, of course, calling a child abuse hotline based on no more than trusting one’s gut is jumping to conclusions.

Then Liddle adds a useful reminder for anyone who wants to seize the moment to, say, pursue a grudge against a neighbor or an ex-spouse: “People can call anonymously.”

There is no argument one can make in favor of this kind of advice that has not also been made for stop and frisk.  Just ask Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich , who put it this way:

You run into liberals who would rather see people killed than have the kind of aggressive policing … And a lot of the people whose lives were saved because of policing in neighborhoods that needed it the most, were minority Americans.

How does that differ from the justifications offered for telling people to spy on their neighbors and call in anything and everything to child abuse hotlines based on no more than “intuition” or “gut feeling”?

A child abuse investigation can be worse

But surely a child abuse investigation isn’t as bad as stop-and-frisk is it?  Actually, it can be even worse.

● A child abuse investigation is not a benign act. It is a terrifying experience, especially for young children.  At best, they will live in fear that the worker may come back and take them away to the chaos of foster care. At worst, that’s exactly what will happen.

● The stop doesn’t necessarily end with a frisk. It can be accompanied by a stripsearch by workers looking for bruises. Here’s how a story in The New Yorker described the process:

 What should you do if child-protective services comes to your house? You will hear a knock on the door, often late at night. You don’t have to open it, but if you don’t the caseworker outside may come back with the police. The caseworker will tell you you’re being investigated for abusing or neglecting your children. She will tell you to wake them up and tell them to take clothes off so she can check their bodies for bruises and marks. [Emphasis added].

● And now, there’s an additional risk: As investigators poke through cupboards and peer into refrigerators, both the families and the caseworkers are put at increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

Another element stop-and-frisk has in common with child abuse investigations is who is targeted: Overwhelmingly the targets are poor and disproportionately people of color.  If anything, COVID-19 has made even more apparent the racial bias that permeates the field. What is the real message when people claim that as soon as the eyes of white middle-class professionals are averted from parents who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite they will unleash their savagery against their own children?

And there is still another commonality: Neither stop-and-frisk nor the child welfare surveillance state have achieved their stated goals.

On the contrary, research shows that the child welfare surveillance state drives poor people away from seeking help and may increase child abuse by overloading workers, leaving them less time to find children in real danger.  Indeed, now in Pennsylvania, thanks to Angela Liddle and those spreading the same message, families even have to worry about whether to allow their child to have a video chat with a friend, in case the friend’s parents are really using it as a way to do a little civic-minded spying.

In fact, when it comes to harassing the innocent, child abuse investigations have an even worse record than stop-and-frisk.  At least 80 percent of those stopped and frisked in New York City were innocent.  But that’s a brilliant record compared to child welfare. Thanks to the massive, surveillance state go-with-your-gut-and-call-in-anything approach, we have the spectacle of 97 percent of those hotline calls being either too absurd to pursue, false reports or neglect cases, which often means simply that the family is poor. (Among those actually investigated, 83 percent are false reports and, again, most of the rest are neglect.)

For 50 years, we’ve used a regime of mass surveillance – put in place with no studies beforehand to see if it would work – to try to reach that other three percent or less in time.  It’s failed.  From the current crisis comes the opportunity to do better, if we’re willing to seize it.

When journalists amplify the message

            Now, let’s go back to that original thought experiment. This time, imagine that a journalist received a tip about what that police sergeant was saying.  What would most journalists do?  Would they say “This is wonderful! I can’t wait to write a story and spread the word about how this sergeant is keeping the city safe!”?  Well, if they worked for Fox News, maybe. But otherwise, they’d be more likely to contact civil liberties groups for comment and do a story raising questions about a rampant violation of civil rights that traumatizes people of color and does nothing to curb crime.

            So what does it say about the culture of journalism that as soon as someone adds the words “child abuse” to the same kind of mass trauma and infringement on civil liberties, the response is so different?