Thursday, September 2, 2021

NCCPR in The Imprint: Graphic evidence that child welfare surveillance doesn’t work

There is a graphic making the rounds in child welfare that’s gotten a fair amount of attention lately. The graphic tracks the rate at which caseworkers “substantiated” various forms of child abuse and neglect allegations from 1990 to 2018. 

It was created by Prof. David Finkelhor and his colleagues at the University of New Hampshire. In 2020, it turned up in a conference presentation from Prevent Child Abuse America. Then Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago used it in a PowerPoint presentation of its own. And then John Kelly raised it with Chapin Hall Executive Director Bryan Samuels on The Imprint’s weekly podcast. 

You’ll probably find it striking too.

“I was wondering,” one advocate said to me upon seeing the graphic in Chapin Hall’s presentation, “does slide #7 look right to you?”

No, it doesn’t look right. Because it isn’t right. Some of the numbers in the slide aren’t real.

Read the full column, and compare the real numbers to the unreal numbers, in The Imprint.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 31, 2021

 ● Wow! Those child abuse numbers sure look scary - but then they would, when you double and triple the real numbers. NCCPR has the graphic evidence in this column for The Imprint

ProPublica Illinois has a follow-up to their investigation revealing that the state routinely fails to provide Spanish-speaking families with help in their own language – or even a caseworker who speaks Spanish.  As the story explains: 

Parents — many of them undocumented immigrants who are already reluctant to come into contact with or speak out against government agencies — can for months or years be assigned caseworkers who don’t speak their language, or face lengthy delays in accessing services in Spanish, all of which prolongs their separation from their children. 

The Philadelphia Citizen has a story about Family Finding – a program in which agencies move heaven and earth to find extended family for foster children so at least they don’t have to be placed with strangers.  The story also is a good object lesson in a common child welfare practice: taking an excellent program, diluting the model while keeping the name, and then claiming that “we already have” that program. 

The Imprint looks at the controversy over so-called “family enrichment centers” – can a family really be “enriched” when the center is run by the same agency that can take away the children?

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 24, 2021

 We begin with two great videos: 

● Prof. Dorothy Roberts talks to Kathleen Creamer of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia about “demystifying abolition:" 

● See also Prof. Roberts’ essay for the Summer issue of Dissent, which begins this way: 

Imagine if there were an arm of the state that sent government agents to invade Black people’s homes, kept them under intense and indefinite surveillance, regulated their daily lives, and forcibly separated their families, often permanently. The left would put toppling this regime high on its agenda, right? This racist structure exists in the United States today, and yet the left pays little attention to it. The child welfare system—the assemblage of public and private child protection agencies, foster care, and preventive services—is a crucial part of the carceral machinery in Black communities.

● And from Legal Services of New Jersey, an outstanding panel setting the record straight about substance use and child welfare. If you can't watch all of it, I recommend starting at 11:37 in with the eye-opening presentation from Prof. Tricia Stephens of the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College: 


● There’s good news for rocket scientists – they can stick to their day jobs!  That’s because, as I explain in Youth Today, fixing child welfare isn’t rocket science – mostly it’s a matter of giving poor people a little more money. 

● But because of our obsession with ignoring the confusion of poverty with neglect and our insistence that if you’re poor you must be mentally ill, family policing agencies insist on putting parents through “psychological evaluations” – which typically are at best meaningless and often far worse.  As family defender Emma Brown Bernstein writes for the Rethinking Foster Care blog: 

As a parent attorney for nine years, I have had the opportunity to review dozens and dozens of parental fitness and psychological evaluations, but I have never seen one that recommends that a child return home (even under any conditions) or that a parent have unsupervised visitation. Instead, I have seen evaluations missing key evaluative components, relying on incorrect information, or copying and pasting paragraphs with other individual’s information. 

I have also seen evaluations recommending parents lose weight, maintain housing for six months prior to unsupervised visitation, or obtain a GED or high school diploma. A “therapeutic” recommendation is often that parents “comply with their case plans” without the evaluator ever seeing those case plans. And I have seen the same evaluators marched into court over and over and over again to produce the same findings, give the same recommendations, and receive the same payment from the Department. When does this become just an “expert for hire”? 

● Although the Minnesota Legislature failed to pass the African American Family Preservation Act, Sylvia A. Harvey shows in this article for The Imprint why such legislation is needed. 

● What do General George Armstrong Custer and some high-powered 21st century law firms have in common? Nick Estes has the answer in a commentary for The Guardian. 

● His commentary is pegged to the excellent This Land podcast series about the real history behind challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act.  The first two episodes and transcripts, are available here. 

● And the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports on a rally for Syesha Mercado, the American Idol finalist who had her children taken for Parenting-While-Black.

Friday, August 20, 2021

NCCPR in Youth Today on why the rocket scientists can stick to their day jobs

A concept some of us have been pushing for decades has suddenly become a centerpiece of the child welfare debate: Family policing agencies routinely confuse poverty with neglect.  It follows, therefore, that an enormous amount of what we call “child maltreatment” can be solved through a two-step process.

1.     Find the poor people.

2.     Send money.

Research bears this out.  Or, as one speaker at a recent symposium put it “It’s not rocket science.”

That was challenged by another speaker at the same symposium: Michael Wald, professor emeritus of law at Stanford University. ...

Read the full column in Youth Today 

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 18, 2021

● This first story falls into the category known as: Please drop everything and read it.  Kendra Hurley was one of the first journalists to question the “master narrative” about child abuse and COVID-19: The claim that, in the absence of ever-vigilant, mostly white middle-class “mandated reporters,” overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite parents would unleash a “pandemic of child abuse” upon their children. 

“But a group of mothers, attorneys, and other advocates who know the foster care system from the inside saw things differently,” Hurley writes in a just-published follow-up story for The New Republic.

They had long considered the system overzealous in its investigations of poor Black and brown families. So when child protective services began operating at a whisper of its former self, where others saw danger, these women saw opportunity. “I think this could be a test where the numbers end up showing that we don’t need the mandated reporter system at all,” Chris Gottlieb, co-director of the New York University School of Law Family Defense Clinic, told me for a CityLab article in June of 2020, when New York City’s child welfare agency reported a 51 percent decline in child abuse cases. 

Today, more than a year later, indicators suggest that in New York City, at least, the advocates were right. … 

[B]efore the number of reports plummeted in 2020, no one knew what might happen in the absence of mandated reporting: With a pared-down system, would more children be harmed? Now the data is coming in, and it shows “what we always knew” about mandated reporting, says Erin Miles Cloud, co-director and co-founder of the nonprofit Movement for Family Power: “Our kids are safe without it.” [Emphasis  added]

● But in the meantime, the whole “pandemic of child abuse” myth has done all sorts of harm to children.  Now, as pediatric ICUs fill with COVID-19 patients and kids are rushed back into classrooms – sometimes without masks and too young for vaccines – this NCCPR Blog post offers a reminder of how child welfare establishment fearmongering helped make things worse. 

● How can a family that wants help feel comfortable seeking that help if they know the helper is also a mandated reporter, and the place they go for help is run by the same agency that can take away the children?  Obviously, they can’t.  That’s why members of Rise protested at New York City Hall last week against a plan to expand “family enrichment centers” run by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services.  And here’s what Rise wants don’t instead.

● After the mandated reporter phones in a report (a report that almost always is false or involves confusing poverty with “neglect”) there may follow an investigation and a listing of a parent in a “central registry of alleged child abusers.  The City University of New York Law Review has a comprehensive examination of the harm done by these registries – including the lack of due process and how needless listings drive families further into poverty.  The article includes a state-by-state summary of the widely-differing ways in which these registries work. 

● The Dallas Morning News has an impressive examination of the implications for Texas in that study which found astounding numbers of Black children in America’s largest counties will face the trauma of a child abuse investigation (again, almost always as a result of a false report). Equally impressive: The story was written by a student intern. 

● Native American children also have been special targets of the family police.  Starting August 23, the This Land podcast series reveals the results of a year-long investigation into the systemic attacks against the one law that seeks to protect Native American children, the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Perhaps you read the stories about white celebrities who can brag on social media about things like not bathing their children. Last week, we highlighted Roxane Gay’s commentary noting that Black parents don’t have that luxury.  Now, BuzzFeed News reports, the system doesn’t even work that way for Black celebrities.  

● You’ve read the next two stories before – over and over and over again.  It’s that standard of investigative journalism exposing horrors at a “residential treatment center.”  This week’s examples come from Arkansas and Illinois.  Yet somehow the message still hasn’t sunk in: You can’t fix this with more inspections and “corrective action plans.” The problems are built into the model: Residential treatment itself is the problem.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Did child welfare fearmongering contribute to the increase in COVID among children?

 An eighth-grade girl died the morning of Saturday, Aug. 14, in Raleigh, Miss., mere hours after testing positive for COVID-19. Multiple sources told the Mississippi Free Press that the student had attended classes at the school most of the week, including Wednesday, before testing positive for COVID-19 at week’s end. Her health quickly declined afterward.

                                                          --Mississippi Free Press, Aug. 15, 2021

Just one week into the new school year, 5,599 students and 316 employees in Hillsborough County [Florida] are isolated or quarantined as COVID cases continue to rise.  That's equivalent to about 2.4 percent of the student population in the county.

                                                                --WFTS-TV, Tampa, Aug. 16, 2021

 The number of kids infected with Covid-19 is soaring as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads and schools reopen, pushing children's hospitals around the country to the brink. Tennessee’s health commissioner expects the state’s children’s hospitals to be full by the week’s end. Louisiana reached that point more than a week ago. And Arkansas’ only children’s hospital has just two ICU beds remaining.

 --Politico, Aug. 11, 2021

             Remember how some of America’s latter-day child savers told us we’ve got to get the kids back in school as soon as possible to protect them from a “pandemic of child abuse” at the hands of their own parents? 

            Remember how they said that as soon as the eyes of overwhelmingly middle-class disproportionately white professionals were averted from overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite children those children’s parents would unleash upon their children child abuse in pandemic proportions? 

            Remember the second wave of fearmongering, the one in which we were told that as soon as schools reopened, the children would come staggering back battered and bruised and we’d better brace ourselves for what one oft-quoted advocate said would be a “tsunami of suffering”?  (Actually, you don’t need a long memory for that one – that myth is still being spread.)  

            Remember how right-wing politicians exploited these fears to force schools to reopen and force children back into the classroom?  As this Blog noted almost exactly a year ago: 

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

            But, of course it wasn’t just the right wing.  

            Consider self-proclaimed liberal Prof. James Dwyer. 

            Dwyer’s contempt for impoverished families is breathtaking.  As we pointed out last year: 

In 2011, he called for the massive forced relocation of poor families. The penalty for not uprooting themselves and their children from “terrible” inner city neighborhoods and exiling themselves – if necessary to small towns and rural areas: government confiscation of the children. 

Dwyer blithely declares that most poor parents who live in “terrible place[s]” so do by choice, not because it’s all they can afford.  Most of the rest, he says, made the irresponsible choice to have children – “or to risk creating a child by having sex, despite knowing the child would live in a terrible place…” And besides, he writes, “a relatively high percentage of adults who live in the worst neighborhoods are marginal to begin with…” 

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when, in May, 2020, Dwyer suggested that child abuse in the home is so rampant that schools should never have closed at all.  He claimed “the shutdown decision arguably amounted to a prioritizing of the welfare of certain adults over the welfare of children."  By this he meant that children appeared less likely to get coronavirus or, he claimed, to transmit it. 

            Defenders of the fearmongering might say what Dwyer and others said in 2020 was excusable because it was before the emergence of the Delta variant – who could have known what would happen?  In fact, the evidence about COVID and children was always more ambiguous than those crusading to reopen schools claimed.  As we noted in that earlier post: 

            What is unclear is which adults [Dwyer] means.  We do know that the research on the extent to which children transmit coronavirus is mixed.  We also know that in New York City alone 63 public school employees died of coronavirus before schools there were shut down.  Presumably some of them left children behind – some of them might even have been good parents.  And Dwyer makes no reference to a COVID-related disease that does, indeed, attack children – and might have attacked many more had schools not been closed. 

            Even now, we don’t know how hard children will be hit by the Delta variant.  As Politico put it: 

Doctors and scientists say there is not enough evidence to determine whether Delta causes children to become sicker than earlier Covid variants did. … Still, there is growing concern among health professionals that more children are showing up in worse condition than at any previous point during the pandemic. 

            And some children who had mild initial infections are experiencing long COVID. 

We do know, however that the “pandemic of child abuse” claims turned out to be false – and that it was clear from the start that there was no merit to them, because, in fact, the kind of horrors we think of when we hear the words “child abuse” are extremely rare.  

Now, enough children have returned to school, and there is more than enough other evidence, to show that (surprise!) Black and Brown parents are not monsters who will turn on their children as soon as white professionals aren’t looking.  Even the head of New York City’s family policing agency (a more accurate term than child welfare agency) has confirmed that the fearmongers were wrong. 

            Yet the myth won’t die.  Out of 14 child welfare stories summarized in an email we received yesterday (Aug. 16) two promoted the myth about COVID and child abuse.  Hardly a day goes by without at least one such story – even as the real danger of forcing children back into classrooms becomes more apparent. 

            So it’s about time the fearmongers took a good hard look at what they’ve done.  We are now witnessing a rush back into the classroom. In some cases, school districts won’t, or are not allowed to, require masks.  And children under 12 can’t be vaccinated.  How much did the scare stories about child abuse contribute to all this? 

            For many children, there may yet be a tsunami of suffering – but not for the reasons America’s child welfare establishment predicted.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 10, 2021

We begin with legislation – enacted …

● Perhaps you assumed it already happens: Of course, if children are torn from an impoverished parent’s arms the parent at least gets a lawyer, right?  Not necessarily.  In some states, it’s at the whim of the judge.  But that’s no longer true in Minnesota.  And the Minnesota law has some good language about when that lawyer should be appointed. 

Vivek Sankaran writes that we should celebrate this victory while being mindful of how much more needs to be done to provide any semblance of justice for families: 

“If your sister lost her children to the foster care system, would you be okay if she had to wait nearly three weeks for a court hearing? If your brother was assigned a lawyer who could make more money working a few hours at a fast food chain, would that feel like justice? If your aunt had an attorney who had to advocate for her without actually receiving the evidence the other side was relying on, would you think she got a fair shake?” 

… and proposed 

● A Texas lawmaker is trying to curb and track the pernicious practice of hidden foster care.  

● A bill introduced in Congress seeks to curb the needless destruction of families when mothers are in prison – by encouraging alternatives to imprisoning mothers. 

● Of course, there’s still the matter of the horrible laws on the books, such as the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.  Check out the video of this teach-in on the harm done by that law:


● Have you heard about the white celebrities who’ve been bragging on social media about how rarely they bathe their children? Roxanne Gay has.  And she makes a crucial point: 

If a Black parent made the statements celebrities have made lately about bathing and their children, they would soon receive a visit from Child Protective Services. This is not hyperbole; it happens, regularly and disproportionately.

● Last December, we linked to an Albany Times Union story about what happened when New York State passed a law suspending the statute of limitations so adults could sue over sexual abuse inflicted on them as children.  What happened was a lot of the suits were filed against foster parents, group homes and institutions.  Another such suit has been filed, this time in Buffalo.  

● And in case anyone seriously thinks things have gotten better, here’s a more recent example, involving what happened to an infant when authorities in Las Vegas refused to place him with his grandmother.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 3, 2021

● Movement for Family Power and the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls have launched their #RepealASFA campaign – urging Congress to erase an odious law that has erased hundreds of thousands of families.  Their analysis of the law’s origins is striking.  Here’s an excerpt: 

When we consider the Adoption and Safe Families Act, we situate our analysis not only in the elements of the law, but also the dominant imagination that allowed it to exist and survive with very little opposition.  One starting point is looking at Senator John Chafee (R-RI), a lead senate sponsor for the legislation, who on the eve of the eve of the passage of the ASFA told the New York Times, “It’s time we recognize that some families simply cannot and should not be kept together.” He spoke these words when nearly half of the children in the family regulation system were Black, most were poor, and the federal government was rapidly draining social safety nets.  

We believe that the families Chaffee imagined were not his own. He was from a family to which the entire power and might of the United States was dedicated to keeping together. In his direct ancestry were multiple governors, law professors, and senators. He attended the most elite institutions of the Northeast and went on to live the life he was pre destined to live-- ascending from congressperson to governor to secretary of the navy to senator. He had been bequeathed generational wealth and social status from the blood, sweat and tears of our families--literally achieving social and political capital from the backs of our ancestors.  He would likely utter the words that “some families should not be kept together” with a strong sense that his would continue to accumulate wealth and status, while we would inherit crippling foster system histories. 

NCCPR has more about ASFA here and here

Youth Today and The Imprint have excellent stories about that new study showing the extent to which family policing has become a pervasive, traumatic intrusion into the lives of families – especially nonwhite families.  In Arizona, for example, nearly every impoverished Black child will be subjected to a child abuse investigation and 20% will be forced into foster care.  Don’t worry, the Arizona family preservation agency told The Imprint, in recent years we’ve made “vast systemic improvements.”  But, as we point out in this blog post, the data tell a different story

● The story of one particularly appalling judge in Philadelphia, first reported in 2018 by the Legal Intelligencer, has gone national. NBC News looks at the havoc wrought by now-former Family Court Judge Lyris Younge.  Two elements are crucial: We would have known about this much sooner had court hearings in these cases been open in Philadelphia  -  as they are in states where more than 40% of America’s foster children live.  And Younge never could have done this to families had the Philadelphia Department of Human Services not harassed the families and brought them before her in the first place.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Child welfare in Arizona: Don’t believe the spin from the agency where workers called themselves “professional kidnappers.”

The Imprint has a very good story about that new study showing the obscene rates at which family policing agencies investigate families – particularly nonwhite families. 

As you may recall, that study estimated that in two of America’s 20 largest counties, Los Angeles and Maricopa (metropolitan Phoenix), more than 70 percent of Black children would be forced to endure the trauma of a child abuse investigation before they turn 18.  (And since the study didn’t factor in income, you can be damn sure almost every poor Black child will face this trauma.) 

Maricopa County also has appalling numbers for later stages in the process.  Nearly 15% of Native American children, nearly 15% of Hispanic children and nearly 20% of Black children will be placed in foster care, according to the study.  In Maricopa County, termination of children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights) happens at obscenely high rates. In fact, for Black and Native children, no other county studied even comes close. 

That’s what you’d expect from a state where the family policing agency, which carries the Orwellian name “Department of Child Safety,” had an office in which almost all the caseworkers thought it would be fun to wear t-shirts emblazoned on one side with the words “professional kidnapper” and on the other with the words “do you know where your children are?”  (Fun fact: You can now buy matching masks with the same message!) Those workers were fired.  The ones smart enough not to wear their sentiments almost literally on their sleeves remain. 

When The Imprint asked a p.r. person for DCS about the findings in the new study, the p.r. guy he went for what probably would be Rule #23 in “The Official Flack Handbook,” were there such a publication: When confronted by alarming data in a study, say that sure, things may have been bad then, but we’re sooooo much better now! 

And so, we get a DCS spokesman telling The Imprint: 

…the actual maltreatment records from which long-term estimates were derived, covering the years 2014 to 2018, “spanned a time in Arizona history that experienced the highest child removal rates ever.” 

“Since that time, we have made vast systemic improvements, including reducing entries into care and reducing our out-of-home care population by 24% ...” 

But the problem with “Rule #23” is it only works if newer data are not available – so we have to take the agency’s word for it.  Tough luck, DCS: In this case, we have the data. 

The data show that for the last two years of the study period, 2017 and 2018, Arizona took away fewer children than in the two years before the study period began 2012 and 2013.  So no, those five years actually weren’t the worst in Arizona history – though they certainly were awful. In fact, Arizona has been in foster-care panic mode for most of the past 20 years – a national record. 

Worse, after the study period ended, somehow, despite all those “vast systemic improvements,” entries went up again. In 2019 entries increased by nearly 9% over the previous year.  And for 2020 – despite COVID – the state’s own data show a figure nearly identical to 2019 and still well above 2018. 

Here are the entry numbers from 2012 to 2020: 

Entries into foster care in Arizona 

2012      2013      2014      2015      2016      2017      2018    2019   2020

10,663   10,790   12,209   12,722   11,729   10,057   9,173   9,607  9,583 

Sources: 2012 to 2019: Administration for Children and Families AFCARS database. 2020: Arizona Department of Child Safety Semi-Annual Child Welfare Reports.

 The 2019 figure meant Arizona tore apart families at a rate 45% percent above the national average that year, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.  Maricopa County is worse than the state average.  And, by the way, Pima County (metropolitan Tucson) is even worse than Phoenix. 

2019 also was the year Arizona authorities did this to a family – because a child had a high fever:

 As for the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day – dredging that up is a nice deflection, but it has nothing to do with the study, which tracked the extent of intrusion into families at each stage of the process.  Reducing the number of children in foster care on one day of the year has nothing to do with how many children you tore from everyone they know and love in the first place. 

Indeed, that number can rise or fall for all sorts of reasons unrelated to the extent of “professional kidnapping” in a given state.  It can fall due to a lot of youth aging out of the system with no home at all.  It can fall due to churning – taking a lot of children and sending them home again in a few months, much the worse for the experience. If a child is taken in January and sent home in August, her or his presence in foster care won’t show up when the “snapshot” of children in foster care is taken in September. 

And, by the way, even with the reduction in the snapshot number, in 2019, Arizona still held children in foster care at a rate 20 percent above the national average; again, even when rates of child poverty are factored in. 

The “snapshot number” of children in foster care also can fall if a state is particularly aggressive about needlessly destroying impoverished families forever and rushing the children into the hands of more affluent strangers.  The study found that the rate at which this is attempted in Phoenix through termination of children’s rights to their parents is 17.5 times higher than the rate in New York City. 

So, Arizona Department of Child Safety, tell us again about those “vast systemic improvements.”

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending July 27, 2021

● Video is now available for all of the panels at the Columbia Journal of Race and Law Strengthened Bonds Symposium.  Here’s where to find all the videos.  This one is cued to Prof. Dorothy Roberts’ keynote:

Once again, a lot of stories are from and about family policing in Los Angeles: 

● Almost every Black child in Los Angeles (and also metropolitan Phoenix) will be forced to endure a child abuse investigation before they turn 18. Almost every child.  I have a blog post about these and other horrifying findings; it includes a link to the full study. 

WitnessLA has an excellent discussion of both the new study and the LatinoUSA stories, highlighted here last week, about abuse in LA foster care.  Medscape also has a good story about the study. 

● Speaking of abuse in LA foster care, there’s also this from KABC-TV. 

● And the excellent grassroots organization DCFS – Give Us Back Our Children sponsored this webinar on how the system really works. They’ve also released a guide to help parents facing DCFS understand their rights. 

In other news: 

● Think of Us, a group founded by a former foster youth, Sixto Cancel, interviewed 78 foster youth about their experiences in group homes and institutions.  Their overwhelming view: Such placements should – and can – be abolished.  There’s a story in The Imprint, which includes a link to the full report.  Several of those interviewed noted how though advocates of institutionalization (and their credulous journalist enablers) claim such placements are a last resort, for them institutionalization was their first placement. 

But particularly revealing – precisely because this the degradation is so routine – is this discussion of what an institutionalized youth must do just to use the bathroom. 

During the study, we heard story after story of youth only being allowed to go to the bathroom at specific times of the day and for only a few minutes. … Youth shared how they got so used to having to ask for permission before going to the restroom, that—much to their embarrassment—they could not shake that behavior even long after they left institutional placements. In this one simple act that most of us take for granted lie many instances of unjust control and violence against youths’ humanity, privacy, culture, autonomy, self-expression, and ability to make their own life choices. 

Next City has an update on the story of children needlessly taken from their mother, Kyeesha Lamb, in Philadelphia.  The family is, at last, out from under the “supervision” of Philadelphia family police. 

“I feel great,” says Lamb. “Absolutely. But when they said it, I just felt concerned for all the people who might still be in the same situation.” 

● Hidden foster care is, unfortunately, a common and legal practice across the country – but not in Cherokee County, North Carolina, where coercing a family into signing a so-called “custody and visitation agreement” (CVA) can be a criminal offense. Carolina Public Press reports that David Hughes, a former supervisor for the county family police agency, pled guilty to two misdemeanors as part of a plea deal.  The former head of the agency still faces trial. 

To understand what’s so wrong with all this, consider how hidden foster care was used:  For cases so weak the county felt it couldn’t even get a judge to rubber-stamp a request to take away the children. As the story explains: 

DSS workers testified in May that they used CVAs to close “stuck cases,” in which they had difficulty building up enough evidence for a judge to agree to remove a child from what the social worker thought was a dangerous situation. 

“It may not have been enough for a petition,” Hughes testified in May at a federal trial, “yet we were concerned about returning the children back to the home for safety reasons.” 

Petitions were not filed because “we felt like it was probably not a strong enough case to take to court,” Hughes testified. 

● And finally, something I missed when it first came out a year ago, but which remains highly relevant: An in-depth report from Child Welfare Watch in New York City on the problem of taking children or otherwise harassing mothers whose only crime is themselves being survivors of domestic violence. 

Thanks to a class-action lawsuit settlement, New York City is probably better about this than most places in the country, and certainly better than it used to be. NCCPR’s Vice President was co-counsel for plaintiffs in that suit.) Now, the city’s family policing agency is less likely to actually remove the children.  But they still do plenty of damage.  As the report explains:

 Even when there are no allegations against them, domestic violence victims are stripped of their privacy, deprived of authority in their homes, and made to live in terror of losing their children, [Raquel Singh, the executive director of Voices of Women] says. It’s not uncommon for abusers to use ACS as a weapon against their victims, who stay silent for fear of bringing more scrutiny into their homes. “It creates this double-victimization.” … 

Lawyers who represent parents in New York City Family Courts often argue that ACS practices would not be tolerated in communities with money or political influence. “It’s a one-size-fits-all, bullying approach,” says Maura Keating, the director of litigation at Center for Family Representation, which defends thousands of parents each year. “We tell families they have rights, but that goes out the window when your kids are trying to sleep and there’s someone from ACS banging on the door late at night, tearing through your closet, looking for evidence that a man is there.” 

Thursday, July 22, 2021

“Pervasive,” “ubiquitous,” “extremely high”: New data reveal the extent of the invasion of Black homes by family policing agencies.

It’s even worse than previous research suggested (and it’s not great for white kids either). 

Graphic from Frank Edwards, et. al., "Contact with Child Protective Services is pervasive but unequally distributed by race
 and ethnicity in large U.S. Counties" (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 27, 2021).

By now, people working in “child welfare” know, or at least should know, of the national study published in 2017 which revealed that about one-third of all children and more than half of Black children will be forced to endure a child abuse investigation at some point during their childhoods.  Earlier this year, a California study produced similar results. 

But, at least when it comes to most of America’s largest counties, these data underestimate the problem.  A new study of data from America’s 20 largest counties (with the five counties of New York City counted as one) reveals a system that is arbitrary, capricious, cruel and very, very racist. 

The study reveals an infrastructure of surveillance of families – especially nonwhite families -- that is, in the words of the study authors “pervasive” “ubiquitous” and "extremely high."  

The data tell us that, step by step, brick by brick over more than half a century America has built a monstrous machine inflicting state-sanctioned emotional child abuse on a huge proportion of nonwhite children. 

For example: The study estimates that in Los Angeles County, 72% of all Black children – seventy-two percent – will be forced to endure a child abuse investigation during the course of their childhoods.  Neither this, nor the previous studies, provides data specific to income, but of course, we know that the widespread confusion of poverty with neglect means we’re talking almost exclusively about impoverished families.  So if 72% of all Black children in L.A. must endure this, imagine how rare it is to avoid this trauma if you’re poor and Black. 

Riverside County and San Bernardino Counties, next door to L.A., are nearly as bad.  So are Wayne County, Michigan (metropolitan Detroit), San Diego County, California, Clark County, Nevada (metropolitan Las Vegas) Middlesex County, Massachusetts (suburban Boston) and Maricopa County, Arizona (metropolitan Phoenix).  In none of America’s 20 largest counties does the percentage of Black children enduring a child abuse investigation fall below 40 percent. 

Phoenix and Los Angeles are also #1 and #2 respectively among America’s largest cities in NCCPR’s calculation on overall rates of tearing apart families and consigning children to the chaos of foster care over the course of a year. 

In none of these giant metropolitan areas does the proportion of Black children forced to endure a child abuse investigation fall below 41 percent.  Even for white children, in all but three of these counties, more than 20% will have to endure a child abuse investigation. 

Yes, an investigation is a big deal 

Before going further into the data, I want to pause here to respond to anyone thinking: Well, an investigation is no big deal, they’re just social workers knocking on the door to offer help Indeed, some weird comments made by one of the researchers, discussed below, suggests he may believe that.  But just to set the record straight, this story from The New Yorker gives some idea of what it’s really like: 

You will hear a knock on the door, often late at night. You don’t have to open it, but if you don’t the caseworker outside may come back with the police. The caseworker will tell you you’re being investigated for abusing or neglecting your children. She will tell you to wake them up and tell them to take clothes off so she can check their bodies for bruises and marks.   

You must be as calm and deferential as possible. However disrespectful and invasive she is, whatever awful things she accuses you of, you must remember that child protection has the power to remove your kids at any time if it believes them to be in danger. … If you get angry, your anger may be taken as a sign of mental instability, especially if the caseworker herself feels threatened. 

You may never find out who reported you. If your child has been hurt, his teacher or doctor may have called the state child-abuse hotline, not wanting to assume, as she might in a richer neighborhood, that it was an accident. But it could also have been a neighbor who heard yelling, or an ex-boyfriend who wants to get back at you, or someone who thinks you drink too much or simply doesn’t like you. People know that a call to the hotline is an easy way to blow up your life. [Emphasis added.] 

On one of the incredibly rare occasions when this actually happened to a white, middle-class foster parent, it sparked days of outraged news stories and demands for action from a state legislator.  The fact that this will happen to almost every impoverished Black child in the City of Los Angeles, almost every impoverished Black child in the City of Phoenix, and more than half of Black children nationwide somehow doesn’t provoke the same response. 

Almost every allegation is false 

All that is required for a caseworker to “substantiate” an allegation is for her to check a box on a form stating her personal conclusion that it is slightly more likely than not that the “abuse” or “neglect” occurred.  There is no trial beforehand, no neutral arbiter hears all sides.  Unsurprisingly, the only study we know of to second guess these decisions, and it’s a very old study, found workers two to fix times more likely to wrongly “substantiate” an allegation than to wrongly declare one “unfounded.” 

And yet, even with this incredibly low standard of proof and propensity to over-substantiate, this study found that, on average, in more than 90% of cases, the workers found that the allegation was false.  Even among Black children, where racial bias and the confusion of poverty with neglect make it more likely workers will check the “substantiated” box, on average workers decided at least 80 percent of reports were false.*  (And, of course, among those that are “substantiated” the vast majority are “neglect” – which often means the family is poor.) 

So even by the workers’ own assessment, nine times out of ten, children are forced to endure this trauma for nothing.  That also means that roughly 90% of the time, workers are spinning their wheels, chasing down false allegations, making it less likely they’ll find the very few children in real danger. 

1 in 5 Black kids in L.A. endures foster care 

Graphic from Frank Edwards, et. al., "Contact with Child Protective Services is pervasive but unequally distributed by race and ethnicity
in large U.S. Counties" (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 27, 2021).

But, of course, the harm doesn’t necessarily stop with an investigation.  The new study has stunning data on the cumulative effect of all that investigation: More than 20% of Black children in Los Angeles will be forced into foster care at some point during their childhoods – the figure is nearly as high in Phoenix.  Phoenix also is where it’s proportionately most likely that a Native American child will be forced into foster care, and second most likely for Hispanic children. 

Though family police almost always mean well, that means all these children endure the same trauma endured by children taken from their parents at the Mexican border.  Again, from the New Yorker story: 

If the caseworker believes your kids are in imminent danger, she may take them. You may not be allowed to say goodbye. It is terrifying for them to be taken from their home by a stranger, but this experience has repercussions far beyond the terror of that night. Your children may hear accusations against you—you’re using drugs, your apartment is filthy, you fail to get them to school, you hit them—and even if they don’t believe these things they will remember. And, after your children see that you are powerless to protect them, this will permanently change things between you. Whatever happens later—whether the kids come back the next week, or in six months, or don’t come back at all—that moment can never be undone. 

Just ask someone who went through all this, such as, say, this 14-year-old what “just an investigation” really means: 

I’m scared when I hear a hard knock at the door. I think they are coming. I was scared to go to school because they will come to the school and remove me and put me in a foster home. All because if my Mom and Dad don’t do what they want, never mind they are not abusing us.

I will be so glad when I am 18 and my brother is 18. Then I know [no one] will ever be able to put us in a foster home again. 

That’s best case – it doesn’t even begin to account for the high rate of abuse in foster care itself. 

When it comes to child welfare’s death penalty – terminating children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights) Phoenix is again #1 – by a wide margin.  Nearly three percent of all children and nearly six percent of Black children in metropolitan Phoenix will have their parents taken from them forever. 

The family policing bias Olympics 

If one thinks of this study as scoring a family policing bias Olympics, different counties may “win” individual events.  But who does “best” all around?  Probably Middlesex County, Mass.   

In a state known for discrimination against Hispanic families in child welfare, Middlesex had the worst rate among the counties studies for inflicting child abuse investigations on such families.  It also had the worst rate for Native American families.  

Percentage of Middlesex County, Mass. Children likely to be subjected to family police investigation by race:* 

Asian                          19%

White                          28%

Native American       59%

Hispanic                     60%

Black                          68%

Middlesex also is the county in the study in which Hispanic children are proportionately most likely to have to endure foster care. 

Of course, this is the state where the head of the family policing agency and the state’s “child advocate” are doing everything possible to deny that racial bias is a problem

The other disparity – geographic disparity 

Communities are consistent about overinvestigating and overremoving Black children, but there is no consistency in how often they do it.  That, in itself, shows how arbitrary and subjective the whole process is. 

The rate at which caseworkers check a box on a form saying they think it’s slightly more likely than not that “abuse” or “neglect” occurred, (what the study wrongly describes as “confirmed maltreatment”) is ten times higher in metropolitan Detroit than in metropolitan Seattle.  A child is five times more likely to be placed in foster care -- and 17 times more likely to lose rights to her or his parents forever – in Phoenix than in New York City. 

Of course, it’s theoretically possible that Phoenix is such a cesspool of depravity compared to New York City that there really is 17 times the amount of child abuse severe enough to merit termination of parental rights.  But it’s more likely the result of the culture in a state family policing agency in which caseworkers thought it would be a great idea to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Professional kidnapper.” 

These data track with NCCPR’s comparisons of rates of child removal for states and, as noted above, for big cities, which find enormous differences, even when factoring in rates of child poverty. 

It’s probably worse in rural America 

Bad as these data are, odds are the omnipresence of the child welfare surveillance state is even worse in much of rural America.  That’s suggested by the fact that, even when adjusting for rates of child poverty, the states that tear apart the most families tend to be states that don’t have any big cities – states like Montana, Wyoming and Vermont.  Of the 20 states most prone to tear apart families, only two, Massachusetts and Arizona, have counties big enough to be included in the new study. 

Substituting surveillance for foster care is not “success”

In a weird press release announcing the study – but not, it should be emphasized, in the study itself - one of the researchers, Christopher Wildeman, suggests that New York City is somehow a success story because, even though the proportion of children investigated is a little above average (though not, it should be noted, above average for the places in this study), and even though New York City caseworkers “substantiate” allegations at a relatively high rate, they take away proportionately fewer children and terminate parental rights at one of the lowest rates among the counties studies. 

Somehow Wildeman leaps from this to the conclusion that family policing is “working” because ultimately the families aren’t destroyed forever.  UPDATE: Asked for comment about this view, the lead researcher for the study, Frank Edwards, told NCCPR: "I think that the massive surveillance and separation of Black, Brown and Native kids is at crisis levels and needs to be dramatically reduced rapidly.” 

In fact, the New York data tell a very different story from Wildeman's spin.  They show only that, thanks largely to pressure from grassroots family advocates and a network of high-quality family defense providers, the city family policing agency has been stopped from doing the very worst things it can do to families. 

But, as the Movement for Family Power documents in this report, the decline in foster care numbers has been replaced by an almost precisely equal increase in oppressive, needless surveillance of families.  (One outcome the study does not measure is the proportion of families forced into such surveillance in each county). 

So no, success is not substituting needless family surveillance for needless foster care; success is substituting community-based community-designed concrete help for families for both forms of family oppression. 

*-These are estimates based on the graphics in the study. The authors did not supply accompanying tables so each may be off by a percentage point or two.