Tuesday, May 19, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending May 19, 2020

            We begin with several developments surrounding a pernicious practice known as “hidden foster care.”

● Last year, I wrote a blog post about the hidden foster care scandal in North Carolina – a scandal exposed first by the Associated Press and then ongoing, dogged reporting by Carolina Public Press. Now the scandal has led to criminal indictments of, among others, the former head of the county child welfare agency at the center of the scandal.  According to Carolina Public Press:

The charges included dozens of felonies and misdemeanors related to a yearslong Cherokee County DSS practice that separated children from parents without the oversight of a judge.

As I wrote last year, here’s how hidden foster care works:

A parent is told at a minimum:  We’re going to take your children away and place them in foster care with strangers. In some cases they’re told: We’ll also separate them from each other and place them far, far away. You can go to court and try to get them back but, well, good luck with that. Good luck even visiting them.  Then they offer the alternative: Just sign this little piece of paper in which you “voluntarily” agree to have us place the children with someone nearby – usually a relative.

Of course no lawyer for the family ever looks at that piece of paper first, or explains to the family their rights.  The parents’ only explanation of what the piece of paper means is what the caseworker tells them it means. And while many of these placements are theoretically short-term, in some of the North Carolina cases these agreements effectively involve signing away rights to a child forever.

            It happens all over the country – but only in North Carolina has a judge found it to be illegal. 

            The North Carolina scandal does not mean the practice is illegal everywhere, let alone that there is criminal behavior – there have been no such allegations anywhere else. Nor does it mean that other programs operate as the North Carolina program operated.  But in all its forms hidden foster care is a pernicious practice that should be abolished.  Unfortunately, it is spreading.

            ● In Oregon, the state child welfare agency is using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to expand the practice. I have a blog post about it here.

            ● Another version of the practice involves a program called Safe Families. Proponents would argue that Safe Families is different because, typically, parents themselves reach out to the program and ask that a “host family” take in their children temporarily, and the family promises to return the children on request.  But it doesn’t always work out that way.  Back when the program first began, more than a decade ago, I warned on this Blog that it is really sugar-frosted foster care.

            Now “Safe Families” is seeking to begin operations in New York – and the state Office of Children and Family Services has proposed regulations to allow this. 

In promoting this expansion into New York, Safe Families wrongly claimed support from some family advocates.  In this detailed comment on the proposed rules, those advocates say their views were misrepresented.  They, and other signers, make clear they strongly oppose the program in its current form.  The parents at Rise, a magazine written by parents caught up in the system, also oppose it.

            The move in Oregon is one of several attempts by child protective services agencies to use COVID-19 as an excuse to seize even more power and run roughshod over minimal due process protections for children and families.  On this front there is good news and bad news.

First the good news: Two attempted power grabs, both in California, have failed, at least for now.  An unholy alliance between Big Pharma and Big Foster failed to persuade the California Legislature to weaken laws restricting the use of powerful sometimes dangerous psychiatric medications on vulnerable populations, including foster children.

And to his credit – and to my surprise – the head of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services wisely refused to cooperate with a scheme by the County Sheriff to send uniformed officers to “check” on children – even when there’d been no complaint at all of any form of abuse or neglect. I’ve updated my blog post about it.

Now the bad news: A court in Cook County has dismissed a challenge to the state child welfare agency’s blanket ban on in-person visits between children and families. The judge ruled that the families challenging the ban had other remedies in their specific cases.  But as John Kelly explains in his story for the Chronicle of Social Change, even as the judge was issuing her ruling, those other remedies appeared to vanish almost before everyone’s eyes.

The hearing, conducted by video, of course, is online here. I’ve cued the video to the conclusion of the Cook County Public Defender’s impassioned explanation of why the ban does so much harm to children.  And see also this statement from the Shriver Center on Poverty Law and the Movement for Family Power.

            ● Shanta Trivedi, clinical fellow at the University of Baltimore Bronfein Family Law Clinic, writes in Slate about why all those “pandemic of child abuse” stories are wrong.

            ● Vivek Sankaran writes about what courts should look like when we get back to something resembling normal.

            ● In Rise, Kenya Franklin writes about the ultimate vindication: not only getting her children back, but successfully suing the child welfare agency for wrongfully taking them in the first place.

            ● And journalist Sylvia Harvey has an important new book about a crucial area where child welfare and law enforcement overlap. It’s called The Shadow System: Mass Incarcertation and the American Family.  Ms. Harvey is interviewed about the book here.