Tuesday, February 23, 2021

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

 ● To begin, let’s go to the videotape.  I know: No one wants to watch a video of another webinar.  But please make an exception for this panel featuring family advocacy allstars Prof. Dorothy Roberts, Joyce McMillan, Erin Miles Cloud and Kathleen Creamer: 

● I’ve often told reporters that one sure way to know people who work in “child welfare” systems are being disingenuous is if they claim there is due process for families. They know it’s not true – and so do judges.  Prof. Vivek Sankaran offers an excellent reality check in this column for The Imprint. He writes that due process is “an illusory concept.” 

In courts across the country, parents still never get an attorney to represent them until far into a case, after key decisions have already been made about a child’s placement in foster care. 

Outside of major cities, even when parents get an attorney, the attorney is likely to be underpaid and overworked, and lack any specialty knowledge of the child welfare system. In many jurisdictions, a law student can graduate law school, pass the bar exam and get listed on a roster of attorneys able to get appointments in foster care cases, without receiving any training whatsoever in child welfare law. As a result, the quality of lawyering in this field is abysmal, with key issues rarely being raised by attorneys who have spent little time with their clients.  

Given this reality, the fact that a parent had a lawyer tells us very little about whether he was able to access justice. ...

● And speaking of reality checks, Marco Poggio of Law360 has an outstanding in-depth look at how the “child welfare” system really works in New York City – and family advocates’ legislative agenda to help change it.  Joyce McMillan has a petition calling for more far-reaching change.  (ICYMI: Here’s more about McMillan.)  And I have a blog post about another example of the city “child welfare” agency screwing up an “educational neglect” case. 

● When linking to stories from New York, I always warn that “wherever you are it’s probably worse.” Case in point: Massachusetts, which tears apart families at well over triple the rate of New York City.  And while much attention has focused on the system’s bias against Black families, a story from Shira Schoenberg of CommonWealth Magazine documents how Massachusetts leads the nation in bias against Latinx families.  

● There is also profound bias against Native American families. That’s why there’s an Indian Child Welfare Act to try to counteract some of that bias.  In The Navajo Times, Colleen Keane explains why ICWA is so important, and why New Mexico lawmakers have proposed a state version of this landmark law.  From her story: 

“I remember running into the open arms of my new family. Because of the (federal) Indian Child Welfare Act,” said Joseph Talachy, governor of Pojoaque Pueblo, at a Senate committee hearing on a state ICWA, “I was raised in a beneficial home.” If he hadn’t been placed at Pojoaque, Talachy said he would have lost connection to his family, culture and the Tewa language. 

Before the federal law was passed in 1978, Ambrose Ashley, 71, and his seven brothers, members of the Navajo Nation, didn’t have this critical protection. When their mom had trouble caring for them alone after their dad died, they were abruptly removed from their home and cut off from their family, clan relations, culture and language.  He was 5 1/2 years old.

 “They took my brothers and I in the middle of the night,” Ashley said. “It was a night-time kidnapping.”

 Ashley and his younger brothers went to a non-Native home on the east side of town. The older brothers were placed at a mission home on the other side of town.  “It was traumatic,” he said. “The family was split up. We became strangers to each other.  It left me feeling empty inside, invisible (on the outside,)” he added. 

● When it comes to tearing apart families of all races, Nevada is nearly as bad as Massachusetts. That’s brought together a bipartisan group of legislators to try to legalize – childhood.  But let them tell you, in this column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal: 

Maybe we look like complete opposites. One of us is a gay, Black and a Democratic mom of one from Clark County. And one of us is a white, Republican and a mom of eight — grandmother of 20 — from Northern Nevada. But we are thrilled to be working together because we are in heated agreement when it comes to this: 

Kids have the right to some reasonable independence. And parents have the right to give it to them without being charged with neglect. Now we are supporting a bill that makes this truth into law. 

Nevada’s so-called “Reasonable Childhood Independence” bill narrows the definition of child neglect so it doesn’t include simply letting kids engage in normal childhood activities.


● Worst of all, though, is Montana, the foster-care capital of America.  A bill to take a small step toward ending that dubious distinction has been introduced in the state legislature.  It would replace anonymous reporting of alleged child abuse and neglect with confidential reporting.  

● The Drug Policy Alliance has an outstanding report online about Uprooting the Drug War.  Here’s the section on what child welfare’s response to drug use has done to children. 

● And finally, let’s take a moment to celebrate.  In May, 2000, three former foster youth wrote an op-ed column for The San Diego Union-Tribune pleading with county officials not to go ahead with plans to open a brand new, state-of-the-art – orphanage.  Yes, really.  They didn’t listen. They claimed there was no choice.  When the place opened in 2001, I wrote this in a letter to the Union-Tribune reporter who covered the opening: 

Unfortunately, the debate has been reduced to foster care versus orphanages – a lose-lose proposition.  Meanwhile, the safest most humane option – not taking away so many children in the first place – has been swept off the table.  But if San Diego County ever got serious about getting the children who don’t need to be in foster care back home, there would be plenty of room in safe, stable foster homes for the children in real danger. 

Not that I’d ever say “I told you so” but 20 years almost to the day after the orphanage opened, Morgan Cook of the Union-Tribune reports, it will close.  Here’s why: 

Laws passed in the last 10 years and “policy established through lawsuits” have shifted requirements for keeping children safe with families — their own or foster families, according to a planning document provided by county Board of Supervisors Chairman Nathan Fletcher’s office. The changes have greatly reduced the number of San Diego County children in foster care. 

In 2002, for example, there were more than 6,600 children in the local foster-care system. Earlier this month, the number was 2,150. 

Imagine what would happen if everybody tried that.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Just another day at NYC “child welfare” agency: Harass a family, pass the buck


John Tomasi, a 14-year-old from Brooklyn, New York, got a pretty good report card from Cobble Hill High School in Brooklyn last fall.  According to the New York Post: 

His physical-education teacher twice gave John the highest grade: “ME” for “exceeds standards.”  His algebra teacher cited “progress toward … understanding the connection between proportional relationships, lines, and linear equations,” among other skills. 

            It’s a remarkable achievement – considering that John was never enrolled in the public school.  He was on the honor roll at a parochial school, where he had a perfect attendance record for both online and in-person classes.  A mix-up at John’s middle school led Cobble Hill to believe John was enrolled there.  (That doesn’t explain the report cards, however.) 

            It would be funny, if not for the fact that even as they churned out report cards about his progress, Cobble Hill did notice his absence.   You know where this is going, right? Instead of calling the family to find out what was going on, they rushed to call in a report of “educational neglect.”  And New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services rushed to investigate “suspected child abuse or maltreatment.”  According to the story: 

“On Nov. 5, I got a knock on my door at 5 p.m. from an ACS worker stating that my son has not been attending Cobble Hill High School,” John’s mom, Margaret Tomasi, told The Post. “It was very traumatizing and shocking.” …

The ACS investigator asked John’s parents if they used drugs, were ever arrested, been on welfare, or had a history of domestic violence. The worker asked many personal questions, including what religion they practiced, and looked inside their kitchen cabinets, refrigerator and freezer to check for sufficient food. 

The investigator asked John to lift his shirt, pull up his pant legs, and remove his socks to look for bruises or other injuries. 

            Now let us consider all the screw-ups, by the school, but especially by ACS. 

● As we have noted before, “educational neglect” is a category that is routinely abused by school systems, usually when parents are fighting to get their children a better education. Most recently, it’s been used in New York City and elsewhere to harass poor families who can’t get their kids online for class.  (Rich parents get a free pass.)  

More than a decade ago, the highly-respected Vera Institute of Justice issued a report arguing that educational neglect either shouldn’t be a child protective services issue at all, or, if it must exist, it should be handled through an approach known as “differential response.” 

● Since educational neglect is in state law, ACS might argue that it had no choice but to send out a caseworker to traumatize the family.  This is not clear.  The story says the school “alerted” ACS.  If, in fact, they contacted ACS directly then the agency had discretion.  

More likely, however, the school called the state child abuse hotline which “screened in” the report and sent it on to ACS.  At that point, ACS had to do something – though it could have done what the Vera Institute report suggested all those years ago and used “differential response,” which does not involve a traumatic investigation or any threat that a child might be taken away. 

● Once the worker was at the door and was told that John was, in fact, enrolled in another school, that should have put everything on hold until the next day, when the school could (and did) confirm it.  Instead, the worker marched full speed ahead, poking and prying into the most intimate aspects of the family’s life – none of which had anything to do with the actual complaint – and partially stripsearching the teenage boy. (And, by the way, ACS: Why is a family’s religion ever any of your business?) 

 In the process, of course, the worker wasted time that could have been spent finding a child in real danger.  The worker also put everyone at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, especially given that this happened in New York City in November. 

● The city Department of Education acknowledged that before calling a child abuse hotline school staff “should first make multiple attempts to contact a family.”  But we’ve also seen story after story about schools failing to do that, while ACS does nothing about it.  

Why aren’t ACS and the state Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) demanding that schools stop harassing families, and wasting caseworkers’ time this way?  Why isn’t OCFS, which runs the state hotline, insisting that schools document their attempts to contact families before “screening-in” such calls, and otherwise raising the standard for accepting them – as the Vera Institute report recommended in 2009?  Why isn’t ACS investigating school employees who make such calls to see if they constitute malicious false reports? 

We know why.  It’s because the current system allows ACS to do the one thing it does as well – or better – than any other child welfare agency in America: Blame someone else whenever something goes wrong.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending February 16, 2021

The online news site THE CITY reports that even as the head of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services was proclaiming his agency’s commitment to racial justice in child welfare in a self-serving op-ed column, his agency was retaliating against one of the city’s foremost advocates for racial justice in child welfare.  And yet, somehow, poor people of color are supposed to trust the agency if they reach out for help. 

● Bad as things are in New York City, they’re more than twice as bad in Los Angeles. In this powerful edition of Julian Castro’s Our America podcast, La Mikia Castillo and Yahniie Bridges share their stories of the harm done by the foster care system. They also discuss the #Blacklivesmatter - Los Angeles #ReimagineChildSafety campaign. 

● Ever notice how, when confronted by the system’s many failings, foster care apologists always say everything will be fixed with more “training.”  That’s hard to believe in any event, but especially when you see what the training is like.  As I discuss in Youth Today, I took a child abuse mandated reporter training course – so you don’t have to! (Unless, of course, you do.) 

● Remember how @lizar_tistry whom you can find on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/lizar_tistry summed up the  “Family Surveillance: A Future without Foster Care” panel at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in a cartoon?   Now, she’s followed up with a summary of the Q and A:


Graphic by @lizar_tistry

Three important stories/columns from The Imprint: 

● Jerry Milner, former leader of the Children’s Bureau in the federal Department of Health and Human Services, reflects on the Bureau’s accomplishments over the past four years (which are so significant a lot of us still hope the Biden Administration will have the good sense to bring him back).  He also writes about what still needs to be done

The new administration must fully acknowledge and address social and racial injustice in child welfare. The glaring inequities in child welfare are not a matter of opinion – they are a matter of fact. I knew it when I carried a caseload and it is clearer now than ever before. 

It is glaring that Black children are twice as likely to enter foster care as white children, and Indigenous children are almost three times more likely. Poor children of all backgrounds are at particular risk of entering foster care due to the effects of poverty, over surveillance and lack of voice. 

There is no justice in these facts. We must take a hard look at the harsh termination provisions in federal law under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, state definitions of neglect and mandatory reporting laws. … 

There must be a commitment to disentangling poverty and neglect. Over half of the children who enter foster care do so solely because of neglect, not abuse, and most of what we call neglect is rooted in poverty. … A closely related need is to pay for civil legal representation for families in matters such as housing, loss of access to services and keeping utilities running before vital, unattended needs lead to hotline calls. In the long run, it is cheaper financially and much more humane. 

Funding must match the direction of change. If we pay for foster care and adoption – and that is what we mostly pay for – we will get more of both. … If we pay for preventing abuse and neglect, and for family preservation, that’s what we will get. 

● Minnesota, which long has torn apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation, is considering expanding a parent mentor program that has shown some promise in helping to improve the state’s dismal performance. 

● As Nora McCarthy, the founder of Rise, the magazine written by parents caught up in child welfare systems, steps back, The Imprint looks at the organization’s impressive accomplishments

● And finally, every time we may think the child welfare system has run out of ways to build in racial bias, something else turns up: Check out this story on bias in hair follicle tests.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

NCCPR in Youth Today: I took a ‘mandated reporter’ training course on child abuse, so you don't have to! (Unless, of course, you do.)

It was a tough year. Perhaps at some point your child became more aggressive or more anxious or more mistrustful or more prone to seek attention — or more withdrawn or more passive or too compliant. Maybe he flinches easily and avoids being touched. Maybe he just doesn’t get along with his peers. Maybe he feels very tired. Maybe he depends too much on adults. Or maybe he’s just not acting his age.

 How about you? Are you socially isolated? Are you physically disabled? Emotionally challenged? Are you more stressed and anxious? Are you more frustrated or impatient? Does your mood change suddenly? Are you impulsive? Do you have issues with authority? Are you feeling emotionally insecure? Do you lack organizational skills? 

I don’t mean to get personal. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any adult or child who hasn’t experienced at least one of these things over the past year — even if you don’t include “avoids being touched” and “socially isolated.” I only ask because in at least one state, Pennsylvania, even one of these “signs” or “risk factors” is enough to put you on the radar to possibly be reported to ChildLine, the state’s child abuse hotline, as a child abuser. 

Every one of these “signs” and “risk factors” is included in a training course for professionals in Pennsylvania who are “mandated reporters” of child abuse. In Pennsylvania, as in many states, that’s almost anyone with regular contact with children — including the very people you might reach out to for help if you or you or your child really is experiencing these problems. 

Read the full column in Youth Today

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

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

● “Family Surveillance: A Future without Foster Care” was the title of an outstanding panel at a University of Pennsylvania Law School virtual symposium last week.  As far as I know no video is yet available.  But thanks to @lizar_tistry whom you can find on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/lizar_tistry there is this excellent summary:

Illustration by @lizar_tistry

● Among the topics: the failure of “mandatory reporting” laws.  Millions of Americans are required to report their slightest suspicion of child abuse or neglect – and many of them have to take training courses.  How bad are these courses? In Youth Today I wrote about how I took a mandatory reporter training course so you don’t have to! (unless, of course, you do).  I found that 

The course isn’t really training; it’s an exercise in propaganda and paranoia designed to encourage you to report based on little more than “feelings” or “gut instinct” and one of those broad, vague “signs” or “risk factors.” It exaggerates the expertise of those who will handle the report and repeatedly implies that while terrible harm can come from failing to report, nothing will go wrong if you report an innocent family by mistake. 

● A recent memorandum from the federal Children’s Bureau declares that the value of preserving families “must be the compass that guides our path to achieving the permanency goals of reunification, adoption and guardianship so that the well-being of every child is also achieved.” 

But, as Kathleen Creamer of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and Chris Gottlieb of the New York University School of Law Family Defense Clinic write in The Imprint, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act 

…is like a magnet that sends the needle of a compass spinning and leads us in the wrong direction. Congress and the Biden administration now have the chance to remove the magnet and set child welfare back on the right course. 

The column argues that if ASFA can’t be repealed outright, there are several specific steps Congress and the administration could take to mitigate the harm. 

● Almost everyone pays lip service to the idea that current and former foster youth should have a meaningful role in creating policy.  Often this is supposedly done through “Youth Advisory Boards.”  In YCTeen, a member of several such boards, Gabrielle Rodriguez, describes how it really works much of the time: 

[O]ne or two of us are brought in to report to those in power what other youth say they need, or to tell our own tales of abuse and woe. We are then thanked for our candor, applauded for our advocacy, and called “brave.” Then we’re sent out of the room so that the real decision-making can take place. 

● I’ve previously noted the outstanding stories from USA Today Network Florida reporters on the needless removal of children from mothers whose only crime was to be victims of domestic violence.  They’ve also reported on how overloading the system increased the risk of abuse in foster care.  Could anyone possibly read those stories and think “Aha! The solution is to institutionalize more children!” Yep.  NCCPR’s response is in the Fort Myers News-Press. 

● There may be good news from New Mexico.  Legislation has been introduced that would create a state version of the Indian Child Welfare Act.  Another bill would be a first step toward improving legal representation for children and families. 

● But there’s bad news from California where the state Department of Social Services made a bad hiring decision. I have a blog post about it. 

● And finally, a story you’ve read before – over and over and over again.  In fact, you’ve read it so often all you need to do is change the name.  That’s not meant to criticize the excellent reporting in this St. Louis Post-Dispatch story. It’s just urgent to understand that such stories will appear, over and over and over, as long as we allow children to be institutionalized. 

It’s also worth noting that the “residential treatment” centers at issue here are run by a nonprofit organization, formed by a merger of Boys and Girls Town of Missouri and another nonprofit institution that’s been around since 1832. 

So no, you won’t finally fix this by getting the for-profit players out.  Because, as I’ve discussed before, the fundamental problem with residential treatment is residential treatment.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

A setback for California’s vulnerable children

 A top official of a group that has been California’s leading foster-care apologist is about to oversee child welfare in the state

File this under: What were they thinking????

In California, it would be hard to find a group that has done more to impede real reform of child welfare than the so-called Alliance for Children’s Rights.  They are classic practitioners of what has been aptly called “health terrorism.” 

As I explained in this post last year, about an Alliance PowerPoint presentation: 

Were there a hotline to which one could report statistics abuse, the authors of the PowerPoint presentation would have their rights to their pocket calculators terminated.  The PowerPoint packs into one presentation almost every common misuse of data to leave the false impression that children are not needlessly torn from their parents, there’s no such thing as confusing poverty with neglect and, in any event, child abuse is rampant. 

In the process, the presentation dredges up ugly stereotypes about poor people and demeans the lived experience of thousands of foster children.  The presentation also repeatedly uses the term “bio parent” for children’s parents – a pejorative term that suggests someone no more important to a child than a test tube. 

You can read all the details in that earlier blog post. 

Speakers at the event where this presentation was given included the Alliance’s Vice President of Policy and Advocacy, Angie Schwartz. 

Then there was the column, co-authored by Schwartz, in which, as we noted at the time, the authors sought to “stand reality on its head, leaving both a written and visual impression of vast sums of money for prevention dwarfing a tiny amount for foster care.” 

And when it comes to permanently tearing apart families in Los Angeles – overwhelmingly families of color - by terminating children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights) – the Alliance leads the way, and celebrates it. Yes, the Alliance leads L.A.’s celebration of what should be called National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day. 

So, guess who the Director of the California Department of Social Services just chose to run the Department’s  Children and Family Services Division: Yep: Angie Schwartz. 

How much damage? 

In California, counties run child welfare with state oversight, so it’s not clear how much damage this appointment will do.  But there are all sorts of ways a state agency can exert pressure on local governments. 

So, under Schwartz’s leadership: 

● Will California’s painfully slow 22-year statewide reduction in the number of children torn from their families come to an end? 

● Will the division issue “scathing audits” of counties that make big moves to safely curb needless foster care, and praise counties, such as Yolo, which embrace a take-the-child-and-run approach? (Even as Yolo County itself seems to be having second thoughts.) 

● Will the division claim that there is no such thing as confusing poverty with neglect, no such thing as a child needlessly taken from her or his parents, and no way to reduce entries into care? 

● Will the division take substantive steps to curb racism in child welfare, or just offer the usual “racism is a really bad thing” platitudes? 

● Will the division pressure counties to rush even faster to terminate children’s rights to their parents? 

● Will the division seek to pressure Congress to more than double federal funding for foster care by eliminating the only real brake on such funding? (That’s something else Schwartz is on record as favoring.) 

Of course, a key tenet of the family preservation movement is that people can change, and no one doubts Schwartz’s good intentions.  The same is true of organizations.  The Alliance has joined other groups, including NCCPR, in a campaign led by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles to end partnerships between the county Department of Children and Family Services and law enforcement. 

But just last month, the Alliance put out a position paper suggesting all children taken from their parents are “abused and neglected” and all of their parents are “unfit.” 

So in California, it looks like the fight to protect one of children’s most important rights – the right to live safely in their own homes – just got harder.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

NCCPR in Fort Myers News-Press: Institutions are the worst option for Florida foster kids

 It’s often said that if your only tool is a hammer, you view every problem as a nail. Perhaps that’s why Bill Frye, who runs a bunch of institutions, the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, found a way to look at the USA TODAY Network’s searing stories about children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love, and conclude that the solution is to put even more children into institutions.

 Yes, they are institutions.  It doesn’t matter if the grounds are pretty, the staff are called “house parents” and the dorms are called “cottages.”  When children are torn from their homes and forced to live with strangers and staff, that place is an institution.

Read the full column in the Fort Myers News-Press

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending February 2, 2021

● Prof. Shanta Trevedi, a clinical teaching fellow at the Georgetown University Domestic Violence Clinic, writes in The Imprint about why a top child welfare priority for the Biden Administration should be urging Congress to repeal the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act: 

We still have a system that favors family destruction despite clear data that, even when parents have not been perfect, children are irreparably damaged when they are separated from them. We continue to prioritize a system that we know leads to worse outcomes for those children, because we have created an entire industry that is financially dependent on taking children from their parents. ASFA is primarily to blame, and it’s got to go. 

NCCPR has additional context about ASFA here. 

● Shira Shoenberg of CommonWealth Magazine reports on how, in Massachusetts, children sometimes are needlessly torn from their families and trapped in foster care because the families and the state family police agency literally don’t speak the same language. 

● Once again there’s an effort to push the false narrative that COVID-19 is leading to a pandemic of child abuse.  This time it’s coming from Alaska.  But, as is discussed in this NCCPR blog post, there are questions about both the message and the messenger. 

● There is a lot of debate about what kinds of services should be provided to prevent child abuse and who should provide them.  There is less debate over the fact that they should not simply be cut arbitrarily – as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposes.  But opponents of the cuts appear unwilling to seize this challenge and use it as an opportunity. Predictably, they’re talking about cuts across the board, instead of seeing this as a chance to curb programs that mostly help the helpers, like useless “counseling” and “parent education” and focus on what really works. 

● Speaking of what really works: Add one more to the long list of studies documenting the transformative power of cash.  The new study documents how increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit reduces reports of what family policing agencies call “neglect.” 

● In Philadelphia, the City Council’s Special Committee on Child Separations heard from Prof. Kara Finck of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and representatives of DHS-Give Us Back Our Children.  You can see the video here.

And finally …

 The New York Times has a story about the fact that Black parents are far more skeptical than white parents about sending children back to schools.  Among the reasons:

Education experts and Black parents say decades of racism, institutionalized segregation and mistreatment of Black children, as well as severe underinvestment in school buildings, have left Black communities to doubt that school districts are being upfront about the risks.

But here’s one more possible reason: For nearly a year, one news story after another has pounded home to teachers that false (and racist) narrative mentioned earlier about COVID-19 and child abuse. Teachers have been told over and over that while they weren’t looking, those Black children were victims of a “pandemic of child abuse” -- so they’d better look real closely at those kids as soon as they’re back in class and call child abuse hotlines when they have the slightest suspicion.  (By the way, the Times has been among the worst offenders.)

That seems like one more reason Black parents might be wary about sending the kids back to school.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Child abuse and COVID-19 in Alaska: The message and the messenger

It should be a basic rule of journalism – if someone points with alarm to a huge change in the percentage of something – but you don’t have the actual numbers – ask more questions.  That is just one reason to be concerned about Alaska’s version of that big local journalism trend story of the past year: The story warning, despite a mass of evidence to the contrary, that COVID-19 supposedly is leading to a hidden pandemic of child abuse.

 The other reason to ask more questions involves who it is that’s pushing this kind of narrative in Alaska.

 It began with a story from Alaska Public Media claiming that severe cases of child abuse seen by the state’s largest “child advocacy center” had “skyrocketed by 220% in the last year.”  According to the story: 

“The cases that are presenting are presenting inpatient, and it’s the big and the bad,” the center’s medical director, Dr. Barbara Knox, said.


A later Associated Press story reports that Knox’s center, Alaska Child Abuse Response and Evaluation Services, corrected the estimate to 173% after noting that the 2019 figure was missing four cases.  That makes it possible to at least guess the raw numbers underlying those huge percentage changes.  And Knox’s center appears to handle about 44 percent of all cases seen by child advocacy centers across the state.*

 Put all that together and it appears that, even with the pandemic, at least 99.9 percent of Alaska children were not found to be victims of “the big and the bad” over the past year.

 Once again: Yes, we DO need to “quibble about numbers”

 This is where some defenders of an approach some of them have themselves labeled “health terrorism” will say: “How dare you quibble about numbers! Children are being horribly hurt, sometimes dying!  Even one case is too many!” 

The second two sentences are, of course, correct.  But that is precisely why we do need to quibble about numbers. 

COVID has put more stress on everyone, and that stress can cause a small number of people to lash out horribly (though, paradoxically, in some communities, the lack of omnipresent surveillance by what should properly be called the family police may be easing stress).  So it is reasonable to suspect that the number of such cases may have risen from infinitesimal to slightly less infinitesimal.  But if we don’t quibble about numbers, we wind up reducing the chances of reducing the number from infinitesimal to zero. 

We need to quibble about numbers for all of the reasons discussed in our report, Child Welfare’s Pandemic of Fear.  Isolated percentage figures about “skyrocketing” severe child abuse may panic people into calling in false reports, inflicting needless trauma on children (trauma ranging from the investigation itself all the way to needless placement in foster care) increasing the risk of spreading COVID among families and caseworkers alike and diverting resources from finding that one-tenth-of-one-percent of the child population who may be in serious danger. 

Using numbers without their full context also risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  With
teachers told over and over that while schools were closed, severe child abuse “skyrocketed,” then once schools reopen, they may see that abuse whether it is there or not. 

Spreading this kind of fear is bad everywhere, but it’s worse in Alaska.  Even before the pandemic, year after year after year, Alaska tore apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation.  So the claims about “skyrocketing” child abuse come in a state that already has a hair-trigger for taking children from their homes.

The doctor’s track record 

The other reason to view the Alaska figures with caution involves the source.  Knox has devoted her professional life to protecting children from abuse as she sees it.  Her dedication and intentions are not in question. 

Knox is a child abuse pediatrician, a specialty that has come under increasing scrutiny amid report after report of some such pediatricians allegedly jumping to conclusions and doing enormous harm to families.  Of course, that is not true of all child abuse pediatricians. 

But when Knox came to Alaska in October, 2019 it was three-and-a-half months after she was placed on paid administrative leave by her previous employer, American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, Wis., a part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Dr. Knox was head of the hospital’s child protection program. She also was a professor of pediatrics. 

According to an in-depth investigative report by Wisconsin Watch, the publication of the nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, published on Feb. 29, 2020: 

The University of Wisconsin placed her on paid leave in mid-2019 after colleagues inside and outside of the hospital accused her of intimidation or retaliation, an internal letter shows. 

Dr. Ellen Wald, chairwoman of the Department of Pediatrics at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, wrote to Knox on July 5, saying the administrative leave involved concerns about “your workplace behavior, including unprofessional acts that may constitute retaliation against and/or intimidation of internal and external colleagues.” … 

UW Health spokesman Tom Russell said the hospital took “appropriate action” after investigating the allegations against Knox but declined to specify what that was. 

In one of the cases at the center of the Wisconsin Watch story 

Surgical scars on [an infant] were listed as bruises. Demonstrably false information was inserted into his medical record. And Knox allegedly misrepresented herself as a specialist in an attempt to convince the family to approve additional medical testing. 

Police instantly dismissed the abuse allegation. Child welfare officials would clear the couple after two months. But the episode left [the mother] “petrified” of seeking emergency medical care for their children … 

Three days later when the Anchorage Daily News followed up, they reported that already, “dozens of people” had contacted Wisconsin Watch about their own interactions with Knox. 

Knox did not respond to requests for comment from Wisconsin Watch.  But when the Anchorage Daily News inquired, her clinic expressed full confidence in her, and released a second “To Whom It May Concern” letter from Dr. Wald, dated October 14, 2019, which was when Knox voluntarily left her Wisconsin job to take the job in Alaska.  

The one-paragraph letter said no disciplinary action was taken against Knox.  The letter also said that “The reason she was placed on leave did not relate to dishonesty, clinical skills, medical diagnostic abilities, or incorrect medical diagnoses.” 

*-The state association of Child Advocacy Centers says on its website that the centers saw 2,267 children in 2017.  The Anchorage Daily News reports that Dr. Knox’s center alone sees about 1,000 children per year.