Monday, November 30, 2020

UPDATED: On Giving Tuesday: Want to know how effective NCCPR is? Just ask someone who probably wishes we’d go away!


This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared on Giving Tuesday in 2018.

Of all the journalists who have covered child welfare, few are more keen on pushing a take-the-child-and-run approach than former Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf.  The issues with Therolf’s work at the Times were so serious that even someone who used to be an ideological soulmate  found serious problems in story after story.  The crescendo of criticism was such that LA Observed, a Los Angeles news site that closely tracks area media, took notice. 

Then, just as he was leaving the Times, Therolf demeaned the work of Black scholars while cheerleading for those who insist that child welfare is magically immune from racial bias. 

So, on this Giving Tuesday, who better to turn to for a testament to the power and influence of NCCPR – right? 

Not that he offered such a testament on purpose, of course.  I’m sure he didn’t even realize it. 

In November, 2018, Therolf was able to get a sugar-coated version of his L.A. Times-style reporting into a national magazine. (I’m not going to link to it, but you can use the quote below to Google it if you are so inclined.)  After noting how horror stories about deaths of children “known to the system” can drive increases in foster care, he discusses one of the very few cases in which it worked in reverse: 

Logan Marr, a 5-year-old girl from Maine [had] been removed from her home by the state’s grossly interventionist child-protective-services agency. In a gruesome twist, Logan was placed in the custody of a former caseworker, who disciplined her by gagging her with duct tape and leaving her in the basement, where she died. 

The case became the subject of a PBS documentary, and media attention made Logan a symbol of child-protective services’ overreach. The pendulum swung, and the United States saw a nearly 25 percent drop in the number of children in foster care from 2002 to 2012. [Emphasis added.] 

Therolf never mentions which organization drew all that media attention to the case of Logan Marr. He probably doesn’t know.  It was, of course, NCCPR.  We’re the ones who told producers for Frontline about the case. That's one reason why you’ll find an NCCPR op-ed on Frontline’s website for the programs. 

It was NCCPR that focused the discussion of this case, in Maine and nationally, on the fact that Logan was taken because her family poverty was confused with neglect.  And it was NCCPR that shifted the focus from the usual calls for tougher licensing standards and more visits to foster homes to the real issue: Maine was taking away far too many children.  There’s a detailed discussion of what we did and how we did it here. 

Some caveats: We didn’t do it alone. It wouldn’t have been possible without activists in Maine led by a fed-up foster parent.  Although one probably shouldn’t say this in a fundraising pitch, the attention we drew to the case of Logan Marr was not solely responsible for that big drop in foster care.  But it helped.  Something else we probably shouldn't say in a fundraising pitch: It's also true that, now that NCCPR has more limited resources, there's been backsliding in Maine child welfare.  But even now, it's a better system than it would have been had there been no NCCPR. 

NCCPR has changed the very language of the child welfare debate.  We put phrases such as “foster-care panic,” and “confusing poverty with neglect” into the child welfare lexicon. We were first to understand and bring to wide attention the implications of research showing that one-third of all children, and more than half of Black children will be forced to endure a child abuse investigation – almost always due to a false report – before they turn 18. 

Nationally, this year, we have led the fight to counter the pernicious, racist false narrative about COVID-19 supposedly leading to a “pandemic of child abuse.” We helped reporters for national news organizations write stories setting the record straight. 

In Philadelphia we’ve made that city’s high rate of child removal such a big issue that it is referenced in almost every news story about the system  – and NCCPR’s director has been named to a special committee of the Philadelphia City Council to advise the Council on what to do about it. 

As the family preservation movement has grown, and as more and more advocates have realized the importance of changing child welfare systems by changing public perceptions, NCCPR has become a key resource for other advocates, providing the data and studies to back up what they see every day on the frontlines. 

We never charge for this technical assistance - because the organizations fighting this fight at the grassroots level need every penny they have to keep up that fight.  But that, of course, is why we need donations from those who can afford to give. 

There’s more about  our successes across the country here – including testimonials from child welfare leaders and journalists who actually like our work. 

And best of all, we do it on a shoestring.  Now that the entire staff (that’s me) is volunteer, all we need is a few thousand dollars a year for things like the phone bill, office supplies, purchasing overpriced studies (like the one that led to this) from scholarly journals, and – ideally – some travel to meet with journalists and local advocates, once travel is possible again.  But the very fact that we need so little makes it easy for people to assume someone else will do it.  Unfortunately, if everyone thinks someone else will make those few donations ... 

There are a lot of places well worth your support on this Giving Tuesday – but very few where a small donation can get so much done.

Donate to NCCPR

Thank you for your support.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

NCCPR in CommonWealth Magazine on Mass. child welfare: Child safety and family preservation are not opposites

 IT’S NOT REALLY that hard to fix a child welfare system: just listen to your gut instinct – and do the opposite.

Gut instinct says: David Almond died a horrible death though he was well known to the Department of Children and Families and other agencies. So the solution must be to take away children more quickly and return them to their homes more slowly – if at all. 

Except, of course, that’s exactly what the state did after the deaths of Bella Bond and Jeremiah Oliver.  The high-profile tragedies set off a foster-care panic, a sharp sudden increase in the number of children torn from their families, in a state which has taken away children at rates well above the national average for decades. ... But Gov. Charlie Baker and his DCF director, Linda Spears, learned nothing from this cycle. ...

Read the full commentary here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending November 24, 2020

 ● Last week we noted a report from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia on the harm done to children by the state’s central register of alleged child abusers.  In a Philadelphia Inquirer story about the report, CLS attorney Janet Ginzberg explains:

 “We have had a number of clients put on the child-abuse registry because the child had diaper rash and it got infected,” Ginzberg said. She said putting those parents on the registry is only keeping them in poverty — ultimately hurting their children, rather than protecting them. …

 Ginzberg said it’s up to state lawmakers to change this process — but doing so will take courage. After all, she said, no one wants to appear soft on child abuse. “I’ve had so many legislators say to me: ‘That’s awful! I had no idea how this works. But I’m not touching this with a 10-foot pole.’”

 ● Speaking of Philadelphia – and Los Angeles and Phoenix – WitnessLA has reprinted NCCPR’s commentary on big city rates of removal.

● Also last week, we noted a change that limits the ability of some New York City Hospitals to drug test pregnant women without their consent.  But, as the Movement for Family Power explains in this tweet thread, it’s only a small change, with plenty of loopholes. 

● In Rise, Prof. Kelley Fong of the the School of History and Sociology at Georgia Tech discusses her research on the harm of mandatory child abuse reporting laws: 

Because ideas of neglect overlap with material hardship, there’s a justified fear among parents that being open about struggles will lead to a CPS report. In my research, I heard from parents that these fears prevent them from getting support they need and want for their families. 

One parent was reported when she tested positive for marijuana during her pregnancy. When she found out, she felt set up by the prenatal clinic, which hadn’t told her that this could lead to a CPS report. Her baby remained with her, but she said she would think twice about opening up to the prenatal clinic again. She worried she was experiencing postpartum depression but also worried that if she shared what was going on, they might accuse her of not being able to take care of her child. We can see how this keeps parents from accessing support. … 

Sometimes, CPS can help with material needs. … [but] what does it mean to provide these supports through an agency that’s organized around surveillance and has the power to separate families? Why is it that the best way to get the diapers your family needs is to reach out to an agency that can take your child away? 

● The harm of mandatory reporting also was the theme of a webinar sponsored by the Shriver Center on Povery Law.  In this part of the webinar, Charity Tolliver, founder and project director of Black on Both Sides explains why, “however kindly intended, the foster care system is viewed as a looming threat for most Black families.”


 ● The Imprint reports on a bill introduced in Congress that could reduce needless family separation. It would allow federal judges “to consider whether it would be better for the whole family if the defendant [convicted of a federal crime] were to stay out of prison or probation and instead be ordered to receive a comprehensive range of services, under legislation introduced this week.

 The Marshall Project has an excellent story about the enormous harm done to poor familiies, especially poor families of color, when a dangerous media-fueled myth catches fire.  In this case it was the myth of the “superpredator” and the racist criminal justice laws it helped to spawn. But some of the same news organizations spread equally dangerous, racist myths about poor families that led to the passage of an equally dangerous law: the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act.

 ● In a commentary for Youth Today, Alexandra Miller and Macon Stewart write that it’s time to


bring back the Black girls who are unnecessarily pulled out of their homes and placed into the foster care system. In 2018, Black children represented 23% of youth in foster care and 14% of the general youth population. Research …  overwhelmingly demonstrate[s] that Black families are more likely to have abuse reported, investigated and substantiated than white families. Relatedly, Black children are more likely to be placed in care and remain in care for longer periods of time than white children and are less likely to reunite with their families.

● Mike Hixenbaugh, the NBC News reporter who’s done outstanding reporting about the harm done to families by some so-called “child abuse pediatricians” – including a new podcast, -- tells the story behind the story. 

● In 2015, two federal agencies, the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services issued a scathing letter blasting the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families for discriminating against still another category of family that is often targeted for needless destruction: parents with disabilities.  Now, DCF has reached a settlement with the federal agencies.  WBUR Public Radio has a story about it. And this HHS press release has a link to the full agreement. 

● And on this blog, I’ve reprinted our annual salute to National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Adoption of children from foster care: National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day, 2020

 This post originally appeared in 2008. Since the event is annual, I've reprinted it on several occasions since, with revisions and updates as appropriate.  

How do we know what's really important to a person, or to a corporation, or to an institution?

    One way, of course, is how we choose to spend money, and I've written before about how child welfare agencies do that. But there's also another good measure: what we choose to celebrate.

    The father who has memorized the schedule of his favorite football team but always forgets his children's birthdays is sending a message. So, too, is the child welfare agency which claims that its first priority when a child is taken away is to reunify that child with her or his birth parents, with adoption as the second choice, but chooses to celebrate only the supposed second choice.

    Often, adoption is the right second choice; for some children it is the right first choice. Adoption can be, both literally and figuratively, a life saver for a child; it should be one important component of any good child welfare system; and there is nothing wrong with celebrating it as one avenue to permanence.

How child welfare systems view keeping families together

But if the true intent of child welfare systems is revealed by what they celebrate, then one of the most noble concepts in child welfare, giving children permanence, has been perverted into a synonym for adoption and only adoption. 

Reunification gets lip service until everyone in the system, from frontline workers, to agency chiefs to top judges can get what they really want: children taken from poor people and placed with middle class families; families like their own. 

The real agenda of most child welfare systems, and most of the people in them, is made apparent every year on National Adoption Day; or, as it should properly be called, National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.

Everybody knows the drill

How child welfare systems view adoption

    The day actually is celebrated on different dates in different states, but it's always in November and most places will hold their celebrations on Saturday. 

You know the drill. Open the court on a Saturday, bring in cake and balloons, finalize foster-child adoptions en masse – and reinforce every stereotype about how the system rescues children from horrible birth parents and places them with vastly superior adoptive parents. 

And, of course, get a guaranteed puff piece in the local newspaper, with no tough questions. This one, from the St. Petersburg Times (Now Tampa Bay Times) in 2008, is typical:

In general, a courthouse is not a happy place. People go there to get divorced, to fight eviction, to file for bankruptcy, to watch loved ones sent away to prison. You see a lot of suffering, and you hear it in the cries and cursing that echo through the hallways. Forty children, sugar-laden with sheet cake and bouncing around a lobby with balloons, made Friday an exception at the county courthouse in Tampa. As part of a National Adoption Day celebration, they were legally united with "forever families," mothers and fathers giving them a one-way ticket out of the foster care system. …

The treacle aside, it's almost certainly inaccurate. Given what we know about adoption "disruption" for some of the children, it may well be round trip. And, as is discussed below, stories like this one make such tragedies, and others, a little more likely.

(As for how the Tampa Bay Times regards birth parents – see this post from 2017.)

If nothing else, this is the day when almost all the people in almost every child welfare system in the country, from frontline workers to agency chiefs, show their true colors. This is the day that makes them genuinely happy. Yet all these same players will turn on a dime and blather on about how their first priority is reunification. 

Well, if that's your first priority, why aren't you celebrating it? Why do so many fewer communities take part in National Reunification Day, a project that only began in 2009? Why is there no happiness expressed over doing what you yourselves claim is priority #1?  Why don't reporters note that, when a child finally gets to return to the birth mother she loves after months or years needlessly separated, that, too, can bring some happiness to a courtroom?

Clearly, reunification is not priority #1. Priority #1 is carrying out those middle-class rescue fantasies – taking children from people like them and placing them with people like us; people of the same race and, especially the same income level, as your average caseworker, judge, lawyer – or reporter. (No newspaper took the whole "people like us" thing as literally as Foster's Daily Democrat and its sister papers in New Hampshire. In 2008 -- a four story 4,900-word Sunday package of glop and goo about adoption day included a sidebar in which the saintly foster mother – who kept complaining about not getting enough taxpayer money for her adoptions – was none other than the newspaper's managing editor!)

For almost everyone working in the system, the truth is that keeping families together is the broccoli on the child welfare menu and adoption is the dessert. National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day is another way to bring out the dessert tray before anyone's eaten their broccoli.

The exceptions are few and far between. The first to recognize the hypocrisy was Marc Cherna, long-time reform-minded leader of the human services agency in Allegheny County, Pa. He was the first to create an annual celebration of reunified families and push it at least as hard as the adoption celebration. After NCCPR started spreading the word about this, a few other communities followed suit.

Then the Parents’ Representation Project of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law sponsored the first National Reunification Day – but even now that's it's become National Reunification Month, relatively few places take part, compared to the hundreds of Adoption Day events.  And some of the best reunification events are sponsored not by child welfare agencies or courts, but by groups like the Family Defense Center and Legal Services of New Jersey.

The dangers of Adoption Day

    It's not just hypocritical, it's also dangerous.

When the only kind of "permanence" that receives any reward is adoption, the message to the frontlines is obvious: Don't try to reunify, rush to terminate children's rights to their parents (which is what termination of parental rights really means). And that's exactly what happens. In Kentucky it led to a scandal, as the Lexington Herald-Leader exposed "quick trigger adoptions" with workers rushing to terminate parental rights in cases where children may never have needed to be taken from their parents. 

The only difference between Kentucky and the rest of the nation is, in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader was paying attention. That caught the attention of NBC Nightly News which offered an excellent overview of the Kentucky scandal.

But there are other dangers as well. Year after year, terminations of parental rights outrun actual adoptions. The result: A generation of legal orphans with no ties to their parents and little or no hope of adoption – with or without cake and balloons - either. The combination of these non-financial incentives, plus the adoption bounties paid by the federal government goes a long way to explain the sharp increase in the number of children who "aged out" of foster care over the past 20 years. 

We estimate that the mad rush to embrace adoption-as-panacea has contributed to creating more than 120,000 additional children who age out with no permanent home.  And data compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation show that of all the children who leave the foster care system at age 16 or older, half have no permanent home.  It's even worse for nonwhite foster children.

And then there is the matter of where these children wind up.

Another reason for the mad rush to adoption-at-all-costs is the fact that getting those adoption numbers up is the one time a child welfare agency is guaranteed good press. Everyone knows the reporters will write a story like the one quoted above and not ask any tough questions about whether the children really needed to be taken, and how carefully the adoptive parents were checked out. 

And then, the same journalists will wonder how it could happen that children like Ricky Holland and Timothy Boss in Michigan and others across the country could be murdered by adoptive parents - in effect, adopted to death. In 2017, in Iowa alone, there have been four cases of horrific, sometimes fatal abuse, involving children adopted from foster care.

Of course abuse in adoptive homes is rare – just like abuse in birth parent homes. The bigger problem is adoption "disruption," when agencies rush children into a bad match and the parents change their minds. No one really knows how often that happens – child welfare systems almost never ask questions to which they don't want to know the answers. Some rough estimates are in NCCPR's Issue Paper on adoption.  And journalists rarely follow up on those adoption "happy endings" - unless the adoption itself got an exceptional amount of attention - as happened here.

But whether the problem is legal orphans, disruption or, rarely, severe, even fatal abuse in adoptive homes, it's all encouraged by adoption bounties and the adoption day mentality, both of which promote quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements.

Even Marcia Lowry, who used to run the group that calls itself "Children's Rights" has said that "… Congress should realize that far too many states … when they do, for example, raise their adoption numbers, are doing so by including many clearly inadequate families … along with the genuinely committed, loving families who want to make a home for these children, just to 'succeed' by boosting their numbers." That her own lawsuit settlements have been known to push states the same way is a contradiction someone might want to ask her about someday.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending November 17, 2020

● Why in the world would progressive child advocates be urging the incoming Biden Administration to keep in place the leadership team in the federal government’s Children’s Bureau?  Vivek Sankaran explains in this column for The Imprint.  Also, check out the interview with Sankaran on the Imprint’s podcast.  It starts at 29:46 in.

 ● Why would a progressive child advocate take part in a podcast produced by a conservative group?  Because child welfare crosses ideological lines in unusual ways.  Listen to NCCPR’s take on child welfare here.

 Two big developments in New York City concerning racial bias when hospitals test patients for substance use – tests that then may form the sole basis for calling in false allegations of child abuse:

 WNYC Public Radio reports that “New York City’s public hospitals will end a longstanding practice of drug testing pregnant patients without their explicit written consent, a policy that advocates say leads to unnecessary investigations and perpetuates racial disparities in the child welfare system.”

 ● And New York City’s Human Rights Commission has launched an investigation into whether three prestigious private hospitals are discriminating against Black and Latinx patients when they decide whom to test for drug use. The Imprint has a story about the investigation.

 ● No doubt, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services will throw up its hands and claim they can’t do anything about hospitals do, or what the state does – because buck-passing is what ACS does best.  In fact, ACS has a lot of influence over what hospitals do and some influence over the state.  And one thing ACS could do on its own is implement a true Family Assessment Response program (also called differential response), in which workers are sent out to offer voluntary help instead of an investigation.  But the ACS version of Family Assessment Response is essentially a big fake-out. The Imprint has a story about that, too.

 ● NCCPR has updated the Big City Rate-of-Removal Index.  On this blog I have a summary of what’s changed: Philadelphia gets a little better, Los Angeles gets worse, and the “professional kidnappers” are hard at work in Phoenix.

 One of the reasons Philadelphia has gotten a little better is explained in this story from Kensington Voice – and the lessons can be applied everywhere.

 ● Also in Pennsylvania – but applicable almost everywhere: Community Legal Services of Philadelphia has issued a report on the enormous harm done to children by the state’s central registry of so-called child abusers. As the report points out:

 Blocking off the ability of parents and caregivers to access employment in high-growth fields only serves to hurt the very children the child abuse registry is supposed to protect in the first place. The child abuse registry thus exacerbates child poverty and places vulnerable families in even more precarious circumstances. And all too often, placement on the registry is based on faulty or incomplete investigations, or on the caseworkers’ misapplication of evidence or misunderstanding of statutory definitions. In many cases, racial, cultural, or economic differences create an additional bias that factors into a caseworker’s determination of whether child abuse or neglect occurred.

In a column about the report for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, Janet Ginzberg and Saadiqa Kumanyika of Community Legal Services write:

 The investigator is the “judge and jury.” Without any hearing, they decide whether there was substantial evidence of child abuse and, if so,  they “indicate” the report, placing the accused on the registry. The criteria used to make these determinations is often unreliable and heavily influenced by the investigator’s personal biases.
 ● With the federal Indian Child Welfare Act under attack, New Mexico Political Report has a story about lawmakers moving to incorporate its provisions into state law.

 ● What happens when the “helicopter parent” is a school? One school refuses to let parents decide if their 9, 10 or 11-year old children are old enough to walk home alone (because, in a time of COVID-19, what could be safer than all going together in a school bus, right?)  Lenore Skenazy writes in Reason about the need for legislation to allow parents to give their children reasonable independence.

● And we end this week where we started: With a commentary from the head of the Children’s Bureau, Jerry Milner on the Rethinking Foster Care blog.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Big city child welfare: Philadelphia gets a little better, Los Angeles gets worse, and the “professional kidnappers” are hard at work in Phoenix

In addition to tracking the propensity of states to take children from their families, NCCPR does a separate index for America’s top ten cities and their surrounding counties.  These ten communities alone account for nearly one in eight children torn from their families in America each year. NCCPR has just updated its Big City Rate of Removal Index.  With one exception, Chicago, the data are from no later than the end of 2019, so they are not affected by COVID-19. The full Index is available here.

Here are the highlights:

Activism gets results in Philadelphia 

After NCCPR and other advocates spent years of hammering home the message, media in Philadelphia are paying attention to the fact that the city long has been an extreme outlier, tearing apart families at either the worst or second worst rate among big cities.  That, plus activism by everyone from Councilmember David Oh, to Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, to the grassroots activists at DHS Give Us Back Our Children to other groups of families who are fighting back is making a difference. 

Philadelphia is still an outlier when it comes to taking away children, but it’s less of an outlier. 

In 2019 DHS took away 399 fewer children than in 2018.  Because Philadelphia got a little better, and Los Angeles got significantly worse, in 2019, Philadelphia took children at the third or fourth highest rate – it’s least bad showing since NCCPR started compiling these data. 

It’s important to remember, however, that the communities with the four highest rates of removal, including Philadelphia, are probably significantly higher than the remaining six. Philadelphia still takes away children at double the rate of New York City and Chicago.  

The decline in entries also is consistent with a similar rate of decline in the number of children in foster care on any given day reported in this excellent story from Broke in Philly.  The story focuses on the single most important reform Philadelphia can make to continue this improvement: expanding high quality interdisciplinary legal representation for families. 

The key now is to keep the pressure on. That’s going to happen. NCCPR is proud to be represented on a special committee of the Philadelphia City Council, created at the urging of Councilmember Oh and co-chaired by Oh and Councilmember Cindy Bass, examining child separation. 

Los Angeles: from bad to worse 

In part because Philadelphia got better, but mostly because Los Angeles County got worse, that system replaces Philadelphia in second place when it comes to family separation.  Both cities have long been outliers, and the naming of Bobby Cagle to run the county Department of Children and Family Services – fresh from presiding over a foster care panic in Georgia – did not augur well. 

To Cagle’s credit, when COVID-19 struck he did not impose a blanket ban on family visits – unlike many other child welfare agency chiefs.  But the data show that, when it comes to actual performance in sparing children the trauma of needless foster care, Cagle has lived down to his reputation. 

Arizona: Everyone got the message on those t-shirts 

You may recall that Arizona is the state where most of the workers in one field office thought it would be a great idea to dress up in t-shirts that said “Professional kidnapper” on one side and “do you know where your children are?” on the other. 

Those workers apparently were fired – but the data suggest that’s only because they said it out loud.  Among America’s biggest cities, number one for tearing apart families is Phoenix and surrounding Maricopa County. 

Not only is Phoenix the worst, no other big city even comes close. 

Even when you factor in rates of child poverty the rate of removal in Phoenix was: 

25% higher than Los Angeles

50% higher than Philadelphia

More than double the average for the ten cities and their surrounding counties.

More than triple the rate in New York City and Chicago. 

And, by the way, the rate of removal in metropolitan Tucson is even worse than  Phoenix.

Yes, it was only some workers in one field office who wore the t-shirts. But all over Arizona, the state’s child welfare agency is practicing what those t-shirts preached. 

Making all children less safe 

But hey, inflicting all that trauma on innocent families is worth it because at least in Phoenix there is never a child abuse horror story, right? No child “known to the system” ever dies because caseworkers are being “cautious” as they run around “erring on the side of the child” by tearing children from all they know and love; isn’t that so?  Same thing with L.A. and Philadelphia, correct? 

Didn’t think so. 

That’s because a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare so overloads systems with false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which poverty is confused with neglect that workers have less time to find children in real danger.  So in addition to exposing children to the enormous emotional trauma of needless foster care, and the high rate of abuse in foster care, the approach taken by cities like Phoenix, Los Angeles and, still, Philadelphia – and most of the rest of America – makes all children less safe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending November 10, 2020

● You’ve probably heard both sides of the debate over that Supreme Court case involving religious agencies seeking the right to discriminate against LGBT foster parents.  But there’s a third side of the story. Prof. Nancy Polikoff writes about what almost everybody is missing in this column for The Imprint.

●  "White families and more well-off families do not have to carry the fear that asking for help will destroy their families."  That’s from New York City Council testimony from the parents at Rise.  Read their full testimony here

● In Nebraska, a state with a long, ugly track record of tearing apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation, WOWT-TV reports on one grandmother’s desperate fight to save her grandchild from foster care.  As the grandmother points out: “Why would you bounce her from foster home to foster home? Why do you feel the system should raise this beautiful child who has issues when she has loving grandparents." 

● In another state with a horrible track record of family destruction, Arizona, the state is using a supposed increase in child abuse due to COVID-19 to do what it always does: Take the child and run.  NCCPR’s take is included in this story from the Arizona Daily Star. 

● In the 1990s, Congress passed three racist laws.  Many on the Left have had second thoughts about two of them; the welfare law and the crime law. But even as we face a racial justice reckoning, they remain silent – or worse – about the third.  On the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog I write about why it’s time to repeal the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act. 

● I’ve often written that the solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism. The horrible journalism of the Miami Herald set off a foster-care panic in Florida.  Good journalism from the USA TODAY Network in Florida exposed the harm that panic has done to children.  I have a column in the Florida Times-Union about what do to about it. 

● Speaking of good journalism, the first two episodes of Do No Harm, the podcast from Mike Hixenbaugh of NBC News about the harm done to families by some “child abuse pediatricians” are available now.

● The latest issue of Children’s Bureau Express includes several notable articles. 

From Sharon L. McDaniel founder, president, and chief executive officer of A Second Chance, Inc. who writes: 

Poverty, racism, and violence can threaten a family regardless of how resilient, stable, and confident they are. Reimagining child welfare means challenging and disrupting what has become the embedded tradition and culture of racism in policy and practice. 

From Kevin Campbell, Model Author of FamilyFinding, who writes: 

The emerging worldwide scientific consensus is clear; operating a foster care system makes its own contributions to distress and disease across the life course. Kinship care provides the best alternative to substitute care for children who cannot live safely with a parent. Children who can remain with a parent have the best long-term health and mental health outcomes. Institutions for children are disruptive to childhood development and harmful to health. We must continue the process of closing them. 

And from the Associate Commissioner for the Children’s Bureau, Jerry Milner and his Special Assistant David Kelly who write – well, you saw some of what they wrote if you read the ASFA column discussed above.

Monday, November 9, 2020

NCCPR in Florida Times-Union on fixing Florida foster care

I have often written that the solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism.

 Six years ago, bad journalism from the Miami Herald set off a foster-care panic in Florida.  (You can read about how bad here.)  Last month, 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.) UPDATE: December 18, 2020: They published even more powerful stories this week.

And on Sunday, the Florida Times-Union published our response to the stories:

Investigation shines spotlight on child welfare reform

 Decades ago, in Illinois, the death of a child “known to the system” led to a surge in the number of children taken from their parents. With every caseworker terrified to have the next horror story on her or his caseload, they flooded the system with children who never needed to be taken from their homes.

 As a result, one advocate said, the child welfare system became “Like a laboratory experiment to produce the abuse of children.”

 Thanks to the outstanding stories published in the Times-Union and elsewhere by reporters for the USA TODAY Network, we know the laboratory didn’t close – it just moved to Florida.  Their reporting documents how the foster-care panic triggered six years ago by reckless scapegoating of family preservation for child abuse deaths led to thousands of children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love.

 Read the full column here:

Sunday, November 8, 2020

ASFA: The racist child welfare law from the 1990s that almost no one talks about*

*-UPDATE, DECEMBER, 2022: Until now. In 2022, upon the occasion of ASFA's 25th anniversary, a lot of people wrote about the harm it's done.  Here's a sample.

It’s time to repeal the law that turns child welfare into the ultimate middle-class entitlement: Step right up and take a poor person’s child for your very own.

           Pandering to our worst instincts about race and class is nothing new.  In the mid-1990s Congress passed three laws rooted in racism. It wasn’t just Republicans. All of the laws had the enthusiastic support of Democratic President Bill Clinton.

           The three laws combined devastated poor Black communities.  Many on the Left have now figured that out – when it comes to two of those laws, a 1994 “crime law” that accelerated America’s love affair with mass incarceration, and the 1996 welfare law that ripped away financial support for impoverished, struggling Americans.  Both laws, of course, disproportionately affect people of color.

           But there was a third bill, equally racist in its origins, equally harmful in its effects, that has largely evaded this recent reckoning.  That’s no surprise. It’s one more example of the classic problem of much of the American Left: Many of my fellow liberals will renounce everything they claim to believe in if you just whisper the words “child abuse” in their ears.

           That’s how we got the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA).       

How we got stuck with ASFA

           A series of trends coincided to bring us to ASFA.  One, of course, was the fearmongering and racism that pervaded 1990s politics. This was the era when House Speaker Newt Gingrich championed both ending welfare and putting poor people’s children into orphanages.

           Second was fear on the part of America’s foster-care industrial complex that the federal funds gravy train might be ending.  In 1993, for the first time, Congress put a little bit of real money behind help to keep families together. It was still a pittance compared with the giant open-ended entitlement for foster care, but suddenly scare stories started turning up in newspapers around the country about children left at home supposedly because of a fanatical desire to preserve families.

           One story in particular captured enormous national attention. The Chicago Tribune scapegoated family preservation for the death of a little boy named Joseph Wallace. Not only was that untrue, a family preservation worker nearly saved Joseph’s life.  The Tribune figured this out – eventually. But by then it was too late.  Even though the internet was in its infancy, for a variety of reasons, discussed in detail here, the story went viral. 


 Third, the child welfare establishment spread a related myth: They claimed that an earlier federal law, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, requiring “reasonable efforts” – and nothing more -  to keep families together, supposedly led to some children being left in dangerous homes and other children languishing in foster care.

This, too, is false. The problem of children languishing in foster care had been documented for decades before 1980; it was a major focus of the first story I wrote about foster care in my earlier career as a journalist – in 1976.

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 was passed to prevent children from languishing in foster care.  But it did nothing to change the federal financial incentives that encourage foster care and discourage better alternatives. And the reasonable efforts clause – to this day – has never been enforced.

For example: Because federal funding is linked to claiming that reasonable efforts have been made, in Michigan 40% of judges admitted to lying and certifying such efforts had been made when they didn’t even believe it themselves.

So after a brief decline in the early 1980s, the number of children taken from their parents kept right on increasing in almost every year after that law was passed.  And though the federal government’s annual Child Maltreatment reports show that known cases of child abuse peaked in 1993, entries into foster care still kept going up. 

The reason children languished in foster care was not reasonable efforts, but the lack of reasonable efforts.  That's why children continue to languish in foster care today.  There were no efforts to curb needless removal and once in foster care the children were filed away and forgotten as overwhelmed caseworkers rushed on to the next case. 

Don’t say the O word!

             Meanwhile, in 1994, soon-to-be House Speaker Gingrich made that notorious proposal to force poor people’s children into orphanages.  Republican polling guru Frank Luntz sent House Republicans a memo telling them they could get what they wanted – if they stopped using the O word.

So suddenly, the Republicans started framing the issue in terms of adoption.  They told us millions of childless middle-class Americans were desperate to adopt foster children, but a Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy supposedly was trapping the children in foster care.

A lot of Republicans knew better, but they didn’t care; they were fine with orphanages.  For them, ASFA was the backdoor to the orphanage. A lot of Democrats were suckered by all the treacly talk about adoption.  ASFA passed nearly unanimously.

By 2000, one of the authors of ASFA, the late Richard Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania - and a supporter of orphanagesw -- couldn’t resist a little gloating.  As he explained to the New York City publication Child Welfare Watch:

Initially, this was just supposed to be a safe families bill, not really an adoption bill at all. The adoption component was a way of sanitizing the bill, to make it more appealing to a broader group of people. Adoption is a very popular concept in the country right now. [Emphasis added.] 

What does ASFA do?

● ASFA blows huge holes in what little was left of the “reasonable efforts” requirement.         

● With limited exceptions, ASFA demands that states move to terminate children’s rights to their parents (which is what “termination of parental rights” really means) for any child in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months -  regardless of whether the child should ever have been taken at all, and regardless of whether the passage of time was the parents’ fault. 

As Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner of the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Health and Human Services and his Special Assistant David Kelly write in the latest issue of Children’s Bureau Express:

 In more recent times in public child welfare—with the passage of laws that place short time limits on efforts to help families regain custody of their children—we have created more legal orphans than children entering care without living parents. The underlying philosophies behind such laws placed value in getting tough on parents facing difficulties and has disproportionately affected poor parents, Black parents, and Native parents. We have fed a culture of blame.

 This should give us considerable pause.

 We have effectively tied parenting and family relationships to a calendar, and in so doing, one of the most sacred life experiences and purposes a human being can serve has been placed on a timer.

          ● ASFA pays states bounties of thousands of dollars per child for adoptions over a baseline number.  Since the states can keep the money even if the adoption fails, it encourages quick-and-dirty slipshod placements.

● But even more important than any single provision, ASFA sent a message to the child welfare frontlines: You should falsely equate child removal with child safety and rush to take away more children. (That’s what Gelles meant by “a safe families bill” that was “sanitized” by the adoption provisions.) And, of course, it sent that message to a system permeated with class bias and racial bias.

 So even as child abuse continued to decline, the number of children in foster care on any given day kept increasing, peaking in 1999.  It didn’t fall below the number when ASFA became law until 2003.  The number of children taken away over the course of a year kept increasing until 2006.  There were a few years of slow declines, then an increase and now the number is declining again. (Details and sources here.)

So ASFA’s true effect was to make the system bigger, tear apart even more families needlessly, and consign more children to the very chaos from which they supposedly were going to be saved.

Legal orphans

           As for all those promised adoptions, the army of childless yuppies never showed up.  Adoptions increased modestly – continuing a trend that had begun before ASFA passed. But the average annual increase in adoptions over the year before typically equals about four-tenths-of-one-percent of the number of children in foster care on any given day.  And we have no reliable data on how many of these adoptions fail, with the adoptive parents giving up on the children and sending them back into the system.  What little we do know is disturbing.


Worst of all, every year more children lose their rights to their parents than are adopted.  The result: A sharp increase in children aging out of the system with no home at all, separated from their birth parents, but without an adoptive home.  In many cases, these were children whose rights to their parents had been terminated, making them, as Milner and Kelly remind us, legal orphans.

           We estimate that between 1997 and 2019, because of ASFA at least 121,000 more children aged out of foster care with no permanent home than would have aged out had there been no ASFA. 

ASFA and safety

             Those clinging to ASFA also try to smear anyone who opposes this racist law with  the Big Lie of American child welfare – that anyone who opposes ASFA would, as one backer of the law put it, “put the rights of parents over the safety of children.”

           On the contrary, there is abundant evidence that, almost always, family preservation is safer than foster care. The high rate of abuse in foster care itself is one likely reason that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes typically do better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.  And, of course, ASFA’s enshrinement of a take-the-child-and-run mentality overloads systems so workers have even less time to find the few children in real danger.

           ASFA makes all vulnerable children less safe.

           But then there’s nothing new about hiding an agenda that oppresses poor people of color behind myths about safety.  Newt “bring back the orphanage” Gingrich does the same thing to justify oppressive police tactics such as stop-and-frisk. 

How ASFA plays out case-by-case

           ASFA exploits the child welfare system’s worst instincts. Here’s how it works for child protective services agencies (or, as they should be called, family police agencies). Not all of this process was created by ASFA, of course, but all was worsened by it:

           ● First take away children because the parents are poor.  Although any poor family is a potential target, racism ensures that poor families of color are even more vulnerable.

           ● Then place the children with white, middle-class foster parents who really want to adopt the child.

           ● Through a process called “concurrent planning” – encouraged by ASFA – tell the foster parents their first obligation is to help reunite the family. But if, by some chance, they fail at that then they get what they really want: Someone else’s children.  

           ● Give the middle-class foster parents all sorts of help denied to the poor parents, such as a significant monthly payment – tax free – other “allowances” and sometimes even childcare.

           ● Because you really prefer those middle-class foster parents, stall and stall for 15 months.

           ● Then, invoke the provision of ASFA, which, with some exceptions requires states to petition for termination of children’s rights to their parents after 15 months.           

(Though one ASFA proponent claims the law includes a provision allowing judges to intervene at this stage if a state failed to make “reasonable efforts” that is flat-out false.  The state itself would have to confess to this failure in order to invoke the “reasonable efforts” exception and not file a termination petition.  Judges get involved only after the petition has been filed and the case has gone to trial.)

             Result: The child welfare system becomes the ultimate middle-class entitlement: step right up and take a poor person’s child for your very own.

 As Prof. Martin Guggenheim, co-director of the Family Defense Clinic at New York University School of Law (and NCCPR’s President) explains:

 ASFA has been responsible for the massive destruction of black and brown families. More than 2 million children’s parents’ rights have been terminated ... since ASFA was enacted. … It is an unpleasant truth that many of the organizations whose collective voice is condemning racist police practices now have for decades celebrated the approach enshrined in law by ASFA, some by explicitly celebrating adoption and others using the euphemism “permanency.”

             The Movement for Black Lives also has condemned the law, as have many other organizations advocating for racial justice.

How to fix it

 We can fix this if we learn the right lessons from the past 23 years.

Imagine what would have happened if, instead of passing a racist, regressive law such as ASFA, we’d put our effort into actually enforcing that earlier law, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980.  Think how many fewer children would have languished in foster care – because they wouldn’t have been taken at all and, for those who were taken, workers would have had more time to reunite them or, when genuinely necessary, get them adopted.

As Milner and Kelly write:

 During this time of reckoning, veils are being lifted and society is becoming increasingly aware of barriers to equity and the impact of laws that may appear neutral on their surface but cause harmful consequences. Child welfare legislation should not escape scrutiny. ... [W]e should pay thoughtful attention to the design and impact of our laws—old and new—to determine if they represent the knowledge we have about what families and children need to thrive and when they need it.

 So we know how to fix this. In fact, it’s a simple two-step process:

 ● Repeal ASFA.

● Enforce “reasonable efforts.”