Saturday, October 31, 2020

Police caught on tape reveal Philadelphia’s culture of child removal

When Philadelphia cops literally took the child and ran, they knew where they could get back-up if they wanted it.


Police smashed the windows of a mother's SUV, then dragged her and her children out.
What came next was worse. (Video by Aapril Rice)

By now you’ve probably at least heard about the story; perhaps you’ve seen the video.

 In the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police version, a two-year old was rescued from rioting by one of their officers. They posted pictures with this caption: 

 “This child was lost during the violent riots in Philadelphia, wandering around barefoot in an area that was experiencing complete lawlessness. The only thing this Philadelphia police officer cared about in that moment was protecting this child.”

 But that’s not what happened. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported:

 Philadelphia police pulled a woman from an SUV during unrest in West Philadelphia Tuesday morning, beat and bloodied her, separated her from her toddler for hours, and kept her in handcuffs in the hospital, her attorneys said Friday.

 The toddler also was injured, they said. 

 The thing is, the lawyers’ version is the one that’s backed up with video.  


But here’s the part of the story I find striking.  According to the mother’s lawyers

  police at the scene refused to tell her where her child would be taken, saying only “he’s gonna go to a better place, we’re gonna report it to DHS," presumably referring to the Department of Human Services, the city’s child-welfare agency.

 Fortunately, that apparently didn’t happen.  The lawyers say that after hours apart, during which the toddler was kept in the back of a police cruiser in his car seat, (which reportedly still had glass from when the police broke the windows of the SUV), and a trip to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to treat his injuries, mother and child were reunited.

 But what does it say about the culture of Philadelphia law enforcement and Philadelphia child welfare that the first instinct upon encountering a Black mother and her young child trying to slowly and carefully drive away from trouble is to, literally, take the child and run, apparently secure in the knowledge that Philadelphia DHS would back them up? How many other times have police threatened Black families with needless separation of their children because they knew the child welfare agency is their eager partner?  After all, Philadelphia tears apart families at one of the highest rates among America’s big cities.

 In fact, the child was at risk of needless removal at least twice. The mother is lucky that Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia didn’t simply assume she must have caused the toddler’s injury and call DHS – given their well-known hair trigger for such reports, and the fact that Philadelphia DHS encourages just that.  (I’m assuming they didn’t actually call DHS. So far there are no reports of a caseworker showing up at the family home.)

 Though it’s more likely to happen in Philadelphia than in many other big cities, this could have happened anywhere. All over America you can do almost anything you want to a Black family as long as you claim that “The only thing [you] cared about in that moment was protecting this child.”

Thursday, October 29, 2020

NCCPR in Youth Today and WitnessLA: In child welfare, the racial bias is everywhere — even in the research

Consider this hypothetical scenario:

 A 10-year-old boy mouths off to a man on the street; His mother is with him. She slaps him in the face and yells at him, making clear he must never, ever do something like that again.

 Is that child abuse?

 According to the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence a widely touted survey from some of America’s leading family violence researchers, a survey used to measure the supposed prevalence of child abuse in America, the answer is yes.

 The survey asks this question: 

“Not including spanking on (his/her /your) bottom, did a grown-up in (your child’s/your) life hit, beat, kick, or physically hurt (your child/you) in any way?”

 Now let’s change the hypothetical slightly ...

Read the full commentary in Youth Today and WitnessLA

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A lesson for Illinois child welfare: When history rhymes, families are destroyed – and children keep dying

History doesn’t repeat itself,” it’s been said, “but it rhymes.”  In Illinois, child welfare history is rhyming, and that is bringing down tragedy upon the state’s children in ways old and new.

 In 1993, Joseph Wallace, a child ‘known-to-the-system” was murdered by his mother. The casefile had more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day Parade.  There was a rush to condemn any and all efforts to keep families together.  In the foster-care panic that followed the number of children torn from their homes skyrocketed. By 1997, a child was more likely to be trapped in foster care in Illinois than in any other state.  An already bad system was plunged into chaos.  Thousands of children were traumatized when they were taken from parents who were nothing like Joseph’s mother.

 All of it was done in the name of ending child abuse deaths. But those deaths increased – probably because workers became even more overloaded, so they had less time to find the relatively few children, like Joseph, in real danger.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services learned from those mistakes. A bold DCFS leader, Jess McDonald, embraced efforts to keep families together.  The number of children taken from their parents went down – and independent court monitors found that child safety improved.  In 2003, the lead monitor told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “Children are safer now than they were when the state had far more foster children.” Their 2018 report shows that safety continued to improve all the way through about 2011, when the agency was undermined by budget cuts.

 But memories are short. The death of A.J. Freund prompted the same knee-jerk reaction, with the same tragic 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 and it came at a time when nationwide, entries into foster care were declining.  In fact, even as the number of children taken nationwide approaches a 21-year low, the number taken in Illinois has hit a 21-year high.

 To understand the consequences think back to the family separations on the Mexican border.  Unlike what happened there, DCFS workers almost always mean well.  But the trauma endured by children separated from everyone they know and love is no different. 

That’s because most cases are nothing like the horror stories. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. Others fall between the extremes.  That helps explain why at least six separate studies, two of them massive in scope and looking specifically at cases from Illinois, have found that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes typically fare better in later life even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.  It’s all coming down hardest on Black children who are in Illinois foster care at triple their rate in the general population.

 All that trauma occurs even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are. But study after study has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.  The record of group homes and institutions is even worse. 

 In one respect history is not rhyming: This time there’s harm to children that’s brand new.  All those additional removals mean more caseworkers inspecting more homes from top to bottom, stripsearching children, walking out with those children, placing them in cars that have transported many others, and sometimes taking the children from place-to-place before finally depositing them with strangers.  In short, this time the foster-care panic also increases the risk of transmitting COVID-19 to children, families and caseworkers themselves.

 Some might argue even all that would be worth it if it saved lives. But on that score, history seems to be rhyming again. We can’t be sure yet, since cause-of-death in many cases from FY 2020 is not yet determined.  But it is likely that deaths may have decreased slightly from 2019 – when the number of fatalities was unusually high - but were higher than the three previous years, when removals were much lower. 

Once again, a foster-care panic is making all children less safe.

 In the 1990s, Illinois proved it could stop a foster-care panic. It can stop it again. But DCFS, the legislature and the governor need to act fact.  Because history is rhyming – but it’s not a nursery rhyme.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending October 27, 2020

 ● Racism in child welfare isn’t just a matter of caseworkers jumping to conclusions when they know the family they are investigating is Black, serious as that problem is. So it isn’t something that can be fixed only with anti-bias training or even smart, necessary innovations such as “blind removal meetings.” It’s a matter of scholars with the best of intentions allowing racial bias to worm its way in, even in places where no one — well, none of us who is white — might have expected – such as a prestigious scientific study purporting to measure the rate of child abuse in America.  NCCPR in Youth Today on how “In Child Welfare the Racial Bias is Everywhere -- Even in the Research.


● University of Pennsylvania Professor Dorothy Roberts literally wrote the book on racism in child welfare (Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare).  Prof. Roberts, a member of NCCR’s Board of Directors, spoke to Rise about why “Abolition is The Only Answer.”  Prof. Roberts will be speaking tonight at the Rise 15th Anniversary (virtual) celebration. Also speaking: Rep. Gwen Moore, (D-Wis.), author of the #stoptheclock bill to suspend timelines under the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act during a public health crisis.


● The revelation that parents can’t be found for 545 children torn from them at the Mexican border by the Trump administration has put that kind of family separation back in the news.  But don’t let it obscure the other kind of family separation – the kind that happens 250,000 times every year.  The motivation behind that kind of family separation is different, but the trauma inflicted on the children is the same – and it’s almost always unnecessary. I have a post about it on this blog.


● Remember the NBC News exposes about “Residential Treatment Centers” run  by an outfit known as Sequel?  Remember the Philadelphia Inquirer expose about residential treatment centers run by Devereux?  Remember the Salt Lake Tribune expose of “Utah’s troubled teen industry”?


Now, let’s welcome Texas to the residential treatment hall of shame, thanks to this outstanding work by Roxanna Asgarian writing for Texas Observer and The Imprint.


One parallel is particularly striking.  The Inquirer story included this stunning admission from Devereux’s Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Leah Yaw: 


“This is not an aberration that happens at Devereux because of some kind of lack of control or structure.  This is an industry-wide problem.”

Now look at what Will Francis, executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers told Asgarian:

“Any time you put a kid in an RTC, you are probably expecting some level of abuse. And that’s heartbreaking. We need to rethink where our dollars go. We need to stop putting them towards these warehouses.”

Asgarian’s story also documents how Texas authorities routinely turn a blind eye to abuse at RTCs – something to keep in mind when apologists for tearing apart families mislead you with official figures purporting to show that the rate of abuse in substitute care supposedly is low. (Extensive research says otherwise.) 

So, at long last, can we at least agree that anyone who uses the words “rotten apples” and “residential treatment” in the same sentence – except to deride the idea – should not be trusted? 

As for why so much excellent journalism hasn’t done much good, it’s because no one is willing to face up to what it will really take to fix the problem. I suggest some answers in this column for The Imprint.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

We’re rightly outraged about 545 separated children. But what about the other 424,000?

Photo by Michael Hanscom

No matter who does it and no matter why they do it, for the children the trauma is the same.

           A column by Washington Post Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus begins this way: 


That is the number of children still separated from their families by the Trump administration — separated deliberately, cruelly and recklessly. They might never be reunited with their parents again. Even if they are, the damage is unimaginable and irreparable. 


Even one would be too many. Each one represents a unique tragedy. Imagine being ripped from your parents, or having your child taken from you. Imagine the desperation that the parents feel, the trauma inflicted on their children. 

          You’re right, Ms. Marcus. Except for one thing.  The number isn’t 545. It’s more like 424,000.  

          The 545 figure is the one in the headlines recently, because that’s the number of children torn from their families at the Mexican border for whom parents can’t be found despite a court order requiring reunification.  The revelation has put back in the news the barbarity of Trump’s family separation policy at the border, in which children were torn from their parents and, literally, caged. It even was a topic at the final 2020 presidential debate. 

But regardless of where it happens, which agency does it and what is their motivation, the trauma inflicted on children is the same.  So the real number we should be talking about it 424,000.* That is the number of children known to be in American foster care on any given day, taken away by American family policing agencies (a.k.a. child protective services).  Almost all of them were torn from their parents involuntarily.  Almost none of them needed to be. 

Even that underestimates the extent of the problem. The 424,000 figure is the number on any given day.  More than 250,000 children are taken from their families every year. 

          No, the situations aren’t identical.  But they are more similar than they are different.         

The differences: 

1. Unlike those 545 children and the others separated at the border, authorities know the location of the families of most of the 424,000 children in foster care.  The children sometimes even get to visit their parents, though often only for only an hour or two every week or less in sterile visiting rooms under constant surveillance by caseworkers.  No more than half are actually likely to be returned to their parents someday. But even for many of them, the damage will be, in Marcus’ words “unimaginable and irreparable.” 

And in 2019, 71,000 of those children had their rights to their parents terminated (that’s what termination of parental rights really means). They had no contact at all.  Some won’t ever see their parents again unless they find them after becoming adults. 

2. In a very small number of cases, when CPS workers take away a child there really is no other alternative; it’s genuinely essential to keep children safe.  

3. Most of the time, the people who work for and run CPS agencies are not engaging in deliberate, calculated cruelty.  They usually mean well.  

          But for a child needlessly torn from her mother, dragged away by adults and never knowing when or if she’ll see her mother again, the terror and the trauma are identical. The motivation makes no difference.  Yet we keep right on doing it.  And while the children separated by U.S. “child welfare” agencies - our family police -- usually are not taken cruelly, they are taken deliberately and, often, recklessly. 

          No wonder the child welfare establishment has tortured logic in its desperate attempts to draw false distinctions between the two kinds of family separation.  I outlined the excuses, and why they don’t hold up, in this column for Youth Today in November, 2018, so I won’t repeat them here. 

          But I will repeat this: 

Even the good intentions can have a downside. They are likely to shield needless removal of children into U.S. foster care system from the kind of intensive scrutiny the Trump family separation policy is likely to get when Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in January [2019]. 

          That, unfortunately, is exactly what has happened.  It’s not just Marcus’ column.  

          Right after Thursday’s debate, I watched anchors on MSNBC describe being shaken by Trump’s callous remarks about the children his administration separated – and caged – at the border.  They recalled how they cried when they first saw the detention centers in person or heard the audio smuggled out of one of them by ProPublica:


          I’m sure most journalists felt the same way.  But now, two years later, many of those same journalists have no trouble buying into the U.S. child welfare establishment’s false, racially biased master narrative about child abuse and COVID-19. 

          They’ve been pumping out story after story with some variation on this theme: 

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? 

A few major news organizations, notably the Associated Press, The Marshall Project and Bloomberg CityLab debunked the myth.  Yet it continues to spread – encouraging our own “child welfare” agencies to go in, with all their smiles and good intentions, and do to these children what was done to the children at the Mexican border. (Marcus’ paper, The Washington Post, has been among the worst offenders.) 

That this myth could spread not only after what happened at the border, but at a time when we’re supposed to be engaged in a reckoning over racial justice is a testament to the power of “health terrorism”the decades spent deliberately pushing a false narrative suggesting that the horror stories about parents who beat and torture their children are commonplace and all that stands between these sadists and brutes and their innocent children is the equivalent of a “thin blue line” of family police – child protective services workers and mandated reporters. 

I didn’t make up the phrase “health terrorism.”  I learned it from the group that perfected the art in child welfare – Prevent Child Abuse America.  They don’t do it anymore, but they’ve never apologized, and they’ve made no serious effort to explain to the public, and to a generation of journalists that grew up on this mythology that it is dangerously wrong. 

The family police are shielded by something else as well.  I doubt that very many journalists are personal friends with agents of the Border Patrol.  But plenty probably have friends who are social workers and foster parents – they are, after all, mostly the same race and the same class and have similar education levels.  Those caseworkers and foster parents are such nice people.  So what they do couldn’t possibly hurt children, even unintentionally. 

So two false stereotypes are set in stone: Caseworkers and foster parents: Good. Parents: Sick and/or evil. 

That leads us to something that approaches what George Orwell called doublethink: The ability to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time and believe them both.  We are shocked and outraged at the trauma inflicted on children at the border by Trump, yet we assume that inflicting a nearly identical trauma is necessary to “save” children when it is done by American family policing agencies. 

Perhaps the only way to shock us out of this complacency is a vivid reminder that, while most of the time, the people who work for such agencies, do indeed mean well, that’s not always the case. 

The video in this story which, be warned is very hard to watch, doesn’t involve the border patrol.  It’s a raid by police and child protective services in Colorado.  The mother’s young child had wandered off in a park and been out of her sight for about one minute - so of course, this supposedly was necessary. 

This video from this story isn’t the Border Patrol either. They just needed to get to a child who had a high fever and hadn’t been vaccinated, so they could take away the child and his siblings:

And when a group of people who run around taking away children posed wearing  matching T-shirts that said “professional kidnapper” on one side and “do you know where your children are?” on the other, they weren’t Border Patrol agents.  They were child protective services workers about 280 miles north – in Prescott, Arizona. 

So listen again to Ruth Marcus: 

Even one [child] would be too many. Each one represents a unique tragedy. Imagine being ripped from your parents, or having your child taken from you. Imagine the desperation that the parents feel, the trauma inflicted on their children. 

Now, imagine it happening 250,000 times every year.


*-424,000 is the number that U.S. state and local family policing agencies report to the federal government.  Other children are in what Prof. Josh Gupta-Kagan of the University of South Carolina School of Law calls “hidden foster care.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending October 20, 2020

● Six years ago, bad journalism from the Miami Herald set off a foster-care panic in Florida.  (You can read about how bad here.)  This week, good journalism from Gannett’s Florida newspapers and USA Today documented how Florida’s most vulnerable children are paying the price.  (And they didn’t flinch from saying that the Herald stories triggered it.)

 ● In The Imprint, leaders of the upEND movement explain why the harm done to poor families, especially poor families of color, is so great that the system needs to be abolished – and what abolition means. They write:

 Abolition of child welfare does not mean abandoning the need to protect children. It means building new ways of protecting and supporting families that also dismantle coercive systems of surveillance and punishment. It means engaging in the work of building radically different systems of care that recognize the basic need of children to be with their families in safe and supportive communities. This work must be done with families at the forefront.

 UpEND’s two-day virtual conference continues today. You can see it on YouTube and registration is free.  Video of yesterday’s session is here. I’ve cued it to the start of a superb keynote address from Lisa Sangoi of the Movement for Family Power.

 ● Here we go again. Remember when The New York Times did a feature that included  middle-class parents giving up on educating children online and even bragging about it? Meanwhile, the Times did not report on poor families victimized by false allegations of “educational neglect” when parents couldn’t get their kids online. (The City has done great reporting on that. Both approaches to the story are discussed here.)

 Now we get a Times story about parents unafraid to announce, even brag about, using alcohol and drugs to cope with the strain of raising children in a pandemic. “[F]or some parents,” according to the story, “getting just a little stoned is the only way they can eke out a small measure of joy in an otherwise fairly hopeless time.”  The story mentions in passing that this is a privilege limited to the middle-class, especially the white middle-class.  But it took Tehra Coles, litigation supervisor for government affairs and policy at the Center for Family Representation, to explain it all in this letter to the editor.

 Oh, and let’s just take a minute to imagine what would happen if a poor Black mother said to a child protective services caseworker “I was just a little stoned.”

 ● If a Black parent in New York does make the mistake of seeking “a small measure of joy” like her middle-class counterparts, she may well wind up in Family Court, itself plagued by racism according to a recent report.  The report dealt with all New York courts, but this story, from Megan Conn of The Imprint, zeroes in on Family Court.

● Also in The Imprint, doctoral student Victoria Copeland analyzes “The Complicity of Academia in Policing of Families.” She writes: 

To this day we still see research that pathologizes families and youth impacted by the child welfare system. Many in academia stand by and consent to the proliferation of surveillance through big data. We offer up remedies of automating decision-making processes, an effort that potentially shuffles youth between subjective case worker decision-making and falsely proclaimed “neutral” computer-based decision-assisting systems.  

NCCPR has more about big data in child welfare here.

 ● And in Reason, Lenore Skenazy writes: “Let your child nap in the car on a cool day while you run into the hardware store and you might have to say goodbye to your dreams of adoption.” In this case, the family almost had to say goodbye to their own child as well.  From the story:

 "Vague neglect laws give cops and caseworkers more power than the parents themselves to decide what is safe for their own kids," notes Diane Redleaf, Let Grow's legal consultant and co-chair of United Family Advocates, which advocates for more legal protections for wrongly accused families. "It is high time we required child protection authorities to bring child abuse or neglect accusations to court for an impartial determination before they are allowed to place anyone on the registry."

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending October 13, 2020

● You’ve heard it before, but we all should listen again: This time Prof. Terek Ismail, co-director of the Family Law Practice Clinic at CUNY Law School, writes about how, for a child torn from everyone loving and familiar it doesn’t matter if it’s happening at the Mexican border as a result of the deliberate cruelty of Donald Trump or around the corner because of the routine, unthinking cruelty of child protective services.

In a column for the New York Daily News Prof. Ismail writes that “The violence done to families scrutinized, surveilled and ripped apart by state agents is no less traumatic because it happens in our backyards, or because it happens in the name of protecting the children who are taken away. …”

● Why do we find that so hard to fathom?  Why do we understand the cruelty to children when it’s inflicted at the border but not when it’s done by a child protective services agency? In part, it’s the legacy of a decades long campaign of “health terrorism” that has left us with a distorted perception of who is in the system and why.  I didn’t make up the term – in fact, it comes from a group that specialized in that kind of “health terrorism” – and still refuses to apologize or work seriously to undo the damage.  I have a blog post about it.

● We are similarly cavalier about tearing apart families forever through the overuse of termination of parental rights – or, as it should properly be called, termination of children’s rights to their parents.

In a column for The Imprint, Prof. Vivek Sankaran writes:

[C]ourts seem to terminate parental rights out of a sense of convenience. A child has been in foster care for 15 months, so let’s terminate. A foster parent prefers to adopt a child, so let’s terminate. A parent hasn’t fully complied with services, so let’s terminate. …

But what is often missing is a careful examination on why termination is the best – and only – option for the child. Why terminate if a child still has a loving bond with his parent? Why terminate if a child is already living safely with a parent or a relative? Why terminate if the system has not identified another permanent home for the child? 

Writing on the Health Affairs Blog, three specialists in law, medicine and substance use warn that shifting resources from police to child welfare agencies can simply mean shifting resources from one police force to another. “When Reimagining Systems of Safety,” their article is called, “Take A Closer Look at the Child Welfare System.”

Like Prof. Sankaran, these authors note that “the child welfare system maintains a cavalier default toward separating families…”

Instead, the authors write

 [W]e believe states should create a separate system of family-based support that is completely independent from the child welfare system. This system could offer strengths-based care, case management, peer support, parenting resources, linkage to effective substance use treatment when needed, and concrete social service navigation. …  

● Two retired judges and one current judge in Washington State have a column for the Seattle Times explaining why a recent State Supreme Court ruling “gives critical life” to rights granted to Native American children in Washington under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

 ● But, as Indian Country Today notes, if Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed as a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court that may jeopardize ICWA itself, if a challenge to that law reaches the Supreme Court – which it may.

Monday, October 12, 2020

When the (self-proclaimed) “health terrorists” win, children lose

They say they’ve left that era long behind.  But they won’t do the hard work needed to help clean up the devastation. They won’t even say they’re sorry.



Quick, what came to mind when you read those words?  Probably brutal beatings, torture, rape, and murder.  Perhaps that image from so many stock photos flashed in your head – you know, the one with the scared child in the corner.

That’s understandable.  For decades you were bombarded with that kind of messaging and imagery.  Advocacy groups leapt from the horror stories to statistics claiming that millions of children are “abused” every year – even though almost none of that “abuse” was anything like the horror stories.


A lot of the people who did this did it on purpose because they thought their noble goals justified it.  We’ve known this for some time – at least since this paragraph in a 2003 request for proposals from the group that calls itself Prevent Child Abuse America (PCAA) became generally known:

 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.

What I didn’t know until last week is that PCAA has a term for what they and so many others did: “health terrorism.”

But PCAA refuses to take ownership of what health terrorism did to families or apologize for it – and that only prolongs the harm that's been done.

What is “health terrorism”?

 I learned the phrase “health terrorism” when Bart Klika, PCAA’s chief research and strategy officer, used it at a presentation last week during a virtual conference sponsored by the Kempe Center at the University of Colorado.  Though nominally about preventing child abuse, Klika’s presentation really was an infomercial for PCAA. It’s on tape, but available only to conference registrants.

Here’s what Klika said about PCAA’s early messaging:

 [I]t was sort of the strategy that my friend Dr. Jeff Linkenbach [of the University of Montana]  calls "health terrorism.”  We tried to scare the health into people by showing  them very graphic images of child abuse and neglect, the scared child in the corner.

They did more than that, of course. They combined the graphic images and horror stories with statistics that Time magazine, as far back as 1993, branded “flagrantly flimsy figures.”

Klika went on to explain that eventually they decided “health terrorism” might not be the best approach, so they put out that request for proposals and hired a PR firm called FrameWorks (they re-frame your message! Get it?)  to help them change their approach. 

But hey, so they engaged in “health terrorism” for a couple of decades and, after all, they meant well, and now they know better, so no problem, right?  


Because the terrorists won.

That original false impression – that millions and millions of children are beaten and tortured every year – remains baked into the public consciousness.

The result is what you always get with terrorism: A swath of mindless destruction, this time cut through the heart of millions of American families over the past several decades.  Consider:

 ● Health terrorism gave us the system in which nearly eight million children are reported to child protective services agencies every year, and almost all of those reports are false, or involve neglect; almost none are like the horror stories.

 ● Health terrorism created the system in which one-third of American children – and more than half of Black children will be forced to endure often traumatic, (and almost always needless) investigations and stripsearches before they turn 18.

● Health terrorism gave us the system that has, again, over decades, consigned millions of children needlessly to the chaos and trauma of foster care, and all the rotten outcomes that flow from it.  In short, though the motivation is different, the “health terrorism” messaging helped build a system that does to children across America the same thing Donald Trump did to children at the Mexican border, but on a massive scale.

The extent to which the health terrorists succeeded can be seen by how quickly and easily so many journalists accepted a “master narrative” about child abuse and COVID-19 that is, at its core, drenched in racial and class bias. It’s the narrative that goes like this:

 Now that fewer mostly white middle-class professionals who are “mandated reporters” of child abuse 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. 

Why? Because for decades, it’s what the health terrorists have led us to believe. In fact, many of the COVID-19-and-child-abuse stories include that same stock photo – the one with the scared child in the corner.

 So given all that, during his presentation at the virtual conference, I asked Bart Klika if PCAA would at least work to expel this misimpression from the public mind by loudly and publicly apologizing for the way his organization used health terrorism all those years. 

He refused.

And no wonder.  In that 2003 request for proposals PCAA doesn’t even admit they were wrong. On the contrary, they say health terrorism “was probably necessary in the early years to create public awareness of the issue…”

And, of course, it’s hard to apologize for creating a false, racially biased narrative about child abuse and COVID-19 when at least one state chapter of PCAA is pushing elements of that narrative right now – urging us all to spy on our neighbors while falsely claiming that reporting child abuse is only a way to get help to a family when, in fact, it’s the equivalent of calling the police. 

Honest messaging demands admitting that while such a call might get help to a family, it also can unleash anything from a traumatic investigation and stripsearch, inflicting enormous psychic wounds, to, even worse, the child being consigned to the chaos of foster care.  Honest messaging demands telling people that if you think a family needs help, call an agency that provides help, not the child abuse police.

Then there’s the matter of what we all supposedly should be looking for as we spy on families during a pandemic.  According to this chapter of PCAA: “Warning signs” include “unusual wariness of physical contact.” 

From health terrorism to QAnon

Other groups continue to practice health terrorism using the same excuse – it’s o.k. to distort in the name of “raising awareness” -- with horrible results.  As HuffPost reporter Michael Hobbes has written, health terrorism by anti sex-trafficking groups helped pave the way for Q-Anon. Says Hobbes: “You can’t just throw poison into the public consciousness.”  But that, of course, is the essence of health terrorism.

What does the current leadership at PCAA, and all the other groups that now or in the past practiced health terrorism – however well-intentioned - owe the children whose lives were destroyed by needless foster care?  What do they owe the children taken from safe homes, only to be abused in foster care?  What do they owe entire poor communities of color devastated by mass child welfare surveillance in the same way they are devastated by mass incarceration?  What do they owe the children who really did suffer severe abuse, because workers were so overwhelmed by false allegations, trivial cases and poverty-confused-with-neglect cases that they didn’t have time to find them?

They owe these children, families and communities vastly more than just saying “oops” and paying a PR firm to help them slink away from the damage.

What is needed is a massive counter-terrorism campaign – a giant PR campaign from PCAA that says: WE. WERE. WRONG.   What Prevent Child Abuse America should say is: There is no more justification for health terrorism than any other kind of terrorism. We should not have distorted the issue to get your attention.  We need you to understand that the impression you probably have of the nature and extent of “child abuse” is mistaken.  We need you to understand that it’s dangerously wrong – and racist – to assume that Black families are unleashing a pandemic of child abuse against their children just because fewer white professionals are watching.

They could start by contacting every reporter who blindly accepted that “pandemic of child abuse” narrative and explaining how they got it wrong because they, too, had been conditioned by health terrorism.

PCAA has gone back to FrameWorks for another dose of “reframing.”  So the people at FrameWorks have a moral obligation to demand more than money in exchange for their help this time. They should demand that PCAA own what they did, take responsibility for the consequences of “health terrorism,” and move heaven and earth to undo the damage.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending October 6, 2020

 ● A key to good journalism is follow-up; if a reporter drops an issue after the first story, few people will notice.  But to her great credit, Eileen Grench of the online news site The City won’t let up on the story of how New York City schools and the city child welfare agency harass families who can’t get kids online for school – and the state Office of Children and Family Services refuses to do anything about it. Here’s her latest story.

● The Kempe Center at the University of Colorado is about midway through a virtual extravaganza – an online conference with scores of panels and presentations from several countries.  I gave a talk about why child abuse is not a public health problem, it’s a social justice problem.  I’ve posted the text on this Blog.

 The ongoing trauma inflicted on families by racism in child welfare is the topic of several stories.

 ● MedPage Today reports on still another study documenting such bias on the part of doctors.

 ● Such bias clearly is deeply embedded in child welfare in New Hampshire.  The New Hampshire Union Leader has two stories about cases where such bias was blatant. I have a blog post on it, with links to both stories.

 ● Tara Urs, special counsel for civil policy and practice, training, and employee development at the King County Department of Public Defense, writes about a case she argued that led to a major victory for Native American children in Washington State.

 ● And Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have introduced a bill calling for creation of a “Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the United States.”

 According to Rep. Haaland, the bill would “establish the first formal commission in United States history to investigate, document, and acknowledge past injustices of the federal government’s cultural genocide and assimilation practices through its Indian Boarding School Policy. The commission will also develop recommendations for Congress to aid in healing of the historical and intergenerational trauma passed down in Native American families and communities and provide a forum for victims to speak about personal experiences tied to these human rights violations.”

 ●And the Juvenile Law Center’s blog includes recommendations for bolstering the use of kinship foster care when children really must be removed from their homes.  Among the recommendations:


Standards that open the door for subjectivity in decision making and invite opportunities for implicit bias should be eliminated. Guidance to counties should ensure that policies work harder to screen in—rather than out—kin who are committed to the child and family. Automatic disqualifiers should be carefully considered and should only be allowable if it places the child’s safety at risk. …

 The state should invest in ensuring parents and children receive high quality, interdisciplinary legal representation. Kin are rarely a party to dependency cases, and parent and child attorneys are best positioned to advocate for their clients’ interests in maintaining connection or placement with kin. Interdisciplinary teams can better work with their clients to identify appropriate kin and ensure children’s safety in kinship placements.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Child abuse is not a public health problem, it's a social justice problem

  This afternoon, I gave a presentation with the above title
At the Kempe Center International Virtual Conference:
A Call to Action to Change Child Welfare
Here is the text of that presentation

           The summary for this program starts by noting that in the United States, no matter what the problem, sooner or later we’ll see a news story with a headline that says: “Doctors say treat [name of problem here] like a public health problem.”  Funny how it always seems to be doctors who are first to suggest this. Or, to paraphrase a common saying: If you’ve spent eight years training to be a hammer, you’ll see everyone you meet as a nail.

          It isn’t just doctors, of course. 

          One presentation at this conference talks about how “all families need support at different … dosage levels.”  That presentation repeatedly referred to taking a public health approach.

The problem with this approach is not that the people supporting it want to hurt children.  On the contrary, they almost always act with the best of intentions.  But children keep paying the price for those good intentions.  Because as soon as you label something a “health” problem that means somebody has to be sick. 

After following this issue for decades, I’ve heard over and over some variation of this: “You don’t understand.  We just want to help those people. They’re not evil, they’re just sick.”

Well, a tiny percentage of those caught up in the net of child protective services is, in fact evil.  Another small percentage is sick.  And some others were made sick by the failure to address the social justice issues that are the real root of the problem.

But overwhelmingly, what America labels “child maltreatment” is a social justice problem rooted in poverty and racism.