Tuesday, August 25, 2020

NCCPR News and commentary round-up, week ending August 25, 2020

● We start with the call to action from the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.  Under the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), with some limited exceptions states are required to petition courts to terminate children’s rights to their parents (that’s what termination of parental rights really means) if the children have been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. This applies even if the children never should have been taken, and even if the time in foster care was prolonged due to agency failure.

That’s bad enough for children in normal times. Now, COVID-19 has placed new barriers in front of these children, often denying them in-person visits that are crucial for reunification, and denying families the services to which they are entitled in order to meet requirements imposed on them by agencies themselves. (Often the services are little more than hoops to jump through, but now even the hoops have been moved farther away.)

That’s why Rep. Gwen Moore, (D-Wis.) has introduced legislation to suspend the ASFA timelines in a time of public health crisis – such as now. Community Legal Services of Philadelphia has more information about the bill.  And the Shriver Center on Poverty Law has a call to action. Click here to see how you can support the #StopTheClock bill.

There’s been a lot written over the past year about a medical specialty called “child abuse pediatrics” and the disconcerting habit of some of the specialists to see child abuse whether it’s there or not.  But now Stephanie Clifford, the author of the landmark New York Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow” adds a whole new dimension.

Writing for The Atlantic and The Marshall Project, she zeros in on potential conflicts due to the fact that child abuse pediatricians often get part of their salary from child protective services agencies.  And she looks closely at how racial and class bias are effectively baked in to the model. She writes:

 To be certified, child-abuse pediatricians must “understand the influence of caregiver characteristics,” such as young parental age and military service, on abuse risk, along with “family poverty” and “family race and ethnicity,” according to an American Board of Pediatrics’ examination guide for the specialty obtained by The Marshall Project.

Doctors overdiagnose abuse in children they perceive as being lower-income or nonwhite. In a 2017 study, researchers gave child-abuse pediatricians cases of potential abuse with certain socioeconomic cues about the victims’ families, such as unemployed caregivers. When researchers reversed those cues—for example, by telling the doctors the caregivers were professionals—they found that diagnostic decisions changed in 40 percent of cases. A 2002 study showed that hospitals are more likely to report Black, Hispanic, and Native children for potentially abusive fractures, while other studies show that lower social class leads to more screening for abuse.

See also the excellent reporting on this topic from NBC News and the Houston Chronicle including this story about a hospital in Wisconsin where even other doctors are afraid to take their children if their children suffer an accidental injury.

● The same mindset that plagues child abuse pediatrics plagues so-called “children’s advocacy centers” where children sometimes are taken for what is supposed to be an objective determination of whether abuse actually took place.

But the head of their own trade association effectively declared that every child they are not seeing this year because of fewer referrals during the pandemic was, in fact, abused.  Again these are children the centers didn’t see – but somehow they just know every one of them was an abuse victim.  

She also urges people to call child protective services if they hear their neighbors yelling.  That’s far more likely to spread COVID-19 than to actually find there’s a child beater, torturer or rapist next door.  I have a blog post about all this, and the Washington Post’s shameful coverage of it.

● In the Boston Globe, Bianca Vázquez Toness reports on school districts harassing families with “educational neglect” reports when they couldn’t get their children online for classes. I have a blog post on it, with a link to the full story. Here’s an excerpt from the story:

Schools often read into situations involving children of color, imagining “something bad happening where there is nothing,” said Elizabeth McIntyre, attorney with the School to Prison Pipeline Intervention Project at Greater Boston Legal Services. One client she represented, a Black mother who worked as a hairdresser, was reported to DCF when she didn’t answer phone calls from the school when her child was having an emotional crisis. They called her three times within a 30-minute period, McIntyre said. “If she were a white parent who worked at a big law firm downtown ... the district would not file a [report].”

Now, the COVID-19 crisis and school closings have given schools new ways to surveil and punish parents, said Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice. That’s happening both through the close attention to online absenteeism and video conferencing that allows teachers to see inside a family’s home.

Schools aren’t calling DCF “in the suburbs, where kids are blowing off their online schooling,” he said. “It’s happening in communities of color.”

● This also has been a problem in New York City, where there was another protest against the city’s child welfare agency over the weekend.  News12 The Bronx reported on it.

● Lenore Skenazy writes in Reason about a recent court decision in a Kentucky – in a case that never should have required a court decision. She writes: 

Good news, parents: If you let your kids wait in the car for less than 10 minutes on a cool day—doors locked and fan on—a caseworker and sheriff are actually not allowed to come to your home, threaten to take your children away, and strip search the kids.

 These very basic rights were just vindicated the hard way: by a Kentucky mom in federal court.

And finally ...

● Earlier this month I wrote about a fearmongering story in The New York Times, the theme of which boiled down to: Oh my God! Children are being horribly abused because selfish caseworkers and their evil union have cut back on in-person visits, thereby preventing the same level of intrusion into the homes of overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite kids as occurred before COVID-19.

This week CBS8 in San Diego broadcast a story about a caseworker who did exactly what the Times story demanded – Well, actually it was a story about a memorial vigil for the caseworker. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Great news: We no longer need children’s advocacy centers! (If the head of their own trade association is to be believed.)

Turns out they know all the answers before they even ask the questions – so why bother?

The head of the trade association also says we should turn in our neighbors if we so much as hear yelling next door. That's far more likely to spread COVID-19 than it is to find actual child abuse. 

             The latest in a long line of stories repeating a stereotype about child abuse and COVID-19 that is rooted in racial and class bias contains at least one nugget of good news: We no longer need “Children’s Advocacy Centers”!  Well, at least if we can believe the head of their own trade association.

             I’ll explain how I reached this conclusion below, but first a recap.  The story, by Samantha Schmidt, was published online Wednesday in The Washington  Post.  I’m sure it never occurred to Ms. Schmidt that, at base, the assumption underlying it, and so many other such stories is racist:  Now that fewer mostly white, middle-class professionals have their “eyes” constantly on overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite children, their parents supposedly will unleash savagery upon them in pandemic proportions.

             

Yes, COVID-19 is putting more stress on everyone.  But why do we rush to assume that for poor people in general and poor Black people in particular the only way they’ll cope with it is to beat up their children?

             The myth has been debunked by the Associated Press, The Marshall Project  and Bloomberg CityLab  The AP story specifically calls into question a key element of Schmidt’s earlier reporting – but she repeated that reporting in her most recent story.

             Right now this racist stereotype is more dangerous than ever: It’s being used by right-wingers such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to put children in vastly more danger – by rushing them back to school in the middle of a pandemic.

 Decades of hype and hysteria

             The key problem is decades of conditioning, some of it intentional, through hype, hysteria and a barrage of horror stories, leading us to believe that there’s a child abuser under every bad, and beatings rape and torture are rampant.  They are not.  In fact, 97 percent of all calls to child abuse hotlines are false reports or “neglect” cases – which often means a family is poor. 

 

Results of calls to child abuse "hotlines."
(Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,"Child Maltreatment, 2018."
Detailed discussion here.)


           But journalists absorb the images and the stereotypes just like everybody else. Without ever intending to, they perpetuate a cycle of misunderstanding. Then, people such as DeSantis take advantage of it, sending the false, ugly message that parents, particularly poor nonwhite parents, are more of a danger to their own children than the coronavirus.

             Schmidt indulges these fears with the rhetoric in her story. She tells us that the lack of mostly white eyes on disproportionately nonwhite children makes it “terrifyingly difficult to keep a watchful eye on children who are being abused.”  

             So let’s stop right here: Imagine if a reporter wrote that curbs on stop-and-frisk policing make it “terrifyingly difficult to stop a crime wave.”  The claim would be denounced for what it is: racist.  So why are standards for journalism and for racial justice so easily abandoned as soon as someone whispers the words “child abuse” in our ears?

             In fact, just as stop-and-frisk does not reduce crime, research makes clear that the surveillance state approach to child abuse  – all those “watchful eyes” calling child abuse hotlines to report anything and everything – has backfired and made all children less safe.  That is what should really terrify us.            

              In fact, research makes clear that the surveillance state approach – all those “watchful eyes” calling child abuse hotlines to report anything and everything – has backfired and made all children less safe.

             The rhetorical overindulgence continues when Schmidt characterizes the decline in reports to child abuse hotlines.  Yes, there have been significant declines in the number of calls, but at the current rate, several million children still will be subjected to such reports this year – and more than nine out of ten are likely to be false reports.

 No data justify concluding that calls have dropped nearly to zero. But Schmidt still writes, in two stories, as if that’s what happened. She refers to  “the few reports getting through to hotlines…” 

The advocacy center survey

             The heart of the story is a survey conducted by a trade association for “Children’s Advocacy Centers.”  They say that from January through June of 2020 they saw 40,000 fewer children than during the same period in 2019 – a decline of 21 percent.

But that’s not the real revelation in the story.

 Children sometimes are taken to such centers to be interviewed and given a medical examination by child abuse specialists.  At their best, such places have the potential to reduce the trauma of investigation for children; they need only be interviewed once, on videotape in a safe and welcoming setting.  But that assumes that the people doing the interviewing and the examining are open-minded about the central question: Was the child, in fact, abused?

             The real revelation is that the centers, or at least their trade association, have already made up their minds before they even see the children.  Says the head of the association, Teresa Huizar:   “What we really believe” says Huizar, is that 40,000 fewer children seen means “there are 40,000 fewer kids who haven’t been saved from abuse.” [Emphasis added.]

             Well then, if you already know this, why bother putting the children through the exam and interviews at all? Why have a center to  pose a question to which you already claim to know the answer?

             What this really reveals is the mindset of much of child abuse medicine when it comes to parents or other family members: You’re guilty until proven innocent and you can’t really prove yourself innocent.  As it happens,  Schmidt’s story ran on the same day as this expose in The Atlantic and The Marshall Project of “child abuse pediatricians” and the whole culture they represent – something exposed earlier by NBC News and the Houston Chronicle.

             Those stories included one about a hospital where even other doctors said they would be afraid to take their own children if they had an accidental injury because the “child abuse pediatricians” were so fanatical about seeing abuse – whether it was there or not.  And the Atlantic story noted that “Doctors overdiagnose abuse in children they perceive as being lower-income or nonwhite.”

            In fact, the story reveals, bias is baked into the training for child abuse pediatricians:

             To be certified, child-abuse pediatricians must “understand the influence of caregiver characteristics,” such as young parental age and military service, on abuse risk, along with “family poverty” and “family race and ethnicity,” according to an American Board of Pediatrics’ examination guide for the specialty obtained by The Marshall Project.

             Huizar’s remarks reveal how deep the same sorts of biases go at children’s advocacy centers themselves.  And the center Schmidt’s story discusses most, in Washington, D.C., has a particularly disturbing record. 

An earlier story reflects the same mindset

             These are the same sorts of sources Schmidt relied on for an April 30 story using anecdotes from a handful of hospitals to suggest a nationwide surge in serious cases of abuse – along with the implication that there may be vastly more such cases hidden because all those mostly white, professional “eyes” weren’t spotting them.  It was bad enough relying on so little evidence then, but in June, the AP called the claim into question.  According to the AP story:

            When the coronavirus pandemic took hold across the United States …  many child-welfare experts warned of a likely surge of child abuse.

             Fifteen weeks later, the worries persist. Yet some experts on the front lines, including pediatricians who helped sound the alarm, say they have seen no evidence of a marked increase. 

            Among them is Dr. Lori Frasier, who heads the child-protection program at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center and is president of a national society of pediatricians specializing in child abuse prevention and treatment.

            Frasier said she got input in recent days from 18 of her colleagues across the country and “no one has experienced the surge of abuse they were expecting.”

             Yet in Wednesday’s story,  Schmidt repeats the outdated claim, citing her earlier story.

             She goes on to quote with obvious approval efforts to turn people who still see children into spies:

             Some school districts have sought to train staff in how to spot potential signs of abuse virtually, in online classes or meetings. In some cases, children’s advocacy centers have tried to reach children in new ways, slipping messages into supply bags or into homework lessons.   

 In the earlier story she cited with obvious approval a school district training employees delivering meals to impoverished children at their homes to do some spying while they’re at it. 

How it hurts children 

            All of this hurts children in so many ways: 

            ● It makes children more vulnerable to enormously traumatic needless investigations and stripsearches.  One study found that this trauma will be inflicted on more than half of all Black children before they grow up. 

            ● It makes children more vulnerable to being consigned to the chaos of foster care – an inherently devastating experience emotionally,  often leading to devastating outcomes in later life, and one where the likelihood of abuse is shockingly high.

             ● The constant demands to turn helpers into spies drives people under stress away from seeking voluntary help.  Would you accept a meal delivered by someone who’s also supposed to spy on you and report the slightest suspicion that you are abusing or neglecting your kids?

             

              ● It increases the risk of COVID-19, not only by helping people like Ron DeSantis force schools to reopen, but also through needless investigations in which caseworkers march through homes, interview people at close quarters and poke through closets, cupboards and refrigerators – and then move on to more homes to do the same.

             ● And it does something else: It perpetuates the biggest real barrier to finding the very few children in real danger: caseworkers so overloaded with false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect that they don’t have time to investigate any case properly.

               None of this seemed to occur to Huizar when, in a similar story promoting her survey in Insider, she frantically urges us all to report our slightest suspicions – even hearing neighbors yelling at each other, Huizar says, should be enough to bring down the full weight of the child abuse police upon families who are almost always poor and disproportionately nonewhite.  Declares Huizar:               

"If you suspect that, turn it over to professionals who are absolutely able to suss out whether it's the normal pressures of COVID that's causing the yelling next door, or if it's something truly abusive and traumatic going on."

             This is wrong on so many levels.

             ● For starters when you call a child abuse hotline, the person who comes to the door to check out the yelling probably won’t be much of a professional. More likely s/he’ll be essentially an amateur. In most states child protective services investigators (the child abuse police) need have only a bachelor’s degree in fields vaguely related to the work and a short training course.

             ● These professionals’ track record for racial bias and class bias has been documented over and over.  And, as noted above, the same goes for the medical "professionals" who examine children who allegedly have been abused.

            

             ● Right now, in addition to all the other trauma inflicted on children by needless investigations, investigating a family just because a neighbor hears them yelling is more likely to spread COVID-19 than it is to reveal that a child is actually being beaten or tortured.

             ● And Huizar herself has said there is nothing to suss – she’s already made up her mind that every child not being seen by children’s advocacy centers due to the reduction in reporting has been abused.  (She said it again in the Insider story.)

An endless loop of confirmation bias

             A motif throughout Schmidt’s reporting boils down to “See, we told you so!”  So, child abuse physicians predict there will be more child abuse and now, see?  Sure enough!  She quotes Huizar: “What we were dreading did, in fact, happen.” While promoting the story on Twitter, Schmidt herself tweets:  “We already knew child abuse was going undetected.”

             Actually, we don’t know that.  We know that some child abuse always has gone undetected.  It’s possible more is undetected now. It’s even more likely that more real abuse is being found – because workers are not being deluged with as many false reports, trivial cases and cases in which poverty is confused with neglect, leaving them more time to find children who might be in real danger.

             There is actually a hint of this in the story itself.  In Washington D.C. from January through June, calls to the district’s child abuse hotline declined by 32 percent, but the number of children seen at the children’s advocacy center declined by only three percent.  That suggests that most of the decline in hotline calls does indeed involve calls that never should have been made in the first place. (The decline in children seen is greater in Virginia and Maryland, but the story provides no comparison figure for the decline in hotline calls in those states.)

             Schmidt’s reporting on this issue is part of an endless loop of confirmation bias: The doctors say they know what’s going to happen – so that’s what they see. The head of the trade association for children’s advocacy centers declares every child they see to be abused – before they’re even seen.  They tell the reporters. The reporters also were expecting this to be the case, so they don’t talk to anyone who will challenge that master narrative.  The doctors read the stories and it confirms what they “knew” all along.            

 Schmidt has not broken free of the bubble of sources who confirm what she already thinks.  What would she find if she went out into poor communities?  What if she spoke to leaders of the Movement for Black Lives? They have a very different take on the whole system, (Click on the link and scroll down to “Foster care and child welfare”.)  What if she consulted scholars such as Prof. Dorothy Roberts, author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (and an NCCPR Board Member)?  What if she spoke to the authors of this report from the Movement for Family Power?  What if she reached out to  the people marching in the streets of New York City who think children would be safer if the entire child welfare agency were abolished? 

             You don’t have to agree with their perspective to understand that a journalist’s job includes seeking out well-informed perspectives with which s/he is not comfortable – and sharing them with readers.

            Schmidt’s source bubble is the equivalent of covering criminal justice by talking only to police and prosecutors. That was never a good idea, but now journalists understand this when it comes to police. So why not when it comes to child welfare?

           Kendra Hurley understood this when she reported her story for CityLab.  This is some of what she found:

           Some parents living in neighborhoods with historically high rates of child welfare investigations say the dramatic dip in maltreatment reports [due to COVID-19]  feels more like the pollution lifting — a much-needed respite from the intense and relentless surveillance of low-income moms, and especially those who are black and Latinx. …

 One parent told [family advocate Joyce McMillan]: “They’re not opening my refrigerator. They’re not opening my dresser drawers. They’re not strip-searching my children and they’re not asking me to take their clothes off for the camera, because that would be child pornography.”

             The data from D.C. are one more indication that what we really may be seeing is not some kind of silent pandemic of child abuse. We may simply be seeing the pollution lifting.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Some Massachusetts school districts (can you guess which ones?) used child abuse reports to harass families whose kids couldn’t get online for school. The state child welfare agency encourages it.

Excellent reporting by The Boston Globe shows how one district betrayed a mother who came forward seeking help. But that’s only the beginning.

 READ THE FULL GLOBE STORY HERE

             On the surface this excellent story by Bianca Vázquez Toness of the Boston Globe is about just one aspect of child welfare’s failed, racist response to COVID-19 – school districts calling in child abuse reports on poor families who couldn’t get their children online for classes. (It’s not the first such story; the online news site The City wrote about how New York City schools are doing it, too.)

             Were that all there was to the story it still would be an important contribution to understanding how child welfare is making everything worse for poor families trying to cope with the coronavirus.  But this story actually reveals much more: It reveals, once again, how racism is embedded in every American institution and it reveals how our massive child welfare surveillance state has backfired, adding immeasurably to the stress on poor families, driving them away from seeking voluntary help, and actually making it harder to find the relatively few children in real danger.

             Indeed, the Globe story serves as a perfect illustration of what Prof. Kelley Fong found in her groundbreaking scholarship about the child welfare system in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

             So let’s take a closer look. 

             The first point – about where, exactly, school districts are prone to harass families with child abuse reports because parents couldn’t get their kids to class online, will come as no surprise:

 The trend was most common in high-poverty, predominantly Black and Latino school districts in Worcester, Springfield, Haverhill, and Lynn; advocates and lawyers reported few, if any, cases from wealthier communities.

          Perhaps a little more surprising, and even more discouraging, is the role the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families is playing in this harassment: They’re encouraging it.           

School staff are required to notify DCF when they have “reasonable cause to believe” a child has been abused or neglected. Indeed, during the pandemic, the state explicitly reaffirmed to school districts that teachers should report parents if students were “repeatedly truant/missing from their school programming and attempts to provide resources have been ignored or refused.”

            Or maybe that’s not surprising for an agency which, year after year, tears apart families at a rate far above the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in. 

The story goes on to show us that this isn’t really new. COVID-19 has highlighted and worsened a pre-existing condition. And it shows us that the definition of “ignored or refused” depends a lot on the family’s race.  Again, from the story: 

Schools often read into situations involving children of color, imagining “something bad happening where there is nothing,” said Elizabeth McIntyre, attorney with the School to Prison Pipeline Intervention Project at Greater Boston Legal Services. One client she represented, a Black mother who worked as a hairdresser, was reported to DCF when she didn’t answer phone calls from the school when her child was having an emotional crisis. They called her three times within a 30-minute period, McIntyre said. “If she were a white parent who worked at a big law firm downtown ... the district would not file a [report].” 

Now, the COVID-19 crisis and school closings have given schools new ways to surveil and punish parents, said Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice. That’s happening both through the close attention to online absenteeism and video conferencing that allows teachers to see inside a family’s home. 

Schools aren’t calling DCF “in the suburbs, where kids are blowing off their online schooling,” he said. “It’s happening in communities of color.” 

            But perhaps most important, the Globe story illustrates a key finding from Prof. Fong’s work: The system betrays families that seek help, and drives them away from that help. The Globe tells the story of an immigrant mother whose first language is Spanish: 

Her young son’s behavior became difficult after schools closed in March, the woman said, adding that the boy clearly missed the structure and routines. She reached out to school staff for advice. “I was desperate,” she said. “I just wanted some techniques.” The mother met with a school therapist on Zoom, and asked about how to handle her son’s outbursts. 

Although there was a language barrier — the meeting was held in English even though the mother struggles with the nuances of the language — she thought the conversation went well. “She seemed concerned and was very polite,” the mother said of the school therapist. “I felt trust.” 

So she was shocked a few days later to receive a call from DCF. Someone from the school had alleged “general neglect” based on “behaviors observed or disclosed during remote learning.” 

The timing of the call — just days after her call with the therapist — made her think it was the reason the school called DCF. She suspected that something she said during her meeting with the therapist was misunderstood. 

“Maybe it was my English,” she said. 

            So maybe encouraging helpers to be spies on poor families isn’t such a good idea after all.  Maybe it’s time to reconsider the whole child welfare surveillance state, with its emphasis on a failed system of mandatory reporting that, even as it drives families away from help, overloads agencies with false reports so they have less time to find children in real danger.  The surveillance state that Massachusetts DCF is encouraging, and all those school districts love, makes all children less safe.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 18, 2020


● #StopTheClock Take one racist law, add a racist response to a pandemic and what do you get? A formula for family destruction. The law is the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), passed at the same time – and built on the same foundation of racial and class bias as the “welfare bill” and the “crime bill.”

Among its many odious provisions: With limited exceptions, states must move to terminate a child’s right to her or his parents (that’s what “termination of parental rights” really means) if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months. The requirement applies even if the child never should have been taken away and even if the time elapsed due to agency stalling and/or incompetence.

Now, child welfare’s poor response to the pandemic has drastically curbed in-person visits between foster children and their parents - considered essential for reunification – and, in many cases, cut off parents from the services they need to reunify. (Often the services do no good; they’re hoops families must jump through, but now even the hoops sometimes have been taken away.)  But the ASFA clock keeps ticking.

Rep. Gwen Moore, (D-Wis.) has introduced legislation to #StopTheClock during a public health emergency. Full details, including links to the bill text, an article from The Imprint, Rep. Moore’s interview with Rise and more are on this resource page from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.  For additional context see this article from New York University Law School Professor (and NCCPR President) Martin Guggenheim, and this resource from NCCPR.

● The harm of residential treatment.  It really is a coincidence: NCCPR’s column for The Imprint on why residential treatment should be abolished, because it’s not just a matter of a few “rotten apples” ran at the same time as the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed the horrors in one of the industry’s biggest “orchards,” the Devereux McTreatment chain.  That story included this remarkably revealing statement by a top official at Devereux concerning abuse in residential treatment:

 

I wrote about it in this Blog post.  The Inquirer has run the traditional follow-up story in which various government officials and agencies who should have realized how bad things were all along are now expressing their shock and outrage.

● On racism in child welfare. Just about everyone suddenly claims to have noticed that there is racism in the child welfare. A lot of them just put out statements drenched in hypocrisy that are belied by their actions. But there are some notable, impressive exceptions. One of them is Cathy Krebs who directs the American Bar Association Children’s Rights Litigation Committee. In The Imprint she writes:

 

It can be challenging and even painful to acknowledge that despite good intentions, our child welfare system often does more harm than good. Moreover, because investigating child abuse and neglect and protecting children should be a neutral goal, it is harder still to confront that our system is particularly destructive to Black children and families. …

Beyond the statistics, we often see evidence of systemic racism in our individual cases. It is evident every time we remove a Black child from a family when we know a similarly situated white family would not have their child removed. It is evident every time we place a Black child into congregate care rather than into a relative’s home for the sole reason that the system deems that home to be too small, as families of color and various cultures live in a wide variety of arrangements, as compared with the more typical white, suburban, American household. 

● More about racism in child welfare. Several others worth taking seriously have columns in the most recent issue of the federal government’s Children’s Bureau Express.  I haven’t yet read them all, but notable among those I’ve read are columns by the Bureau’s Associate Commissioner, Jerry Milner, and his Special Assistant David Kelly, the Birth Parent National Network, Bethany Christian Services (that one surprised me, but their comments condemning ASFA suggest they may be serious) Judy Meltzer, president of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, and Prof. Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School who writes:

When a case enters the juvenile court, we proceed without recognizing the oppressive policies that contributed to the family's instability. We impose strict time limits on reunification even when we know that decades of systemic racism played a role in the family's predicament. We celebrate the destruction of families despite acknowledging that families in our system never got the support they deserve, both before and after they became involved with child welfare.

● And more … The racism in child welfare is aptly revealed in this Boston Globe story about school districts calling in child abuse reports against parents who couldn’t always get their students online for classes – but not all school districts, of course.  As Bianca Vázquez Toness reports:

 The trend was most common in high-poverty, predominantly Black and Latino school districts in Worcester, Springfield, Haverhill, and Lynn; advocates and lawyers reported few, if any, cases from wealthier communities.

 As with so much else, COVID-19 has highlighted and worsened, a pre-existing condition  Again, from the story:

 

Schools often read into situations involving children of color, imagining “something bad happening where there is nothing,” said Elizabeth McIntyre, attorney with the School to Prison Pipeline Intervention Project at Greater Boston Legal Services. One client she represented, a Black mother who worked as a hairdresser, was reported to DCF when she didn’t answer phone calls from the school when her child was having an emotional crisis. They called her three times within a 30-minute period, McIntyre said. “If she were a white parent who worked at a big law firm downtown ... the district would not file a [report].”

 Now, the COVID-19 crisis and school closings have given schools new ways to surveil and punish parents, said Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice. That’s happening both through the close attention to online absenteeism and video conferencing that allows teachers to see inside a family’s home.

 Schools aren’t calling DCF “in the suburbs, where kids are blowing off their online schooling,” he said. “It’s happening in communities of color.”

 ● And still more … I got a lesson in how what Krebs calls “unnoticed, unresolved” racism permeates child welfare this week.

It began when some Oregon legislators made the preposterous claim that one in seven children is abused every year.  I wrote a blog post about it.  Then, I learned that the source of this claim was a misreading of a slipshod summary of a study. Then I discovered that, without ever intending to do so, the study authors included a definition of abuse tainted by racism. This particular study, a national survey, has been repeated over and over for decades. But I’d never noticed the racial bias problem before. Here’s the updated blog post.

● When “Florida Man” is the governor. The racist false narrative about how, now that mostly white, professional “eyes” aren’t on poor nonwhite kids, their parents will unleash a pandemic of child abuse – a narrative created and fueled largely by the political left (and amplified by credulous media) is now being used by at least one far-right politician, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, to push his dangerous agenda of forcing schools in the state to reopen. I have a blog post about it.

● You can’t fight trauma with trauma. Karen de Sa, editor of The Imprint and reporter Nadra Nittle take an in-depth look at California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ attempt to fight trauma with trauma – inflicting an Adverse Childhood Experiences survey, and with it, the risk of getting caught in the web of child protective services, on millions of impoverished Californians.  That is not, of course, how the story puts it, it’s my interpretation, something I’ve written about before.

 But according to the story:

 [S]creening for adverse childhood experiences has been met with growing concern among health researchers and child welfare experts in the U.S. and abroad. While few doubt that severe stress in childhood can lead to ailments later in life, tools such as PEARLS used during doctors’ appointments are described in prominent scientific journals as inappropriate and unethical, oversimplifying human experience and straining doctor-patient trust. Critics also warn that answers on the forms could lead more families in low-income and Black and brown communities to become entangled with child welfare authorities. What’s more, physicians who aren’t familiar with trauma may inadvertently harm patients by the very nature of the questions, and their sensitivity.

 ● And finally … There is some better news from Minnesota, where the Black Civic Network has joined the fight to pass the African American Family Preservation Act.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Florida’s right-wing governor exploits the Left’s false narrative about child abuse to promote his COVID-19 recklessness


Melania Trump, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Casey DeSantis

(See? Who says Left and Right can’t work together?)

             Among the nation’s governors it would be hard to find one whose botched the response to coronavirus worse than Florida’s own “mini-Trump” Ron DeSantis.

             He locked down too late, reopened too soon, bragged about the reopening – and helped turn his state into an epicenter of the pandemic.  Chris Cuomo https://youtu.be/LZ2OHfUAZcM on June 30: “Ignoring a pandemic doesn’t make it go away.”


             But DeSantis didn’t learn from any of this. Now he is pushing, fanatically, to reopen Florida schools.  He even threatened to cut off all state aid to a school district that simply proposed to delay in-person classes by one month.

             But before you say: “Well, what do you expect from that right-winger?,” consider: His most effective weapon in pushing this dangerous agenda is a trope created and spread mostly by a bunch of liberals – the American child welfare establishment.

             DeSantis exploited what has become a standard liberal-created, media fueled – and racist – master narrative: Now that fewer mostly white middle class professionals have their “eyes” constantly on overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite children, their parents supposedly will unleash upon their children a “pandemic of child abuse”?

             Yes, the pandemic is putting more stress on everyone.  But why do we rush to assume that for poor people in general and poor Black people in particular the only way they’ll cope with it is to beat up their children?

              The myth continues to spread, even after news organizations such as the Associated Press, The Marshall Project and Bloomberg CityLab debunked it.  And in Florida, Prof. Robert Latham, Associate Director of the University of Miami School of Law Children and Youth Law Clinic,  and child welfare’s best number cruncher, has pored over the data and posted the results on his blog. He’s found no evidence for a pandemic of hidden child abuse in Florida.

            

 But who cares about facts?  When Ron DeSantis wanted the perfect excuse for opening schools, all he had to do was whisper the magic words: “child abuse.”  Or as a headline in the Orlando Sentinel put it: “DeSantis touts return to school to counter suspected rise in child abuse amid coronavirus.”

             Actually, he got his secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, Chad Poppell to do the touting at a media event in Sarasota.  According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune Poppell said:

             There are concerns that keeping children out of school will lead to abuse cases going unreported.

            “We’ve been going for five-plus months; it is horrible to think about a child stuck in a (abuse) situation” for that long, Poppell said.

 There is, of course, no evidence that any more children are actually stuck in an abuse situation than before. And in fact, more children in real danger may be discovered because what are being “lost” are largely false reports, trivial cases, and cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.”

             But it didn’t stop there.  Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis chimed in with the claim that in March, when the pandemic began, the number of children who were subjects of calls to Florida’s child abuse hotline was 20,000 lower than in March, 2019. Said Ms. DeSantis:

           “20,000 less [sic] individuals being reported to the child crisis hotline. That’s 250 school buses packed full of kids one right after the other, that’s how many kids are not getting a chance to tell their stories.”

             Or as public radio station WFME put it in its own breathless headline: “In Florida, 20,000 Fewer Children Got Help for Abuse, Neglect at the Start of the Pandemic.”

             Amazing how much misinformation you can pack into a single headline: National data suggest that at least 91 percent of those children were not abused or neglected and most of the rest probably had their poverty confused with neglect.  But WFME declares all their parents guilty, and all the children abused or neglected.  As for the “got help” part, that’s not what the child welfare system does. It’s a policing system.

             It is far more likely that 20,000 children were spared the enormous trauma of a needless child abuse investigation, while workers were given time to find the very few in real danger. 

            So while Florida media have been careful to note that, why yes, there are dangers in opening schools in the middle of a pandemic, they have accepted without so much as a hint of skepticism the governor’s most potent argument for reopening schools: The false narrative that the typical impoverished nonwhite parent is more of a danger to her or his own children than the coronavirus.  (Even this claim is not limited to the right. Self-proclaimed liberal Prof. James Dwyer claims schools never should have closed at all!)

             As Gov. DeSantis continues to botch the response to COVID-19, Florida media, and a largely liberal child welfare establishment, have been his great enablers.