Wednesday, September 30, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending September 29, 2020

● It’s a common lament among those of us seeking to reform child welfare: If only there were bodycam video during child abuse investigations, people would understand.  This time, there is.  This story, from Reason, includes that video.  Please be warned: It is extremely difficult to watch – which is why we all need to watch it.

 ● In Australia, a predictive analytics algorithm that wreaked havoc in the lives of poor people because of a 20 percent failure rate was declared illegal.  So what would happen if a child welfare predictive analytics algorithm was found to have a failure rate of more than 99 percent?  Why, it would be declared a huge success, of course!  I have a blog post about it.

● Advocates from Left and Right join together in this column for the New York Daily News to explain why we need the #stoptheclock legislation to pause the federal requirement to rush to terminate children’s rights to their parents when there’s a public health crisis.  And you can support the legislation by clicking here.

 ● Ever notice how the official figures agencies report about abuse in foster care are vastly lower than what independent researchers find? This story from the Arizona Republic may help explain why that happens.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Pittsburgh’s child welfare predictive analytics model has a failure rate of up to 99.8% – according to their own study. (So why are they calling this success?)

Pittsbugh's predictive analytics algorithm slaps a "scarlet number" risk score
on every child 
who is the subject of a report alleging neglect. 
And they're trying to do it to every child at birth.

Yesterday’s post to this blog noted that in Australia, an algorithm that wreaked havoc in the lives of poor people receiving public assistance was ruled illegal after it had a failure rate of 20 percent.  But apparently, in America, if you just whisper the words “child abuse” in everybody’s ears, even a failure rate of up to 99.8 percent is o.k.


          Here’s the thing about those predictive analytics algorithms that supposedly can predict who is going to abuse a child: They tend to fail spectacularly.

           In Los Angeles, the county decided not to roll out a predictive analytics model known as AURA after preliminary tests showed that 95 percent of the time when the algorithm predicted that a parent or guardian would do something terrible to a child – they didn’t.

           In Illinois, a program spreading across the country, Rapid Safety Feedback, managed to sound alarms on thousands of innocent families – and miss children in real danger.

           But what about Allegheny County, Pa. (metropolitan Pittsburgh)?  That’s the program that was supposed to be different from all the others.  That’s the one reporters all over the country have swooned over.  That’s the one where the algorithm is supposedly transparent (it isn’t). That’s the one certified ethical (but one of the ethics reviewers co-authored papers with one of the program’s designers).  Turns out the Allegheny Family Screening Tool doesn’t get it wrong 95 percent of time.  AFST gets it wrong up to 99.8 percent of the time.  That’s according to a study co-authored by the people who created AFST in the first place.

           And yet, they’re touting this as a success. 

 How AFST works

           AFST is used to screen reports of neglect and decide whether to send out a caseworker to investigate. (In Pennsylvania, any abuse report sent on from the state’s child abuse hotline must be investigated.) 

          AFST then consults a vast treasure trove of data gathered disproportionately on poor families without their informed consent. It then coughs up a risk score between 1 and 20 - a "scarlet number" that can wind up haunting a child for life.   And they're trying to do it to every child at birth.


Twenty is a risk level so high it literally flashes red on the screens of those responsible for deciding whether to send out an investigator - and the humans are strongly discouraged from overriding the algorithm.

           So of course if the risk score is 20, the investigators must be finding lots and lots of horrific child abuse, right?

Study findings

           Well, let’s see what the study found.

           The Pittsburgh study used a methodology similar to the study of AURA in Los Angeles.  They applied the AFST algorithm to past cases.  Then they looked at records from Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, a division of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), to see how many of the children identified by AFST as high risk or low risk turned up at the hospital with an injury the hospital deemed to be child abuse.

           For low-risk cases  2/100ths of one percent eventually turned up with such an injury.  But for cases that got a risk score of 20, fully  two tenths of one percent – yes, two tenths of one percent! -- actually turned up at the hospital.  

            In other words, the odds of impurity in a bar of Ivory Soap are greater than the odds of a child labeled extremely high risk by AFST turning up at the Children's Hospital ER with an abuse-related injury.

           The conclusion of the researchers (most of whom also designed AFST) boils down to: See how great our algorithm is?  Those with a higher risk score were more likely to suffer an injury.  Indeed, the New Zealand “institute” run by one of the designers of the study put out a statement declaring:

 New research co-authored by Rhema Vaithianathan [the co-designer of AFST] and Diana Benavides-Prado confirms that children identified as at risk by the Allegheny Family Screening Tool, … are also at considerably heightened risk of injury, abuse and self-harm hospitalisation.

           Nowhere does the statement explain that “considerably higher” means two-tenths-of-one percent.


So what about the other 99.8 percent?  Unless a human overrides the algorithm, the worker must go to the door, demand entry, search the entire home, poking into cabinets and cupboards and refrigerators (which, at the moment also means increasing the risk of spreading or contracting COVID-19).  They must interrogate every member of the family, often an enormously traumatic experience for a child.  And they may well stripsearch the children. 

          Roughly 99.8 percent of the time, it will be for nothing.  In addition to inflicting all that needless trauma, workers wasted time that could have been used to find the very few children in real danger. 

Disingenuous definitions 

          No doubt AFST proponents will argue that the 99.8 percent figure applies only to the most serious injuries – injuries that involved “hospitalization.”  The statement touting the results repeatedly uses that term, with no further explanation.

           But take a close look at how the study defines hospitalization.  The authors use the term interchangeably with “medical encounters.” While that can mean hospitalization, as in, it was so serious the child had to be admitted to the hospital, it also includes simple visits to an emergency room – which, for many poor people, is the family doctor. 

            It could also be argued that some injured children might show up at other ER's.  But most of them, especially those whose injury is serious or where there's a suspicion of abuse, are likely to wind up at the hospital where the study was done. That's because, according to the authors, "UPMC Children's Hospital is the sole provider of secondary [meaning specialized] care for children in the Allegheny County area."

           Of course, those with a risk score of 20 might also be more likely to be “neglected” – at least in the minds of a caseworker, which would make the true positive rate higher.  But neglect often simply means the family is poor.  We don’t need an algorithm or the child abuse police to find where the poor people are and help them, preferably with money.

            But even if you give AFST so much benefit of the doubt that we assume it's really five times more accurate than this study revealed, that still would mean AFST is wrong 99 percent of the time.

           None of this stopped the AFST co-designer/study-co-author from declaring that their study “proves” AFST can detect actual child abuse, not just system involvement. But even that isn’t clear.  The study defines child abuse as when someone at the hospital said it was child abuse.  When it comes to making these judgments, hospitals in general and UPMC in particular  haven’t always acted wisely.


No amount of tweaking the algorithm is going to improve this track record – and, in one sense, that’s good news.  What the study really shows, once again, is that “child abuse” of the sort that comes to mind when we hear those words actually is extremely rare.  Think of it: Of those children AFST rated at the very highest risk, up to 99.8 percent did not experience a child abuse injury that required either hospitalization or an ER visit.

           There is no way to refine an algorithm to find these very few needles in a huge haystack without sweeping into the net vast numbers of innocent families.

           That may be why even the editors of the journal that published the study, JAMA Pediatrics, appear skeptical.  In an editorial, they write:

Much harm can be done under the umbrella of good intentions, because big data is a big weapon. …  the concerns about the accuracy of the algorithm deployed should be of paramount importance, since the thread of historic biases in large data sets has become increasingly apparent. … The child abuse literature reports that both the evaluation of suspected abuse and subsequent diagnoses can contain racial biases. …

         The editors suggest a better approach they call 

the policy principle of proportionate universalism—broadly providing services or resources without targeting specific families or people. The target of strategies to decrease rates of child maltreatment would be better directed to community-based strategies that support children and families facing adversities and living in poverty.

           That sounds like a fancy way of saying: Find the poor people; send money.

Monday, September 28, 2020

In Australia an algorithm used by government was so destructive it was banned by the courts. Guess which algorithms are way worse.

           From a living room somewhere in suburban Melbourne, Australia, a history scholar who wanted to reach beyond an academic audience is producing some of the world’s finest satire.

          Giordano Nanni’s The Juice Media produces "Honest Government Ads" that are John Oliver-caliber satire. The usual target is the government of Australia, but they’ve expanded into U.S. issues as well. 

The reason I’m bringing all this up is because one of the videos deals with the horrible consequences of turning over the process of who supposedly is a welfare cheat to – an algorithm.  It was similar to the latest ugly, failed fad in American child welfare – using predictive analytics to predict who supposedly is likely to abuse a child.   

In a process nicknamed “robodebt” the Australian algorithm supposedly could figure out who was collecting too much.  The algorithm then sent out threatening letters – backed up by, apparently, the only humans in the process: debt collectors. 

But the algorithm was wrong at least 20 percent of the time, wreaking havoc in impoverished Australian families.  But let the AustraliEn [sic] Government explain:


 If that was a little heavy on Australian acronyms and slang, this story from New Statesman has a good explanation for an international audience. 

Last year, an Australian federal court ruled the whole thing illegal.  Clearly a 20 percent false positive rate was too outrageous to allow.  

And surely no agency intervening in the lives of the vulnerable anywhere in the world would accept, let alone brag about, an algorithm with an error rate of up to 99.8 percent. 

Or would they?  

Check out what's happening in Pittsburgh, Pa., USA. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending September 22, 2020

 Before getting to the news, two big events:

 ● On September 30, the Shriver Center on Poverty Law begins a series of webinars on the foster care system with Moving from Why to How: Parent Leaders’ Perspectives on the Movement for Child Welfare Justice

 ●The UpEND Movement has its website up and running, including details about its big virtual event at the end of October.

 Remember how little there was last week? I guess everyone was waiting for this week:

 ● First, two important stories debunking the racist “master narrative” involving child abuse and COVID-19: It is depressing to contemplate that, while several national news organizations have debunked the myth, this excellent story from Kate Masters of the Virginia Mercury might be the first local news story to challenge it.

 Instead of just rounding up the usual suspects, Masters also spoke to Valerie L’Herrou, staff attorney for the Virginia Poverty Law Center’s Family and Child Welfare Program, who said:

 “There’s this sort of false narrative that during the pandemic, there’s been this epidemic of children being beaten and otherwise harmed at home. But really, there never was, ever.  The reality is that a small percentage of the reports that are made have to do with abuse. The majority have to do with neglect.”

 In Teachers College Record, Professors Mical Raz and Frank Edwards deplore the use of this myth as a reason to endanger children by prematurely reopening schools:

 Schools are universally accepted as important. However, we argue, their importance is not as sites of surveillance and reporting of child abuse, and there is no evidence that school closures impede efforts to safeguard children from maltreatment.

 ● But, of course, this hasn’t stopped schools in New York City from harassing families with reports alleging “educational neglect” when their children can’t get online.  The City has an update to a story they broke last Spring.  (New York City is not alone.  In August, The Boston Globe reported on the problem in Massachusetts.)

 ● How do myths like the one about child abuse and COVID-19 become so entrenched? Decades of hype and hysteria from child welfare establishment groups who justify their distortions in the name of “raising awareness.”  But reporters get fooled over and over again.  In fact, one journalist argues that mainstream advocacy groups’ misrepresentation of issues related to sex trafficking helped pave the way for QAnon. I have a blog post about it, with links to his reporting.

● From the Indianapolis Star, Holly V. Hays has this story from a state that takes away children at one of the highest rates in the country:

 An Indianapolis couple is suing the Indiana Department of Child Services alleging the agency removed their two young children from their home under false pretenses and fabricated evidence that left them in foster care for months.

 There were several important stories and commentaries in The Imprint:

 ● Last year, a rigorous large-scale study proved that high-quality family defense reduces time in foster care with no compromise of child safety. Now, a follow-up study helps explain why it works.

 Vivek Sankaran warns that the COVID-19 crisis soon will become a housing crisis. And unless child welfare radically changes direction, that means even more families needlessly torn apart for lack of housing.  He writes: 

When teachers, doctors or neighbors learn of children living in these conditions, they may call Child Protective Services, driven by both mandatory reporting laws which broadly define neglect and a genuine desire to help. We’ve created a narrative that CPS has the tools to support families in crisis.  But that narrative is false.

 ● This jibes with what Prof. Kelley Fong found in her research when she embedded with a state child protective services agency. She writes about one mother who was subjected to an investigation because of a false report from a mandated reporter:

 The CPS report left [her] frustrated with the hospital social worker who notified CPS and wary of similar service providers going forward. “This social worker who spent four minutes with me in the hospital gets to determine strangers coming in,” she said, adding that she would hesitate to be so open next time: “If a social worker came into my room, I wouldn’t speak to anybody without my mother or somebody like a third party with me … I would, this time, now question a little more. Social worker, for discharge? Why? Why are you here? What purpose are you serving here for me?” This distrust and disengagement distances families from the systems tasked with assisting them.

 ● And a commentary by the director of Chapin Hall, one of the most regressive policy organizations in child welfare raises the question: Is Chapin Hall really going to change? I have a blog post on it. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

“You can’t just throw poison into the public consciousness”

For decades the child welfare establishment has been exaggerating numbers and hyping horror stories – but only to “raise awareness,” of course.  

That’s led to everything from the McMartin Preschool Satanic panic, to the vast oversurveillance of Black families by the child abuse police, to the tragic misuse and overuse of foster care, to the false, racist “master narrative” about child abuse and COVID-19. 

And now, one journalist argues, it’s even led to QAnon.

            Sex trafficking.

           What does that conjure up in your mind?  Probably a young woman or girl kidnapped off the street, smuggled in the back of a truck or on a plane and sold into sex slavery.

           That happens – just as the kind of horrors we think of when we hear the words “child abuse” happen.

           But both are, in fact, extremely rare.  And in both cases, the horror stories, spread on purpose by advocates who know better but want to “raise awareness,” have done enormous damage.

           Sex trafficking, in fact, means anytime someone who is underage trades sex for money, or food, or shelter; in short, to survive.  The overwhelming majority of victims are runaways. Some ran away from genuinely abusive homes.  The vast majority ran away from the foster homes and group homes to which they were consigned either because of that abuse or because of some other problem that could have been solved without resorting to foster care or, as so often happens, because their parents’ poverty was confused with “neglect.”  (And when it comes to group homes and institutions being a prime recruiting ground for sex trafficking, Congress may actually have made that problem worse.)

           In contrast, the total number of sex trafficking victims identified by the Department of Homeland Security last year who might fit the stereotype was 428.  Of course, some victims surely were not found.  But 428 is somewhat short of the estimate proffered by the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, which puts the figure at “potentially over 1 million.”

           I learned most of this from Michael Hobbes, a senior enterprise reporter for HuffPost who has made sex trafficking – and understanding its real causes – his beat.  He wrote about this in detail in February, but I only found out about it when he was interviewed by NPR’s On The Media earlier this month.


Get ready for the déjà vu


          Anyone who has followed the claims commonly made about child abuse by advocates and echoed by credulous media is about to have a case of déjà vu:


In his story Hobbes writes about the mainstream anti-sex trafficking groups that know full well the real causes of the problem and the real solutions, but they engage in fearmongering because they think it’s the only two-by-four with which to hit us over the head that’s big enough to get our attention.

           There are signs in airports telling people to call authorities if they suspect the person sitting next to you in the gate area with a child is actually a sex trafficker – even though, Hobbes notes, not one of the groups he spoke to could point to a single case of someone being smuggled through a U.S. airport by sex traffickers.

But there have been plenty of false alarms, thanks to the “warning signs” we’re supposed to look out for – warning signs which are, in fact, racist.

           Hobbes quotes Sabra Boyd, a writer and anti-trafficking advocate who was, in fact, trafficked, by her own father:

           “Almost all of the messages we get about trafficking are slanted toward imaginary victims, especially immigrant women and young children who look like they’re a different race than their parents.”

Hobbes continues:

           This scenario is already playing out in transit hubs across the country. Last September, flight attendants accused a white adoptive father of trafficking his Black 12-year-old son. In 2015, an eight-member Korean pop group was detained at LAX for 15 hours on suspicion that they were trafficked sex workers. Cindy McCain, an anti-trafficking advocate and wife of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), had to apologize last February for reporting a woman to Phoenix Sky Harbor authorities simply for walking through the airport with a child of a “different ethnicity.”

           Hobbes spoke to a senior staffer for one such group, who admitted they are deliberately misleading the public:


Sexual and labor coercion could be better addressed through government policy related to poverty, migration and working conditions, she added. As for why anti-trafficking nonprofits continue to repeat the same debunked myths about trafficking in their publicity campaigns, she said the sensationalized messaging was necessary to bring attention to the issue.

          “If we didn’t use the word ‘force,’” she said, “would anybody care?”


Enter QAnon


Hobbes wrote all this before there was much awareness of a crazy conspiracy theory – QAnon – which has the notion of vast international sex-trafficking rings at its core.

But it was very much in the news by the time Hobbes was interviewed for On The Media, which asked him to discuss a follow-up story he wrote about how the media had accepted all the usual breathless hype about a supposed sex trafficking ring that wasn’t.

 He called the tactics of mainstream anti human-trafficking groups in exaggerating numbers and hyping horror stories “totally immoral totally cynical and leading all kinds of unintended consequences” adding:           

You can’t just throw poison into the public consciousness willy-nilly because you end up with QAnon. QAnon stuff is only a 20% exaggeration of the kinds of myths we’ve been getting on human trafficking for 20 years now.  There’s not really that much of a difference between the QAnon version and what you can find on very mainstream human trafficking websites.  Once you’ve poisoned the well for that long, then you have people who will come along and poison it a little bit further …

 But this well has been poisoned for more than a century.  And what is even worse than the advocates who keep doing the poisoning is the willingness of journalists to drink from the well and allow themselves to be fooled, over and over and over.


Anybody remember McMartin?


 Let’s start with the closest analog to how we’ve been misled about sex trafficking:

 In the 1980s mainstream child welfare pushed conspiracy theories rivaling if not QAnon then certainly the remarkably similar “pizzagate”.  Journalists wrote seriously and earnestly about mass molestation supposedly rampant in day care centers – sometimes with Satanic cults as the perpetrators.  The most notorious example was the McMartin Preschool.  Mainstream media swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

           Many of the “true believers” in the McMartin claims – and true believers means just that, they sincerely believed they were rescuing children - formed an organization, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC), that still exists today.


As Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker explain in their book, Satan’s Silence“From its inception APSAC’s leadership roster was a veritable directory of ritual-abuse architects.”  Kee MacFarlane, who led the questioning of children in the McMartin Preschool case, served on APSAC’s board – and received the group’s “Outstanding Professional” award – a decade after McMartin.  And in 1997, three years after writing an article promoting the idea that there really were secret tunnels under the McMartin Preschool, Roland Summit, another former board member, received the group’s “Lifetime Achievement” award.

           I don’t know if anyone at APSAC still believes in those secret tunnels – but I am aware of no apology from the group for its role in all this.

           In some cases, the child welfare mainstream went full-Q:

           Consider what happened to a San Diego couple whose grandchildren were taken because a mentally unstable relative, after much “therapy,” had come to believe much of her family was part of a Satanic cult. The relative reported the grandparents to child protective services, which assigned the case to a worker who was a prominent member of the San Diego County Ritual Abuse Task Force.  

As the San Diego Union Tribune reported in 1991, when the grandparents wanted to send one of the children a birthday card, their child protective services caseworker said the card could not have animals on it – because, she claimed, devil worshipers use such images to send subliminal signals to the children in their thrall. No clowns either, for the same reason. The caseworker already had confiscated all the letters the grandparents had written to their grandchildren, claiming they contained subliminal Satanic messages. 

This was no rogue caseworker. The Ritual Abuse Task Force actually trained caseworkers and mental health professionals.  The task force produced a widely-circulated booklet informing fellow professionals, the press and the public that: 

Numerous cults exist which have sophisticated suppliers of sacrificial persons, from kidnappers through ‘breeders’ (women who bear children intended for sexual abuse and sacrifice)…

         Still wondering how we got to QAnon?


Hyping the numbers


          But it doesn’t end there. 

● In her book Heroes of Their Own Lives, Linda Gordon writes about how 19th Century Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children targeted poor immigrant parents whom they deemed genetically inferior and whose poverty they deemed “neglect.” But to increase their power, and to raise funds, they showcased the extremely rare cases of horrific abuse, complete with “before” and “after” pictures. That tactic has never gone away. 


  ● As early as 1993, in a brief article called “Damned Lies and Statistics,” Time Magazine called out the group that now calls itself Prevent Child Abuse America for using “flagrantly flimsy figures” to hype the supposed number of cases of child abuse in the United States.  But almost no other journalists paid attention.

          Apparently, the leaders of PCAA knew exactly what they were doing. Because, in language remarkably like what that staffer for an anti-sex trafficking group told Hobbes, this is what Prevent Child Abuse America wrote in 2003: 

While the establishment of a certain degree of public horror relative to the issue of child abuse and neglect was probably necessary in the early years to create public awareness of the issue, the resulting conceptual model adopted by the public has almost certainly become one of the largest barriers to advancing the issue further in terms of individual behavior change, societal solutions and policy priorities. 

          Notice how PCAA both effectively admits misleading the public and tries to justify it.  

          Many groups and individuals, all with good intentions, are still at it.  In most cases, they themselves probably don't know they're misrepresenting the problem.  They grew up on on this kind of hype and often don't understand the context themselves.

          ● When the so-called Alliance for Children’s Rights engages in the dissembling and distortion documented here, exaggerating the rate of child abuse while understating the harm of foster care, they mislead the public. 

          ● When Oregon legislators misread a study that, itself, uses broad, vague, and unintentionally racist definitions to make absurd claims about the prevalence of child abuse, they mislead the public. 

          ● When a trade association for so-called “child advocacy centers” that are supposed to evaluate whether a child has been abused suggests they know the answer – and the answer is always yes – before the child even shows up, it misleads the public.          


The extent of the poison


          The extent to which our consciousness has been poisoned can be seen in how readily the general public and almost every reporter to consider the issue blindly accepted a racist master narrative about child abuse and COVID-19.  

          You know the one: 

Now that fewer mostly white, middle-class professionals have their “eyes” constantly on overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite children, their parents supposedly will unleash upon those children a “pandemic of child abuse.” 

The claims are accompanied by calls for helpers to turn food drop-offs and virtual visits into opportunities to spy on families – and child welfare agencies provide broad, vague “symptom lists” and even cheat sheets for questions to ask during video chats with kids – the same approach taken by the anti-trafficking groups in their airport posters and lists of warning signs. 

          But 91 percent of all calls to child abuse hotlines are false reports. Almost all of the rest involve “neglect” which often means poverty.


           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 see also this analysis from Teachers College Record.) But they were the exceptions. Most journalists continue to buy in.


 Because for decades we have been conditioned, thanks to all that poison, to believe that child abuse means the horror story cases and we’ve been conditioned to believe such cases are rampant – because, Prevent Child Abuse America tells us “the establishment of a certain degree of public horror relative to the issue of child abuse and neglect was probably necessary in the early years to create public awareness…”-- just as we’ve been conditioned to misunderstand sex trafficking.

The problems of child abuse and the problem of sex trafficking are serious and real.  But in both cases, the solutions have been phony.

The real solutions to both problems are remarkably similar.

 “Nobody wants to view trafficking as embedded in how our global economy is structured,” American University Professor Janie Chuang told Hobbes. “It’s more convenient to view it as the product of individual criminal behavior.”

Similarly, we want to believe that what we call child abuse is a function of people who are at worst evil and at best sick.  But overwhelmingly, the problem is rooted in poverty; poverty that leads to the stress that can cause some parents to abuse and, far more often, the poverty that is, itself, confused with “neglect.”

 But understanding that is going to require that we stop drinking from all those poisoned wells.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

An epiphany at Chapin Hall? That depends on whether the noble words in a commentary by its director are backed-up by action

          At first the commentary in The Imprint by Bryan Samuels, executive director of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago since 2013, might seem like just another in a long line of “well, what do you know? There is racism in child welfare!” commentaries from organizations that understand it’s the right p.r. move at the moment. 

             After all, it begins like pretty much all the others:             

Inequities have shaped our country since its founding. Centuries of discrimination have inflicted deep wounds, with disparate rates of COVID-19 infection and brutal policing being current symptoms of that troubled history. Outrage over these symptoms has sparked an examination of bias in our criminal justice, health care, education and financial systems. To that list I would add one other: the child welfare system.

             But here’s what makes this one intriguing.  Less than a decade ago, Chapin Hall did examine bias in the child welfare system – and found that there was none!  Now, not only do we have Samuels’ commentary, it also appears that the 2011 document denying the role of racial bias in child welfare has disappeared from Chapin Hall’s website.

             So is Bryan Samuels about to lead Chapin Hall in a new, better direction? The signals are mixed.

             For decades, Chapin Hall has been a bastion of 19th Century-style “child saver” ideology and advocacy dressed up as “scholarship.”  You can read some examples of their track record here and here.

             But Chapin Hall has probably been at its worst concerning the whole issue of race.  They worked hand-in-glove with Elizabeth Bartholet, one of America’s most extreme advocates of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, to discredit the whole idea that there is racial bias in the child welfare system.  Two years before Samuels arrived there, Chapin Hall co-sponsored the stacked-deck conference discussed here.   Then one of their “scholars” co-authored an Issue Brief, issued in the name of Chapin Hall, whose thrust is 180 degrees from Samuels’ recent column.

             Let’s compare:

            In his recent commentary Samuels declares:

 [J]ust as we are overdue in revamping our criminal justice system, we are delinquent in addressing the institutionalized racism and bias that pervades our family and child well-being systems.

             But in the Issue Brief, Chapin Hall suggests there is no such bias. The Issue Brief ignores or misrepresents the abundant evidence of racial bias in the child welfare system. Here’s a summary of what Chapin Hall left out.

              In his recent commentary Samuels says:

             The systematic separation of children of color from their parents – without regard for the lasting trauma it entails –is a thread that runs through our nation’s history from slavery to Native American boarding schools to present day child welfare practice.

            This has been perpetuated by the misconception that we are nobly “rescuing” children from dangerous situations. On the contrary, research suggests that many children who spend time in foster care are more likely to experience negative outcomes than their counterparts who were not removed from their families.

             But in the Issue Brief, Chapin Hall suggests there hasn’t been enough of that “noble rescuing.”

             According to the Issue Brief, Black parents are “significantly” more likely to abuse and neglect their children – and, if anything, even more Black children should be taken away.  As the Issue Brief notes with approval:

 One speaker summarized: “African American children are at least as likely to be underserved as overserved” by current removal rates.

             In his current op-ed Samuels writes:            

Bold policy and legislation are needed to create and sustain a vastly different system that coordinates among multiple agencies to prevent trauma rather than create it, and to strengthen family and community capacity to ensure children are safe and thriving. This will require that we de-scale existing infrastructure and dismantle racist practices in favor of a new way to work.

             But the Issue Brief dismisses the notion of radical change and denies that there are “racist practices” to dismantle.

             So, will the real Chapin Hall please stand up?

             The good news is that when I went looking for the Issue Brief I couldn’t find it anywhere on the Chapin Hall website.  Perhaps my search was insufficient, or perhaps it was an accidental oversight the last time the site was updated.  But other documents from 2011 and earlier still are there.  (It’s readily available elsewhere for those who want to search for it; I prefer not to link to documents permeated with racial bias when it can be avoided.)

             The bad news is that the old Chapin Hall, blind to racial and class bias and blind to the harm of needless removal, was very much on display just two years ago.  Shortly after the high-profile death of a child “known to the system” Chapin Hall was commissioned to do a review.  A foster-care panic already had begun – and the slipshod quick-and-dirty review threw gasoline on the fire.

             Now, we’re seeing the results.  Between fiscal years 2018 and 2020 the number of children torn from their homes in Illinois has skyrocketed 30%.  The 17% increase in 2019 alone was the second highest increase in the country that year.  In fact, even as the number of children taken over the course of a year nationwide approaches a 21-year low, the number taken in Illinois has hit a 21-year high.

             Of course Chapin Hall wasn’t solely or even primarily responsible for that. But they had a chance to be a genuine scholarly voice of reason, and instead made everything worse. 

             All of the noble sentiments in Samuels' column are contradicted by what those who work for him have done in the past – and still are doing.

             So which is it going to be?

             If Samuels really means what he says, there are two things he could do right now:

             ● Formally and publicly apologize for co-sponsoring Betsy Bartholet’s whitewash – in every sense of the term – of racial bias in child welfare and formally withdraw the Issue Brief.

             ● Withdraw the poorly done, ill-though-out Illinois “review” and start over – this time with a review built around enacting the very reforms Samuels himself calls for.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending September 15, 2020

● We’ve all heard the stories: Families forced to endure traumatic, needless child “neglect” investigations for allowing children to engage in perfectly normal activities such as walking to school by themselves or playing in a playground without parents hovering over them.  A recent case from Kentucky, discussed at the end of this blog post, is an example of similar harassment.  Now, for the American Bar Association Committee on Children’s Rights Litigation Diane Redleaf writes about the harm done to families in such cases – and model legislation to curb that harm.

 ● In case anyone still thinks there should be a place in child welfare for institutionalizing children; add this to all the other reasons it’s horrible for kids, from Roxanna Asgarian’s story in The Imprint:

 The spread of COVID-19 among children in Texas’ long-term foster care system has been rampant, particularly in residential care facilities, and the pandemic has left more than five dozen kids without a bed to sleep in, a new report filed in federal court shows.