Wednesday, March 31, 2021

If it’s April Fools, it must be Child Abuse Hype and Hysteria Month

 I've reprinted this post almost every year since 2010.  But for the past two years it's been especially relevant. You can be sure that this year, like last year, the Astroturf fill-in-the-blanks op-eds that various advocacy groups send to their local chapters will be filled with references to an "epidemic" or a "pandemic" of child abuse - as though the moment white middle-class professionals can't have their "eyes" on poor children of color, their parents will rush to torture them.  This myth persists even though several national news organizations have challenged it.  NCCPR has details here.

I hope that before pushing the send button on these generic submissions, people will at least have the decency to pause and think long and hard about just how racist that framing is. Precedent suggests, however, that they won’t.

In fact, given that the child welfare establishment has no shame, expect the usual op-eds to have token boilerplate statements about racial justice – even as they propose making a profoundly racist family policing system even bigger and more powerful.


Back in 2003, one of the groups most responsible for fomenting hype and hysteria about child abuse came remarkably close to admitting that they did just that – and that it had backfired. 

Rather like Dr. Frankenstein admitting he’d created a monster, in a 2003 Request for Proposals concerning how to improve their messaging, Prevent Child Abuse America wrote: 

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

In 2020, PCAA went further. They actually branded what they had done “health terrorism” – but refused to apologize for it. 

This is especially worth remembering as we begin “Child Abuse Awareness Month” – a month, which, appropriately starts on April Fools Day. 

So I’ve reprinted below our 2010 blog post on the topic – with some updates and links to newer data – since, unfortunately, aside from those data, nothing has changed. Because it's a lot easier to create a monster than to bring it under control.


Get ready for a seemingly endless stream of cookie-cutter news stories and Astroturf op ed columns (the kind written by national groups with blanks to fill in to make them sound home-grown) touting "Child Abuse Awareness Month" – based on the bizarre premise that the American people are blissfully unaware of child abuse. 

There is something appropriate about the fact that "Child Abuse Awareness Month" starts on April Fool’s Day, since it involves fooling the public in order to push an agenda of hype and hysteria that obscures the real scope of the problem, and real solutions, in favor of approaches that only make a serious and real problem worse. Your typical Child Abuse Awareness month news story or op ed column follows a standard formula: 

1.  1. Take the most horrifying case to occur in your community over the past year, the more lurid the better.

2.   2. Jump immediately from that story to a gigantic number which actually is only the number of "reports" alleging any form of child maltreatment. Ignore the fact that the vast majority of those reports are false and most of the rest are nothing like the horror story. Rather, they often involve the confusion of poverty with neglect. Or…

3.   3.  Use only the total number of cases that caseworkers guess might be true, but call them "confirmed" giving the guesses, which are simply the opinion of a worker checking a box on a form, far more credibility than they deserve. A major federal study found that workers are two- to six-times more likely to wrongly label an innocent family guilty than to wrongly label real child abusers innocent.

4.   4. Pile hype onto hype by reasserting the racist, discredited COVID-19 “pandemic of child abuse” myth.

5.    5. Throw in huge lists of "symptoms" or "warning signs" that "might" be "signs" of child abuse – and might as easily be signs of any number of other things.

6.     6. Instruct us all that it is our duty to phone the local child abuse hotline with any suspicion of anything no matter how vague and how dubious – instead of advising us to report when we have "reasonable cause to suspect" maltreatment, the same standard often used in law to guide "mandated reporters."  

      7. Remind us that we are welcome to call the hotline anonymously – thereby encouraging those who want to harass an ex-spouse, a neighbor or anyone else against whom they may have a grudge to go right ahead, secure in the knowledge that they'll never get caught because they can conceal their identity. 

It all comes from the same ends-justify-the-means mentality behind, for example an egregiously-misleading report published by the group that calls itself Every Child Matters – the mentality that says: What's a little distortion and exaggeration in the name of a good cause? 

In fact, such distortion and exaggeration can do enormous harm to children.  

Hotlines wind up with more false reports and trivial cases; children are harassed and traumatized by needless child abuse investigations – often including stripsearches as caseworkers look for bruises - and some of those children are forced needlessly into foster care. The caseworkers wind up even more overloaded by these false allegations, so they have even less time to find children in real danger.  And at this moment this year, it still. risks spreading a deadly virus. 

Reality check 

NCCPR has some resources on our website for any journalists and others interested in putting all this into context, countering the hype and hysteria and pressing for real solutions: 

·        -- Issue papers on Understanding Child Abuse Numbers and False Allegations: What the Data Really Show

·        -- Our Solutions pages, Doing Child Welfare Right and our Due Process Agenda.

·        -- Our presentation on how to really prevent child abuse: take a social justice approach instead of a public health approach.

If the people behind "Child Abuse Awareness Month"  (also known as "Child Abuse Prevention Month") really want to prevent "child abuse" then how about campaigning to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty.  

Poverty increases the stress that can lead to actual abuse and, as noted above, poverty itself often is confused with "neglect."  This can be seen by the fact that study after study shows even small increases in income significantly reduce what child welfare systems call "neglect."

The problem of child abuse is serious and real, but the solutions have been phony. The distortion and exaggeration that typify child abuse "awareness" campaigns only promote phony solutions and make those serious, real problems even worse.

If only there were a Statistics Abuse Prevention Month.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending March 30, 2021

● We begin with some very good reporting about some very bad ideas.  In Massachusetts, a state that already takes away children at a rate more than 60% above the national average, and despite the mass of evidence that mandatory reporting is a failure, a special commission is proposing to double down on that failure. 

Not only do they want to vastly expand who is a mandated reporter they want to make it easier to confuse poverty with neglect.  But CommonWealth Magazine didn’t do the usual story – find the worst “unreported” horror story and use it to cheer on the changes.  Instead, this story from reporter Shira Schoenberg looks at all sides – including all the reasons the plan could backfire. 

● Speaking of laws that backfire, America’s racial justice reckoning has led to calls to repeal the federal government’s worst child welfare law, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act.  Those calls have focused largely on one abominable feature of the law – timelines.  But in this column for Youth Today I discuss another part of the law that’s even worse. 

● ASFA and mandatory reporting both illustrate that in child welfare nothing succeeds like failure.  I have a column in the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call about the pernicious practice of predictive analytics spreading to another Pennsylvania county. 

● At last! Voices that have been effectively silenced by most Washington State media for decades are heard in this excellent story by Nina Shapiro of the Seattle Times. The story focuses on the confusion of poverty with neglect, and several initiatives aimed at curbing needless removal. 

One notable statistic from the story: 

“Poverty is the greatest predictor of whether you’re going to have a dependency case,” said Tara Urs, special counsel for civil police and practice at the King County Department of Public Defense. Of 962 cases filed in the county during 2019 and 2020 seeking to make a child a dependent of the state and possibly a placement in foster care, just five families were not entitled to a public defender because of indigency, according to her department’s records.

● In Reason, Lenore Skenazy wrote about a family turned-in to child protective services because a parent was seven minutes late picking up her son.  Her work led me to revisit a similar situation in Washington, D.C., where it is standard operating procedure to report some parents if they’re late picking up kids from afterschool programs. 

● In a system permeated with racial bias, what about the means used to decide what is, and isn’t, “evidence-based”? In The Imprint, three child welfare consultants write that the clearinghouse that has to give its seal of approval before a program can be funded under the Family First Act  

…does not apply or require a racial equity lens for approval. As a result, they are too often implemented through white normative standards, and rarely evaluated for efficacy in non-white populations. 

● And in Washington State, KING-TV and NBC News report that some prosecutors are having second thoughts about the “expert” they used in some child abuse cases, From the story

This winter, [Dr. Elizabeth] Woods left her position as the director of the child abuse intervention program at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma, and last month she was removed from the small roster of doctors who provide expert medical reports to the state’s child welfare agency, hospital and state officials confirmed. Some area prosecutors have also been sending letters to defense lawyers disclosing that Woods’ credibility as an expert witness has been called into question. 

These changes follow a KING 5 and NBC News investigation from one year ago that revealed that Woods, 39, provided false information while testifying under oath about why she never received key training to become certified as a child abuse medical expert. The investigation also examined four cases in which child welfare workers took children from parents based on Woods’ reports — including some in which Woods misstated key facts, according to a review of records — despite contradictory opinions from other medical experts who said they saw no evidence of abuse.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Child welfare in Washington, D.C.: An “offer” families can’t refuse

Remember when the D.C. family police denied they take children if their parents are late to pick them up after school?  A policy manual from the D.C. schools reveals that it’s more complicated.

If you’re a parent living in poverty, you may need a lot of help.  But no matter where you turn for help you risk being turned in to the family police (a more accurate term than child protective services).  In Washington, D.C. that even applies if you’re late picking up your child from an afterschool program.  Turns out, it’s right in the D.C. Public Schools’ handbook for such programs.   

But that’s not the way the D.C. family police agency has been spinning the story.  

Back in late August 2019, a Washington, D.C. television station revealed that a local public elementary school was threatening to call the family police, known in D.C. as the Child and Family Services Agency, if parents were late picking up their kids from school. CFSA then would take the children to their central office.  

About eight months later, the head of the agency flatly denied this in a way that made it easy for listeners to infer the story was wrong. 

But the story was right. Only after the policy was exposed was it changed.  

And it gets worse.  No one at CFSA bothered to mention that handbook, the one that includes  a very similar policy – citywide – for some of the children in afterschool programs.

This is the story of what CFSA said, what CFSA did, and what CFSA still does. 

August, 2019: WUSA-TV breaks the story 

To understand the context, we need to go back to August 2019, when WUSA-TV, Channel 9 broke the story.  They reported on a memo sent to parents at one school at the start of the school year – and lest there be any doubt – displayed the memo, which said: 

If you choose not to have your child remain in the Afterschool Program, then he/she MUST be picked up promptly at 3:15 p.m. For those students that are not picked up on time (3:15pm) the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) will be contacted, and parents will be required to pick their child up from their office." [Emphasis most definitely in the original] 

Here’s the full story:

Channel 9 got comment from a CFSA deputy director, Robert Matthews, and D.C. Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee. At no point did either of them deny that the memo was real. At no point did they say the school was wrong to have issued it. At no point does Matthews say CFSA would not cooperate with demands to come and get children under these circumstances.  That’s worth keeping in mind in light of how the agency is spinning the whole thing now. 

I discussed the harm of this policy in a follow-up story on Channel 9.  At that time CFSA still did not make the claims it would make now, a year-and-a-half-later, as we’ll see below.


May, 2020: The CFSA Director on the radio 

Fast forward to May 2020. By then we were well into the pandemic.  CFSA Director Brenda Donald appeared on a prestigious local radio program, The Kojo Nnamdi Show, on public radio station WAMU. She touted the false master narrative that, in the absence of “mandated reporters” constantly keeping their eyes on children, they were at grave risk of child abuse.  Donald even urged the very people to whom families were most likely to turn to for help to become spies – though, of course, she didn’t use that word. Here’s what she said: 

So our big concern now is really not so much our children, who are in foster care because they are well cared for. They're in foster homes. … But it's the children we don't see who may be suffering that we are concerned about. … 

But now what we've asked our community partners to do who are out about in the community. They're providing meals to families. They're connecting with families in other ways to really step up and be more vigilant. If they see that, you know, perhaps they haven't seen a child when they've delivered meals to the family or they may observe some other signs where they note that something is not quite right. 

So now every D.C. parent with a hungry child has to worry about whether to accept a meal just when they may need it most.  

I called in to the program to raise that concern.  To which Donald replied: 

We’re not as – certainly when someone calls our hotline we have experts, who are trained to ask certain questions to really understand if someone is making a report that really doesn’t go to true abuse or neglect. We’re not going to respond to a frivolous call. 

Since Donald said they don’t respond to frivolous calls, that seemed like a good time to bring up the WUSA-TV story. This exchange followed: 

RICHARD: Last year Channel 9 reported that if you're simply a few minutes late to pick up your child from a D.C. public school those school teachers who are ever on the alert will call CFSA. CFSA caseworkers would be there and haul them off to Brenda Donald's office, a terribly traumatic experience for a child. 

NNAMDI: Brenda Donald. 

DONALD: Clearly bad information that was false that was corrected. Someone -- we don't know where that came from, but that absolutely does not happen and is not encouraged. 


Where things stand now 

All of which brings us to last week, when a similar situation arose in Chicago.  Lenore Skenazy wrote about that case for Reason.  And she discovered that the D.C. approach went way beyond one school.  She links to an old edition of something called the “District of Columbia Public Schools Afterschool Program Parent/Guardian Handbook.”  That prompted me to look further.  I found the handbook for the 2019-2020 school year – the school year in progress at the same time Brenda Donald was on The Kojo Nnamdi Show.  

Of course, the original WUSA9 story dealt with what a school did with children who were not in an afterschool program.  The passages below deal with what happens to students who are somehow involved with such a program – and sure enough, as you’ll see below, CFSA ultimately would split this very hair.  But either way, it doesn’t exactly sound like this “absolutely does not happen…”  Let’s take a look at Page 7: 

1. If a student is not picked up by the end of the program day (6:00 p.m.), afterschool staff will call the phone numbers listed in the child(ren)’s enrollment application to locate an adult who can pick up the student. 

2. If, after multiple attempts, the student(s)’ parent, guardian, or emergency contact(s) cannot be reached, the school will call the DC Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) at 202-671-7233. [Emphasis added.] 

3. If the parent, guardian, or another approved adult arrives prior to the CFSA representative, CFSA receives another call and a reported update. 

4. The student may not return to the afterschool program until the AA/full-time coordinator and/or the principal has spoken with the parent, guardian, or caseworker and has agreed to a plan by which the student will be picked up on time. [Emphasis added]. 

Now let’s turn to page 8, regarding students who are kicked out of an after-school program: 

DCPS implements the following steps in the event that the student (who has been previously removed from the afterschool program) is left after school dismissal: 

--The student will be held in the main office once school is dismissed (beginning at 3:15 p.m.). 

-- School staff will call the parent/guardian after dismissal to request immediate pick-up from school (at 3:30 p.m.). 

-- If the parent/guardian does not pick up the student within 30 minutes, a second call will be made to the parent/guardian and emergency contacts on the student’s afterschool enrollment form (at 4:00 p.m.). 

-- If the parent/guardian does not pick up a student within an hour of the first call, CFSA will be contacted and asked to take custody of the student (at 4:30 p.m.). [Emphasis added]. 

Yes, there is a slight difference between this district-wide policy involving certain students involved with afterschool programs and what happened at that one school that was the subject of the Channel 9 story:  The district-wide policy sometimes allows an hour’s grace period before turning over the situation to the family police.


What CFSA says

On Friday I reached out to CFSA Communications Director Kera Tyler for the agency’s response.  I asked her why Donald referred to what WUSA9 reported as “Clearly bad information that was false that was corrected. Someone -- we don't know where that came from, but that absolutely does not happen and is not encouraged.”  In an email, Tyler acknowledged the memo from the school was real but claimed the school was the one that got it wrong. Says Tyler: 

In addition to responding to your hyperbolic language re: caseworkers hauling children to her office, Director Donald was referring to the misinformation in the principal’s communication to parents. Teachers are not directed to contact the DC Child and Family Services Agency when families are “simply a few minutes” late picking up their children by the 3:15 p.m. elementary school dismissal. Shortly after this news story ran, Principal Thomas and DC Public Schools (DCPS) corrected the misinformation, children who are not picked up on time at the end of the regular school day are enveloped into available afterschool programming while staff members work to contact family members and emergency contacts. The DCPS Parent Handbook you’ve linked and referenced is regarding afterschool programming. 

So WUSA9 got it right – that was the school’s policy and only after Channel 9 broke the story, were things “corrected.” 

But notice that the response says nothing about why a very similar policy exists, districtwide, for afterschool programming.  (I’ll get to how CFSA spins that, below.) 

Tyler went on to deny that Donald was misleading listeners on the radio program.  There just wasn’t time to go into detail about it, Tyler said, because “The purpose of her appearance on The Kojo Nnamdi Show last spring was to address concerns regarding child welfare during the public health emergency.”  Translation: Donald was too busy scaring people into rushing to report any vague suspicion of child abuse and urging them to usie meal drop-offs for spying. 

But even if we accept this at face value, it doesn’t explain why CFSA didn’t say anything like this when the agency’s deputy director commented in the original WUSA9 story.  (Neither did the D.C. Schools Chancellor.) 

As for the policy that CFSA at no point denies, the one about afterschool cases, Tyler explains that’s just CFSA being kindly, benevolent helpers!  Writes Tyler: 

During emergency incidents where families and emergency contacts can’t be reached, CFSA offers schools and families respite. 

Let’s stop right there.  “Offer” implies the families can say no. But this is an “offer” they can’t refuse. 

Tyler continues: 

By and large, these incidents are not abuse or neglect, and a child requiring temporary safe supervision until their family can be reached is not a removal. 

But does it feel like it’s not removal to the child?  

Tyler continues: 

CFSA social workers are trained professionals who team with educators to support families during these incidents by helping to identify additional familial contacts and providing that safe supervision if necessary. 

But recall that the actual policy manual puts it differently: 

If the parent/guardian does not pick up a student within an hour of the first call, CFSA will be contacted and asked to take custody of the student (at 4:30 p.m.). 

In 2019, CFSA told Channel 9 they didn’t track how often this happens.  They still don’t. But Tyler says there have been only a handful of cases in the past two years during which CFSA had to take custody – oh, sorry, I mean provide safe supervision -- under these circumstances. 

Tyler did offer schools help with p.r. -- declaring that “we’re happy to work with them to help soften the tone of any language that comes across punitively.” 

Because how could children possibly feel punished by having strangers come to the school and, yes, haul them off to the downtown office of the family police?

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending March 23, 2021

● The real story of COVID-19 and child welfare is not the false, racist master narrative about a supposed pandemic of child abuse.  The real story is how it has increased the harm done to families by needless foster care and an ongoing mad rush to terminate parental rights.  Mother Jones tells that story

● A start toward curbing this harm would be the repeal of the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act.  The Imprint reports on a new campaign to #repealASFA.  You can support the campaign and find out more by following the campaign on Twitter and Instagram at @RepealASFA and on Facebook at  

● Repealing ASFA is an example of “non-reformist reform” – reforms that are interim steps that move toward more radical change rather than shoring up the existing system. Prof. Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania Law School (and a member of the NCCPR Board of Directors) discusses the concept and much more on The Imprint’s weekly podcast

The podcast is a good preview of the Columbia Journal of Race and Law Symposium Strengthened Bonds: Abolishing the Child Welfare System and Re-Envisioning Child Well-Being, commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the publication of Prof. Roberts’ book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. [UPDATE: In solidarity with striking Columbia University graduate students, the symposium has been postponed.]

● A Chicago Public School teacher was late to pick up her own child from school due to a mix-up. The school reported the family to the Illinois family policing agency, the Department of Children and Family Services.  Now, WGN-TV reports, the teacher 

…worries for her child, who she says after DCFS questioned him, remains scared that he will be taken away from his mother. 

“He just ran and gave me a hug and was like ‘I’m so dumb,’ I said, ‘baby, why are you dumb?’ He said, ‘I shouldn’t have told her when she said where I live. I should have said nope, that’s not it because she can just come to our home now and come get me.'” 

By the way, Chicago is not alone. The same thing happened in Washington, D.C. 

● And I have a blog post about the lessons Florida politicians and journalists should, but probably won’t learn from the outstanding USA Today Network story about how the state ignores abuse in foster care.

Friday, March 19, 2021

USA TODAY Network reporters document how DCF ignores abuse in Florida foster care

 Once again, it’s the price of foster-care panic 

For decades, NCCPR has pointed out the huge disconnect between officially-reported rates of abuse in foster homes, group homes and institutions and the findings from independent studies which consistently find vastly more such abuse. 

Now USA TODAY Network Florida reporters have obtained copies of thousands of reports alleging abuse in foster care that the state, in effect, covered up, by deciding they were not serious enough even to investigate as child abuse reports.   

As the story explains: 

The nearly 5,000 records detail calls to the Florida Department of Children and Families abuse hotline from teachers, health care professionals, day care workers, neighbors and others about the treatment of kids in state care. 

None of these cases would have been counted in what Florida publicly reports each year about the number of serious abuse, neglect and abandonment allegations in its foster care system. 

DCF says the accusations do not meet its definition of serious harm. Instead, they are classified as foster care "referrals," potential license violations that may prompt an administrative review and that Florida officials have fought to keep secret for years. 

As the story notes, NCCPR reviewed a sample of these reports and, using very conservative criteria, found that a great many absolutely would have been considered abuse had the accused been birth parents.  

Florida experts agreed. Here’s what they told the USA TODAY Network reporters: 

“This is stuff kids tell you about when foster homes are really bad,” said Robert Latham, a child advocate and clinical instructor at the University of Miami’s law school. … The system has an incentive not to believe children because it’s afraid to lose foster parents. Even calling in abuse reports is frustrating because you’re almost sure nothing is going to happen.” … 

In at least four counties, the same case manager assigned to complete regular visits to the foster home where the abuse reportedly occurred is often dispatched to investigate the allegation, former DCF attorney Lisa Dawson-Andrzejczyk said. 

"The vast majority of case managers are good and dedicated and appreciate the seriousness of their job, but you're going to have some who didn't do the home visits, or they visited the child at school and called it a home visit," Dawson-Andrzejczyk said. "They have every reason to not want to acknowledge that there's something they might have missed." … 

A system desperate for foster parents will let a lot of things slide, said Neil Skene, who served as DCF’s special counsel from 2008 to 2010 and chief of staff at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services from 2015 to 2017. … 

But don’t take our word for it – or theirs. The reporters published summaries of scores of allegations. Read them yourself and ask yourself one question: What would the Florida Department of Children and Families have done had the accused been birth parents? 

It isn’t just Florida, of course. The same incentives apply everywhere, especially in places where child welfare agencies are experiencing foster-care panics - sharply increasing the number of families torn apart needlessly in response to politicians or journalists falsely scapegoating family preservation after high-profile child abuse deaths. 

That is exactly what happened in Florida.  So nothing will come of this excellent journalism from the USA TODAY network if lawmakers and others are allowed to ignore the reason DCF is desperate for foster care beds – the foster-care panic triggered by the Miami Herald’s series falsely scapegoating family preservation for child abuse deaths, and the complicity of the Tampa Bay Times in encouraging the panic.  That panic led to the needless removal of thousands of children.  All were likely traumatized by that needless removal from loving homes. Some almost certainly wound up in abusive foster homes, group homes and institutions. 

You can’t fix this with another tired foster parent recruitment campaign. And you sure as hell can’t fix it with more group homes and institutions – where the rate of abuse is even worse. You can only fix it by reducing the number of children taken needlessly from their homes.

As they read the USA TODAY Network story in the Herald and Times newsrooms – and they will – reporters and editors should think long and hard about how they contributed to what better journalists have now exposed. 

But they probably won’t.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

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

● For decades, NCCPR has pointed out the huge disconnect between officially-reported rates of abuse in foster homes, group homes and institutions and the findings from independent studies which consistently find vastly more such abuse.

 Now USA TODAY Network Florida reporters have obtained copies of thousands of reports alleging abuse in foster care that the state, in effect, covered up, by deciding they were not serious enough even to investigate as child abuse reports.  As the story notes, NCCPR reviewed a sample of these reports and, using very conservative criteria, found that a great many absolutely would have been considered abuse had the accused been birth parents.  Florida experts agreed.

 I’ll have more about this on the blog tomorrow.  Meanwhile, you can read the full story here.

The Nation has a great overview of child welfare’s failed response to COVID-19: 

When Covid-19 shuttered schools and grounded kids and parents at home, many child welfare authorities feared surging rates of abuse and neglect. … Advocates for parents in marginalized communities, however, say the alarms raised about hidden abuse reflect ingrained biases in child protective services, too eager to remove kids from their homes and drag parents to court in the name of saving children. 

● It’s just the latest in a long line of failed responses, as Chris Gottlieb, co-director of the New York University School of Law Family Defense Clinic explains in an op-ed for Time magazine: 

Today, more than 200,000 children of color are in government custody in our foster system, and the current protesters are largely low-income Black and brown parents who explain that fearmongering about child abuse has empowered child protective authorities to unfairly target their communities and invade their homes with virtual impunity. A shocking 53% of Black children’s homes are investigated by child welfare officials. That knock at the door is not benign social work. Caseworkers routinely demand entry into homes in the middle of the night without warrants. The interrogations are frightening; the strip searches degrading. Far too often, they end with the trauma of children pulled from their parents’ arms. 

● Something unusual happened during a webinar on child welfare in New York City. The head of the child welfare agency tried to fudge the figures – and a journalist called him out.  I have a blog post about it, including video of the full webinar. 

● Several organizations in Connecticut have released a report on the harm that the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act does to the children of incarcerated parents. 

● And have you heard the one about the parents who let their eight and ten-year-old children play at the end of their dead-end street – by themselves????  Yep, this is going where you think it’s going.  Here’s the story, from Lenore Skenazy in Reason.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Child welfare in New York: Why you should ALWAYS fact check the commissioner of New York City’s family policing agency

This graphic from a report by the Movement for Family Power tells the real story of the rise in surveillance of
impoverished families by the New  York City Administration for Children’s Services. 
When ACS Commissioner David Hansell tried to fudge the figures,
Abigail Kramer of the Center for New York City Affairs called him out.

Over the past four years, I’ve had many opportunities to observe the m.o. of David Hansell, commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services.  What we have seen far less often – o.k., up to now, never – is a reporter call him out in real-time when he fudges the figures.

 And that’s one of the things that sets apart a child welfare webinar organized this week by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School. 

The main highlight for me was the comments of Halimah Washington, Community Coordinator for Rise, the magazine written by parents caught in the net of ACS and other family policing agencies. She speaks not only of what ACS did to her but about how it fails so many other families and why so-called “preventive services” can be just another form of surveillance and harassment when they are run by or overseen by an agency that can take away your children. 

So you may want to stop right here and just listen to Ms. Washington:

Another highlight came when Jess Dannhauser, now director of a private foster care agency but formerly an official of ACS, apologized for a policy he pushed when he was at the agency, a policy that expanded the harassment of families due to “educational neglect” reports.  That is a problem that probably has worsened due to COVID-19.

But one more high point for me was watching a journalist call out Hansell when he tried to make selective use of statistics.

 First, some context: 

There are three key elements to any David Hansell public appearance. 

1.         1. Everything good that has ever happened in New York City child welfare is thanks to David Hansell!  Thus, he manages to take credit for a decline in the city’s foster care population that dates back to the 1990s.

2.         2. Everything bad that still happens is someone else’s fault.  It’s because of another city agency or a state agency or the state legislature. You can watch him do lots of this during the webinar.

3.         3. Data are taken out of context to cast ACS in an undeservedly favorable light.  (I went into detail on that one in this column for the online news site City Limits.) 

If anyone hoped things would change after the debacle of his agency getting caught trying to get one of its biggest critics fired, such hopes were dashed during the webinar. 

Hansell started bragging about the decrease in the number of children in foster care on any given day – again, the decrease that began all the way back in the 1990s.  (The record on entries into foster care is more mixed.  It got worse at the start of his tenure, now it’s improving, but until COVID it remained worse than before Hansell became commissioner.) 

But as the Movement for Family Power pointed out in a comprehensive report released last June, even as the number of children in foster care on any given day has declined, there has been a vast increase – almost child-for-child -- in the number of children whose families are forced to undergo onerous, court-ordered supervision and surveillance.  Here’s that graphic from their report again:


No that’s not as bad as losing a child to foster care, but it can still undermine a family (If you listened to Ms. Washington you already know that. Here’s another case in point). It’s a level of needless intrusion that white, middle class families would never tolerate. 

 And that brings me to this exchange between Hansell and the moderator Abigail Kramer, senior editor at the Center for New York City Affairs.  It starts at 1:08:07. 

KRAMER: It’s also clear that under your administration, both the number and percentage of families who have cases filed against them in family court has increased significantly as has the number of families who end up with court-ordered supervision. … [They have to] accept continued investigation and monitoring … often for very long periods of time, and typically long before there’s a fact-finding or the equivalent of a hearing where the judge actually decides on the facts of the case. So under the umbrella of this conversation about support vs. surveillance, I’m wondering if you can speak to the increase in that? 

HANSELL: Actually, I don’t want to get into a data discussion here, but actually I think those numbers are wrong, Abigail. I think there were fewer requests for supervision last year than the year before, fewer families under supervision and I think the same was true 2018 to 2019, so I actually think that number has been decreasing …

But Hansell picked the wrong reporter from whom to omit crucial context.  Kramer probably has tracked New York City child welfare data more closely than any other reporter.  She also knows that Hansell became ACS commissioner in February, 2017. So, after a prolonged digression by Hansell, Kramer returned to the data at 1:12:55: 

KRAMER: According to my analysis of ACS numbers, the number and percentage of families brought into court who end up under court supervision has indeed gone down from the high that it hit in FY 2018 but still remains significantly higher than in the years prior to your administration. … [Emphasis added.] 

The irony is, Hansell could have finessed this and come out looking good. When the numbers first were pointed out to him he could have said: “Yes, court supervision cases went way up at first. There had been a high-profile death of a child known-to-the-system and we overreacted. But we were wrong to do that, and we’re beginning to correct it.” 

But that would have required Hansell actually to acknowledge having been wrong.  

Given how averse he seems to be to doing that, we need many more journalists willing to check, double-check and triple-check anything that comes from the New York City Administration for Children’s Services. 

And if you’re not reading this in New York City, you should do even more checking when your own family policing agency puts out a statement.  Because New York City really is one of the least bad child welfare systems in the country (mostly not thanks to David Hansell). Wherever you are, it’s probably worse.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending March 9, 2021

● “One call to the child welfare agency and my whole life could have gone another way.”  Instead, this son of a single mother had a network of friends and extended family to support him.  So Jerry Milner grew up to spend four years running the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Health and Human Services.  He discusses the work he did there, and his work on the landmark reforms that changed child welfare in his home state of Alabama on the Parental Rights Foundation podcast. 

●Milner also has a column on the Rethinking Foster Care blog, in which he writes: 

To my horror, I still read articles suggesting that we should be taking more, not fewer, children into foster care.  That black children are more likely to be abused and neglected, rather than the reality that black children and families are more likely to suffer the ravages of over-surveillance and poverty, which we continue to confuse with neglect.  That we need more and more and more foster homes. 

The Imprint has a story about a new report from Children’s Rights on the need to drastically curb the use of group homes and institutions.  Lots of groups put out reports like that. But what sets this one apart is their list of alternatives.  Instead of the usual nonsense about recruiting more foster homes, giving foster parents a big pay raise, blah, blah blah, this report focuses on keeping children out of the system in the first place and, when removal from the home really is necessary, bolstering kinship foster care. 

Also in The Imprint: 

● Jessica Pryce, director of the Florida Institute for Child Welfare and Amelia Franck Meyer, founder and CEO of Alia Innovations, write about the need to face up to racism in child welfare with  truth, reconciliation – and reparation.  They write: 

We often teach our children that an apology should be followed by a change in behavior. In child welfare, although we are working on transforming how we do our work, we have skipped an essential step. We have not made efforts to admit our shortcomings and make our intentions of changing child welfare’s future clear to the very people to whom it matters most — families. 

But that won’t be easy when so many in the field are still claiming that child welfare is magically immune from racism. 

● And in Minnesota, a forum rallied support for the Minnesota African American Family Preservation Act. From the story: 

The effects the child welfare system has on the disintegration of the Black family is haunting and the entryway must be closed, advocates said at the meeting. 

“The front door of child protection is too wide,” said Kelis Houston of Village Arms. Houston, who helped conceive of the bill along with legislators in both chambers, pointed out the lack of cultural competence, and the continued racial bias from mandated reporters that often mistake poverty for neglect, which leads to maltreatment allegations.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

NCCPR in Youth Today: When the product is poor people’s kids, it’s always a bull market

            A new study from the Children’s Bureau in the federal Department of Health and Human Services reveals some shocking findings.  It turns out we now know exactly how to target intervention to rescue children from those awful parents.  Science now tells us that the worst parents, by far, are the parents of infants.  The most salvageable are the parents of 14-year-olds.  Given the nobility of child welfare practitioners, any other explanation is unthinkable. 

            Here’s how we know ...

Read the full column in Youth Today

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

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

● We begin with a “hidden gem” in federal law that could be of enormous benefit to families – if the federal Department of Health and Human Services chooses to use it: 

As Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare explains in The Imprint, normally, funds freed up under the so-called Family First Prevention Services Act can’t be used for what families need most to avoid having their children taken away – things such as housing assistance.  But in a time of national emergency – such as now – those restrictions can be waived if HHS chooses to do so.  The question now: Will state and local “child welfare” agencies seek such waivers and will HHS grant them? 

● How did “child welfare” get into this mess, anyway?  On the Parental Rights Foundation podcast, NYU Law Professor (and NCCPR president) Martin Guggenheim reviews the recent history of child welfare, how to fix it, and the role of high-quality family defense. 

● One reason we’re in this mess: The racism that permeates child welfare – and the fact that there is an entire “caucus of denial” that claims – seriously – that child welfare is the one and only field magically immune from racism.  I have a blog post about the latest such claim. 

● One place where the racism is particularly pronounced: Minnesota.  Kelis Houston of Village Arms talks to Rise magazine about the need to pass the Minnesota African-American Family Preservation Act.  Says Houston: 

The child welfare system’s knee jerk reaction to anything they are uncomfortable with or just don’t understand in our community is to take our kids and place them in white foster homes, even when there are relatives available who are willing to care for them. 

● Still another place to find racism in child welfare: Some “curious” differences concerning where foster children wind up depending on how old they were when they were taken. I have a column about it in Youth Today.  Because, it turns out …

The Children’s Bureau data show, once again, that what [the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act] did was turn inner-city maternity wards into a version of Supermarket Sweep, with the babies as the prizes. It turned child welfare into the ultimate middle-class entitlement: Step right up, and take a poor person’s child for your very own. 

● Two columns this week discuss the need to legalize – childhood.  Lenore Skenazy writes in Reason about a mother arrested for leaving her children alone in their home – a room at a Motel 6 – because it was the only way she could work her night-shift job.  Showing far more understanding than local authorities, contributors to a GoFundMe campaign raised $165,000 so the family could move to a permanent home.  

And author Bridget Foley  writes in Newsweek about moving to Idaho in part because childhood is still legal:  

My husband and I had struggled for years in California, then Pennsylvania, and finally in Washington, to give our children what we believed to be normal developmental milestones. Everywhere we went, it seemed like small acts of childhood independence like waiting for a school bus, walking to school and riding a bike to a friend's house had been slowly phased out of normal life in every town we lived in prior to moving here. 

Both authors note that legislation to, in effect, legalize childhood is pending in South Carolina, Texas, Nevada, Oklahoma, and (just in case) Idaho.

Monday, March 1, 2021

It’s official! Racism is over in child welfare! (We know because a social work school dean says so)


                Great news, everyone! It’s now official: Unlike every other aspect of American life, the child welfare system has eradicated racism!  Like the parrot in the famous Monty Python sketch when it comes to child welfare, racism is gone!  It is no more!  It has ceased to be! 

            How do we know? Because the dean of an actual school of social work says so.  Toward the conclusion of a power-point presentation aimed at social work students planning to work in child welfare, Richard Barth, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland, sums things up this way:

We can celebrate our success in developing a CWS [child welfare system]* that does not result in evidence of biased outcomes. This has long been an aspiration of CWS and it appears that it is, largely, realized. 

            Let us now pause, sip some celebratory champagne and contemplate the sheer magnitude of this achievement. 

            After all, no one denies there is racism in the police. In fact, the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police has admitted it and apologized. I’ll bet child welfare practitioners are really proud that they don’t have to admit any such thing!  And it’s not just police. 

            ● We know there is racism in medicine.

         ● We know there is racism in science.

            ● We know there is racism in journalism

            ● We know there is racism in academic publishing.

            ● We know there is racism in everything else in academia.

            ● We know there is racism in housing.

            ● We know there is racism in hiring.

● We know there is racism in who gets followed around by store security.

            ● We know there is racism in who can hail a cab.

           ● UPDATE: And sometimes, the racism is - literally - at our fingertips.

             But if Barth is right, when it comes to the pandemic of American racism, child welfare, and only child welfare has achieved herd immunity! 

The caucus of denial

            Of course, there has long been a de facto “caucus of denial” in child welfare, a group that says the enormous disparities in who gets reported for child abuse, who gets substantiated, who gets taken away from their families and who does or does not get reunified are solely due to Black people supposedly being worse parents who are more prone to endangering their children to the point where systems dominated by a white power structure must rush in and save them.  

Not that that’s racist, you understand.  No, no.  They claim it’s just that all that historic racism and oppression made Black people more likely to be bad parents.  (In the world of the caucus of denial, the word “racism” almost always is preceded by the modifier historic – because, remember, it’s all in the past.)

Those who hold such views have good intentions; they really want to help children and families.  But it’s no wonder the system they have helped to build and now defend in order to do that has backfired.  The existence of this caucus of denial does, indeed, distinguish child welfare from other professional fields, but not in a good way. 

            How, then, does Barth get around the study after studyafter study that control for all other variables and still find that, even when all else is equal, children are more likely to be declared abused or neglected, and more likely to be torn from their families, if they are not white? Simple, he ignores them. As another slide explains: 

We did not address the usual questions of (1) the reasons for disproportionality in foster care or (2) whether [child protective services] delivers equitable decision-making regarding substantiation and placement—we believe that those have been well addressed in prior research. 

            So how do you conclude that racism has been eradicated in child welfare and ignore all those studies about biased decision-making?  By looking at much narrower questions, and extrapolating way beyond the evidence.  Thus, in the presentation and in a paper on which it is based,  Barth and his co-authors claim: 

            ● “Current research with adequate comparisons provides no robust evidence to support the idea that children have worse outcomes from CWS involvement.” [Emphasis added.] 

            ● The outcomes for Black children are no worse than the outcomes for white children, although “few studies focused on Black children.” 

            Could they possibly have set the bar any lower? 

            The first thing to understand here is that Barth & Co. are talking about “child welfare services,” a category that includes both foster care and services to families in their own homes.  Although child welfare services often exist largely to make the helpers feel good, some such services are genuinely helpful, such as the Homebuilders Intensive Family Preservation Services program and, where genuinely needed, the right kinds of drug treatment.  And a few, innovative systems actually provide concrete help to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty. 

            Far fewer studies compare the outcomes for children placed in foster care to comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes.  But the findings from many of them are alarming.  Barth and his co-authors get around this by minimizing or ignoring studies that don’t come out the way they want them to. 

Even with all that, the best they can claim is: Well, after disrupting all these families lives, tearing the children from their loved ones, forcing them into foster care, and wasting billions of dollars that could have been used to help alleviate family poverty, you critics can’t prove that we actually made things worse! 

So let’s consider what that means. Consider a study of what is widely considered one of the finest, most elite foster care programs in America, run by Casey Family Programs.  That study found that among alumni of the program: 

● They had twice the level of PTSD of veterans of the first Gulf War.

● Only one in five was doing well in later life.

● The former foster children were three times more likely to be living in poverty –

and fifteen times less likely to have finished college.

● At least one-third were abused by a foster parent or another adult in a foster home. 

All of which raises one more question: If, in fact, the system really doesn’t do any harm anyway, are Barth and his coauthors equally sanguine about the children torn from their parents at the Mexican border by the Trump Administration?  

The leap of logic about race 

Barth’s next great leap concerns race.  As noted above, Barth and his coauthors found few studies that directly compared outcomes for children placed in foster care to comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes – and, also as noted above, they sidestepped the massive studies showing that in typical cases the outcomes for the foster children were worse.  But among those few studies of outcomes for all children, even fewer actually tried to disaggregate the results based on race.  Yet based on these few studies, Barth and Co. conclude that the outcomes are no different for Black children. 

There are plenty of studies (not discussed by Barth) that show that Black children are
likely to stay in the system longer and are less likely to be reunited with their parents.  So what Barth really seems to be saying is that in spite of the fact that the system inflicts more foster care and longer foster care on Black children, they are so resilient that their outcomes are no worse than those for white kids.

I am willing to stipulate that the outcomes for youth in foster care tend to be rotten for all races.  So the fact that Black children are: 

● more likely to be placed in a system

● more likely to spend more time in a system

● and less likely to be reunified from a system that, best case, may not make things worse means we need to put the champagne away; there really is racial bias in child welfare after all. 

Equally revealing are the reasons Barth offers in his slide presentation for child welfare’s supposed amazing success. 

For starters, he appears to be in denial about the idea that the system is anything but helpful.  Consider this slide outlining an argument he seeks to challenge - in which, by the way, he dismisses the arguments of those who think there is a racism problem in child welfare as mere "assumptions": 

First, of course, the slide refers to “abused” children when, in fact, most of the time the accusation is neglect and that often means poverty.  But also notice how “coercive” is in quotation marks.  

That’s because the self-image of the child welfare field, cultivated by social work schools, is of friendly helpers who are merely bringing “services” to those in need.  In fact, child protective services is about as coercive as a system can get.  It is a police force that has more power than the police. Police can stop a Black child on the street, throw him against a wall and frisk him. Child protective services can march right into the home, stripsearch a Black child and walk out with him, consigning the child to the chaos of foster care. 

No, CPS workers don’t always do that; but neither do the cops. 

Perhaps we should pause for a moment to consider the implications of giving this vast, unchecked power to the same profession that includes so many who believe that profession has eradicated racism. 

Barth makes a similar error in another slide when he seeks to imply that Black children are taken away more often because they are more often victims of “confirmed” child “maltreatment.”  This claim is built on two weasel-words. 

“Confirmed” is not a legal term; it’s a term coined originally by those who have spent decades fomenting hype and hysteria about child abuse to make subjective guesses by caseworkers sound more definitive.  “Confirmed” does not mean a court found anyone guilty.  It doesn’t mean a neutral factfinder heard both sides.  “Confirmed” means only that a caseworker checked a box on a form stating s/he thinks it is at least slightly more likely than not that “maltreatment” occurred. 

The second weasel word is “maltreatment.”  Overwhelmingly “maltreatment” means neglect, which, as noted above, often means poverty.  Since Black people are more likely to be poor, if you confuse poverty with neglect and then call the neglect “maltreatment,” of course you’ll get the result cited by Barth.

What Barth really is offering here is the ultimate in circular reasoning: The results of subjective, biased caseworker guesses about “maltreatment” are used to “prove” there is no bias! 

Of course, having performed the miracle of eradicating racism from child welfare, Barth knows we mere mortals will want to know how they did it.  He offers two explanations. The first is the equivalent of the old “some of my best friends are …” line. Says Barth: 

“CWS has a diverse workforce.” 

That’s certainly true at the lowest levels – frontline caseworkers – in big cities.  But that’s also true of the police.  In Philadelphia 43% of police officers are nonwhite. In New York City 49% of police are nonwhite. In Chicago it’s 52%  and in Los Angeles it’s 55%  So by Barth’s logic, there’s no racism on big-city police forces either. 

Academic social work is notably less diverse.  In 2016, fewer than one-third of full-time social work professors were from “historically underrepresented groups” according to the Council on Social Work education.  And those who seem most prominent in child welfare’s caucus of denial have long been almost exclusively white.  So either Black professionals and academicians in the field don’t understand the research, or they know something Prof. Barth does not. 

Talk, talk talk 

Barth’s other explanation for child welfare’s astounding success is that “CWS has been in conversation about race equity for 50 years.”  There are several problems with this:  

● Talking about a problem doesn’t solve it – particularly when racism is the reason the system in question was created in the first place. 

● Though the first effort to start the conversation dates back to 1972, little attention was paid until 30 years later, with the publication of Prof. Dorothy Roberts’ landmark book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare.  Even then, as another social work school dean, Alan Detlaff, and his co-authors explain in the very article that got Barth so upset, talking about racism in child welfare made the field so uncomfortable that the caucus of denial managed to sidetrack the issue until demands for racial justice became impossible to ignore in 2020. 

If Barth really does believe that 50 years of endless social work conferences have solved the racism problem, presumably he can pinpoint exactly when that happened.  Presumably, it wasn’t 49 years ago – even child welfare couldn’t have wiped out racism in a single year!  But the “caucus of denial” has been around for awhile, so apparently it didn’t just happen yesterday, either. 

So, Prof. Barth: When did it happen?  When was the last vestige of racism eradicated from child welfare?  December 20, 1987?  March 11, 1992?  November 10, 2004?  February 25, 2014?  Tell us the date so we can make it a national holiday and use it as an example for all those other, less enlightened professions! 

While he doesn’t say exactly when it happened, Barth does go on to say that child welfare has been so successful that “Additional diversity training of the CWS workforce may not be needed.” 

Though there is debate over the effectiveness of such training, the evidence of the need is overwhelming.  But don’t wait until the caseworkers are on the job. 

Clearly, it needs to begin in the social work schools. 

*-In the presentation CWS seems to be used interchangeably to stand for Child Welfare System and Child Welfare Services