Wednesday, April 28, 2021

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

● What’s worse than taking candy from a baby? How about child welfare agencies stealing money that rightfully belongs to foster children.  Not only is it perfectly legal, in past years the Child Welfare League of America and the Children’s Defense Fund opposed efforts to make it illegal.  NPR and The Marshall Project expose the practice.  Now, some in Congress are trying again. This time, will CWLA and CDF side with the kids – or the thieves? 

● The York Daily Record takes a careful, comprehensive look at Philadelphia child welfare – and what they found applies just as well to almost any child welfare system. 

● “The moment you come into contact with child welfare, you’re like 11:59 of the doomsday clock,” J. Khadijah Abdurahman writes in a Twitter thread linking the police shooting of a foster child, Ma'Khia Bryant, to the system that put her in foster care. 

● A commission in Massachusetts spent nearly two years drafting proposals to make it even easier for force “contact with child welfare” on children by expanding mandatory reporting laws.  But when the commission finally held public hearings, some commission members were “shocked” “surprised” and “taken aback” by the massive opposition to those proposals.  I have a blog post about why some members of the commission are having second thoughts. 

● The so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act harms children in so many ways.  In this commentary, the Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School examines just one: The harm that ASFA’s rush to terminate children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights) does to children of incarcerated parents.  As the authors explain: 

Though ASFA purports to protect children, the U.S. Children’s Bureau found that it sacrifices permanent relationships ––something youth need to thrive–– for the uncertain possibility of adoption. 

This commentary is less important for what it says than who is saying it: A prominent member of the American Academy of Pediatrics.  For a long time, they’ve been part of the problem. Does this mean they’re ready to be part of the solution? 

● Robert Latham of University of Miami’s Children and Youth Law Clinic discusses Florida child welfare on The Imprint’s podcast.  Starting at 38:10 he discusses his findings about child abuse and COVID-19.  And at the very end he notes that in Florida, a state which has run wild (my words, not his) in terms of encouraging if not demanding people be out and about and meet in person, the State Supreme Court made one huge exception: cutting off visits between parents and their children in foster care. 

Also on an Imprint podcast, Molly McGrath Tierney reflects on what’s happened since 2014, when she gave a landmark Ted-X talk on foster care.  I recommend watching the Ted-X talk first – it’s on the NCCPR home page.  In the podcast, I particularly like the part at 11:47 where Tierney reveals the secret of how to get kids out of group homes and institutions.  And later she also has a warning.  We’re in a time of rare progress in child welfare, but it’s fragile. Says Tierney: “Don’t think you can turn away for a second.”

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Some members of the Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission are asking very good questions. Here’s what the Commission chair didn’t tell them.

Nearly two years into their work, Commission members speak of being "shocked," "surprised" and "taken aback" by what they heard at public hearings.

The Mandated Reporter Commission will make recommendations 
to the Massachusetts Legislature

When a commission in Massachusetts charged with studying the state’s laws regarding mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect and making recommendations to the State Legislature announced that, nearly two years into the process, it would, at last, hold virtual public hearings, I almost decided not to bother testifying. 

The whole effort looked like a stacked-deck process from the start; the hearings looked like a pro-forma exercise before the Commission did what it wanted to do in the first place: further expand a failed system of mandated reporting and, while they were at it, make it even easier to confuse poverty with neglect

But it looks like I may owe some members of the commission an apology. I certainly hope so. 

For starters, the hearings were nothing like what the commission members expected.  Somewhere between 30 and 35 people testified.  Only one supported the commission’s draft proposals.  And the dozens of opponents weren’t just those you might expect.  

There were national experts, such as Prof. Dorothy Roberts, who literally wrote the book on child welfare and race, Dr. Mical Raz, who literally wrote the book on the failure of mandatory reporting, and Prof. Kelley Fong, whose research demonstrates why mandatory reporting backfires.  (Many, many more scholars, including former proponents of mandatory reporting, have changed their minds, as NCCPR documented in our written testimony.) But it didn’t stop there.  When it came to the Commission’s draft proposals: 

● The foster parent who testified opposed them.

● The adoptive parent who testified opposed them.

● The former DCF social worker who testified opposed them.

● Even the speaker from the League of Women Voters opposed them. 

The Commission holds a meeting 

On Monday, the commission held a virtual meeting to discuss what they heard.  Words that kept coming up included “shocked. “surprised” and “taken aback.”  And at least one member of the Commission, Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan, wondered if the commission has been on the wrong track all along.  Said Ryan: 

I spent a lot of years thinking that [mandated reporting] gets us to a better place; I’m disheartened to hear maybe it really doesn’t - and even if it does, perception is reality.  A lot of well-credentialed, well-meaning experts think this doesn’t work. I don’t know how we’re going to get any legitimacy about finetuning the process if a significant number think the process doesn’t work anyway. … I was taken aback to hear so much of that conversation. 

Finding out if we critics are right, Ryan said, “Should be job 1.” 

It should have been job 1 from day 1.  But the Commission proceeded for nearly two years without even knowing about such concerns.  That’s not the fault of Ryan or the others who expressed surprise Monday.  I’ll get to why I think that happened below.  But Ryan was so concerned she floated the idea of the Commission shifting its entire focus from increasing reporting to bolstering prevention. 

Another commissioner, Nina Marchese, director of the Office of Approved Special Education Schools, was “shocked” by a recurring theme at the first hearing: The state Department of Children and Families (DCF) tears children from the arms of mothers whose only crime is to be victims of domestic violence themselves.  This is a common practice across the country – and so incredibly harmful to children that in one state it’s illegal. 

The Commission staffer conducting the meeting and the representative from DCF immediately tried to spin the issue and claim that really, they would almost never do such a thing.  Domestic violence survivors in Massachusetts and their lawyers made clear during the hearings that, in fact, they do.  And as a result, domestic violence victims are afraid to come forward and get help. One of those lawyers spoke of the children in such cases, calling her and crying because they weren’t allowed to go home from foster care. 

But what is shocking is that, again, after all this time, a member of the commission would be shocked to learn this problem even exists. 

The commission representative from the state Attorney General’s office, Angela Brooks, also expressed some skepticism about the thrust of much of the Commission’s work so far. During one of the hearings, she acknowledged another failing: a lack of diversity among the Commission members. 

How things reached this point 

The key to understanding how the commission could go so long and wind up surprised and shocked about so much can be found in the fact that it is chaired by the director of the state’s Office of Child Advocate (OCA), Maria Mossaides, and staffed by her office. 

In recent years, there has been no advocate or public official in Massachusetts more fanatical about expanding the child welfare surveillance state and taking away children than Mossaides.  That is typical of state Child Advocates or “ombudspersons.”  That’s not because Mossaides wants to hurt children – she wants to help them.  But her efforts have backfired. 

Mossaides’ office zeroes in on the most extreme cases, the ones called horror stories because they are so horrible – and so rare.  Then she issues Scathingreports (that’s how they’re always labeled in the news accounts so we might as well make it one word) that effectively call for making the coercive parts of the system bigger.  

The problem is not that she focuses on the horror stories – they demand and deserve attention. The problem is that this leaves the impression that the only error DCF makes is to leave children in dangerous homes.  Such reports contribute to foster care panics  - sharp sudden spikes in removals of children from their homes -- that further overload the system. Workers then have less time to prevent the next tragedy. After the tragedy Mossaides issues another Scathingreport and the cycle begins anew.

Even a casual observer can see that Mossaides dominates the Commission.  At Monday’s meeting, she probably spoke more than the rest of the commissioners combined.  So it’s worth looking in detail at some of the ways Mossaides’ office stacked the deck – and is still trying to do so. Here’s a partial list. 

Are some witnesses more equal than others?  At one point, commission staff (which, again, is also OCA staff) mentioned that while yes, almost every witness at the public hearings opposed the commission’s recommendations, other speakers they’d heard from favored the current system of mandatory reporting.  Where did those speakers come from? 

Apparently, these were specially invited speakers, who got to speak to the Commission early on.  Did anyone who might challenge Mossaides’ view of the system get an invitation? Doesn’t seem that way. 

Who summarizes the testimony?  The Commission promises to make public all 53 written testimony submissions as well as video of the public hearings.  (Though considering the last hearing was on April 17, it’s hard to see why it’s taking this long just to post a couple of Zoom videos.) [UPDATE, APRIL 30: The written testimony is now available, but so far only audio of the hearings themselves, making them harder both to follow and to search.  So I've posted a guide to how to find the parts I think Mossaides least wants you to hear and readThat’s a lot of material for the commissioners to digest.  So a commission/OCA staff person will prepare a digest.   

The staffer in question ran the hearings with consummate fairness and professionalism. I’m sure she will make the same effort when summarizing the testimony.  Nevertheless, my question to the prosecutors on the commission is this: Would you decide whether to charge someone or what kind of sentence to recommend to a judge based solely on a summary of the case prepared by the accused’s lawyer?  It’s a lot to ask, given the amount of material you have to look at, but please don’t rely on OCA’s version of what people who disagree with OCA have to say. 

Misrepresenting the nature of neglect.  This one is straight from the playbook used by all of those who want to justify the current massive child welfare surveillance state: Using the few neglect cases that are, in fact, horror stories to represent a giant category that is, mostly, poverty cases.  Thus Mossaides said: 

From OCA experience, the neglect cases that we see result in very serious emotional and physical injury to children. … it’s not Twinkies for breakfast or school without a winter coat. Neglect cases that we see are far more serious. [Emphasis added.] 

But, Ms. Mossaides, you don’t see a typical cross-section of cases – you focus on the most horrible cases.  If you really wanted to know what DCF does in typical cases, you would do what your former counterpart in New Jersey, Kevin Ryan did when he was that state’s child advocate in 2005.  Not only did he look at a random sample of cases, he made sure the casereading would be objective by having the cases read by two groups with opposite views of the extent to which the state should intervene in families. 

Even DCF’s own annual report makes clear that the neglect cases OCA sees are rare
exceptions.  Of all the reports alleging neglect – a total of 63,101, 16 were fatalities.  Another 1,121 involved a substantiated allegation of a substance-exposed newborn – and contrary to the fearmongering from the foster care establishment, not every such case by a longshot involves a parent endangering her child. (See below.) The remainder, 14,345 cases, are labeled simply as “neglect.”

In denial about foster-care panic.  When it comes to tearing apart families, even in normal times, Massachusetts is an extreme outlier when it comes to tearing apart families.  The state removes children at a rate 60% above the national average when entries into care are compared to the number of impoverished children in each state.  Foster-care panics make things even worse.  But Mossaides claimed that a huge spike in removals of children had nothing to do with high-profile deaths in 2014 and 2015 making workers scared to leave children in their own homes.  No, said Mossaides, it was not a foster-care panic, rather, she claimed, it was entirely due to the opioid epidemic.  The data show otherwise: 

● The giant spike in entries into care in Massachusetts occurred in 2014.  The opioid epidemic had started the year before – and got much worse in later years, even as entries into foster care in Massachusetts were going back down to their usual obscene rate. 

● The fact that DCF caseworkers were checking a substance abuse box on a form is not the same as substance abuse always being the actual reason for removal.  It could be anything from a wrong guess by a caseworker, to a false positive drug test, to a mom smoking pot to ease the pain of labor or keep food down during pregnancy, to a mom taking legally-prescribed medicine as part of treatment for substance use.  (And DCF seems to have a particular obsession about marijuana.) 

● Not all substance use is cause for removal.  But even in the best of times, agencies such as DCF often act as though it is.  During a foster-care panic, workers are that much more likely to conclude that a case involving alleged substance abuse requires removing the child from the home – even when there are better alternatives. 

The “family resource centers” will take care of it.  Mossaides tried to sell the Commission on the idea that DCF was really just a kindly, helping agency and that a veritable cornucopia of “preventive services” is available to families.  She repeatedly cited DCF Family Resource Centers (FRCs).  But there’s a huge catch: The people who run and work at those centers are mandated reporters.  Mossaides said they rarely actually call DCF.  But every parent who asks for help must fear that s/he is the one who will be turned into DCF and her family’s life turned into a nightmare.  Prof. Fong, who testified at one of the hearings, discussed how her research found that as a result, families who need help are afraid to seek it out.  

So if the Commission is serious about a new focus on prevention, step one is to exempt workers in FRCs, and all other preventive programs from mandated reporting laws.  That would not mean they were prohibited from reporting if they genuinely thought it was best for a child. But it means they would be able to exercise their professional judgment and training – and not fear prosecution and a fine if they exercise that judgment and don’t report.  (And, by the way, the Commission is considering recommending much larger fines.) 

In addition, preventive services programs should be taken away from DCF entirely and run by community-based organizations. 

Misrepresenting opponents. Of course, Mossaides invoked horror stories.  In doing so, she misrepresented what witnesses said at the hearing.  Mossaides said: “I’m always worried if we abolish the 51a system, [51a is the term used for a report of alleged abuse or neglect in Massachusetts] what happens to all those children who are injured – intentionally abused, the 8% to 9% who are victims of sexual abuse?” 

While I would be glad to discuss abolition at some future date, none of the witnesses said that the system should be abolished.  They didn’t even say all child abuse reporting should be abolished.  Most didn’t even say all mandatory reporting should be abolished – though I did.  Rather witnesses said that, at a minimum, Massachusetts should stop expanding a failed system.  

And it is that ever-expanding ever more oppressive system Mossaides wants to further expand that not only hasn’t stopped the horror stories, it’s made them more likely by overloading caseworkers with false reports and poverty cases.  

It’s not 15%, it’s more like 3%

This did not come from Mossaides, but a number got into the atmosphere at the meeting that is not quite correct. 

It was suggested, simply as a hypothetical, that 15% of cases involved things that no one would doubt required coercive intervention and removal of children  - physical and sexual abuse.  But that figure appears to be based on the percentage of reports that are screened in and then “substantiated” – a term that means only that a caseworker checked a box on a form saying it was slightly more likely than not that abuse occurred.  

But since the Mandated Reporter Commission is looking at whether to encourage reports alleging child abuse, the real question is, of all such reports to child abuse hotlines, what percentage are ultimately deemed by caseworkers to involve actual physical and sexual abuse.  Nationwide, it’s not 15% - it’s more like 3%. (See p.4 of NCCPR’s written testimony to the commission.)  It’s almost exactly the same in Massachusetts.  That doesn’t make those cases any less horrible, and it doesn’t make the need to try to stop them any less urgent.  But understanding that 97 times out of 100 the call is a false report or a neglect case is crucial to understanding why deluging DCF with more such reports only makes it harder to find children in real danger. 

What about the middle-ground cases? 

Ryan, the District Attorney, raised another important question: There are cases on the far ends of the continuum where everyone can agree: A proportion that never should have been brought into the system and a proportion where not just intervening but removing the child immediately was the right call.  But, she asked, what about the in-between cases? 

Apparently, Mossaides didn’t tell the Commission about the landmark studies done by Prof. Joseph Doyle of exactly those sorts of cases.  He found that even when families were not offered any extra measure of help, the children left in their own homes in such cases fared better in later life than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.  Prof. Doyle is right nearby at MIT.  I’m guessing he wasn’t one of the people invited to address the Commission. 

First, hit the brake


And that brings me to something else that Nina Marchese, who was shocked about DCF taking children from battered mothers, said during the meeting. She expressed some frustration that while one witness after another told the commission what not to do – namely most of what it is considering recommending – we didn’t explain what to do instead. 

But think of it this way: Imagine there is a bridge out ahead and a car is careening toward the cliff at 90 miles an hour.  The commission is like that car.  We had only about three minutes each to testify – just enough time to yell: Hit the brake!!! Hit the brake!!! 

People like Dr. Raz, Prof. Roberts, Prof. Fong and so many others have so many ideas for how to rebuild a better bridge.  NCCPR has a few as well.  I’m sure they are as eager as I to discuss them with anyone on the Commission who might be interested. 

But please: First, hit the brake.’s a lot to ask, but please don’t rely on OCA’s version of what people who disagree with OCA have to say.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

News and commentary round-up, week ending April 20, 2021

Another outstanding story from Rise: Two cases in which children suffer accidental injuries.  In one case the city family policing agency, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), tries to take the child away.  Writing for rise, the mother in that case, Imani Worthy, compares her situation to another mother: 

Around the same time, there was a story in the news about a white actress, Jenny Mollen. She had dropped her son and he fractured his skull. She talked openly about how hard it was for her as a mother and that she was so thankful for the hospital staff. They didn’t question her motives.

 Our babies were both hurt unintentionally – but we were treated very differently. …

 Her words were not twisted and used against her. In fact, she wrote about her woes and received so much sympathy. I did not. I couldn’t focus only on how devastating it was for my child to be hurt and to lose my mother. I also had to worry about ACS.

 ● Most child welfare organizations have responded to the national demand for racial justice by slapping some kind of Black Lives Matter statement on their website and hoping the whole thing will blow over. The Associated Press reports on one organization, aptly described as an “unlikely voice,” that might be ready to do more. 

● Once again, Eli Hager of The Marshall Project tells the real story of COVID-19 and child welfare.  The story is called These Parents Had to Bond With Their Babies Over Zoom — or Lose Them Forever.

 ● By an overwhelming margin, the Washington State Legislature has passed a bill to narrow the state’s neglect law to make it harder to confuse poverty with neglect.  The message does not seem to have reached the state family policing agency, however. 

--That agency just settled with the U.S. Department of Justice over widespread discrimination against parents who are deaf or hard of hearing.  According to the Justice Department

DOJ found evidence that on more than 100 occasions between 2017 and 2019, the Child Welfare Program failed to provide appropriate auxiliary aids or services, including qualified sign language interpreters, for the complainant families.  The communications included high stakes interviews during investigations regarding the possible termination of parental rights and during court-ordered treatments and counseling required for reunification with children. 

--And The Imprint reports on the sickening maneuvers undertaken by that same agency – with the connivance of a Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program, of course – to tear a Black child from loving relatives and place him with white strangers for adoption.  Even though they failed, the Washington State Supreme Court apparently is sufficiently concerned about what was done to this Black child and his family to hear an appeal of the original decision to remove the child.

● In Minnesota, a state long an extreme outlier when it comes to tearing apart families, family advocates are not willing to settle for the usual boilerplate-b.s.-filled “preventive services” plan. As The Imprint reports, they’re demanding a plan that will “address one of Minnesota’s most glaring child welfare issues: racial disproportionality.” 

● I have more about the injustice inflicted on children by the fifth wheel of the child welfare system in Missouri, and on the harm of mandatory child abuse reporting laws in this blog post.

● And, finally, I believe that CASA isn’t just racially biased (see Washington State item above for only the latest example) – the bias is built into the model. The program also is a well-documented failure in almost every respect.  I believe CASA is unfixable.  But if there’s one person who could prove me wrong it’s Charity Chandler-Cole.  Guess who’s just been named to run the CASA program in Los Angeles. This is going to be interesting to watch.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Justice by geography, and more evidence that mandatory reporting backfires: Notes about Missouri and Massachusetts.

Photo by Tori Rector

Missouri: Justice by geography 

The story, from a Springfield, Missouri, television station is typical fearmongering, parroting the discredited, and yes, racist line about COVID-19 and child abuse.  It begins: 

Child experts [sic] feared it at the start of the pandemic. Greene County has seen staggering numbers of kids going into foster care. Experts say there is a range of issues and there are signs of abuse everyone should know. 

But later in the story we learn this: 

The Missouri Children’s Division reports a very small jump in the number of children who entered foster care in 2020, less than a half of a percent. … Greene County had a 44% increase. 

So, is Greene County a cesspool of depravity with vastly more child abuse than the rest of the state?  Has COVID-19 mysteriously set off a pandemic of child abuse in Springfield while somehow skipping over St. Louis, Kansas City and Joplin? Seems unlikely. 

Rather it’s a continuation of a disturbing pattern.  

Way back in 2003, when NCCPR released its report on Missouri child welfare, we noted that Greene County was an extreme outlier, with the proportion of children in foster care nearly double the state average, even though the child poverty rate was actually below the state average.  We focused on Greene County in part because that’s where a little boy named Dominic James was taken needlessly from his parents, only to die in foster care. 

What the story from that Springfield television station really illustrates is what Judge Darrell Missey termed “justice by geography,” when he was a Juvenile Court Judge in Jefferson County.  And a major reason is the existence of the Juvenile Office, the fifth wheel of the Missouri family policing system, which corrupts the very nature of juvenile court in Missouri. 

In his outstanding 2013 law review article on why the Juvenile Office does so much harm (and, by the way, also is unconstitutional), Prof. Josh Gupta Kagan quotes Judge Missey at length – an essay within an essay – on pp. 37 and 38.  I hope everyone will read it, especially in Missouri: I will highlight just one sentence, in which Judge Missey describes what he saw before becoming a judge: 

In ten years of practicing in that Court, I never saw the Juvenile Office lose a case, hearing, motion, or even an objection. 

There are two possible lessons here. One is: The Juvenile Office has achieved perfection!  Just eliminate the judges and everyone else altogether and let them do what they want.  

There is, however, another possible conclusion … 

Massachusetts: More evidence that mandatory reporting backfires

 I have written before about the failure of mandatory child abuse reporting laws. I’ve cited research showing that they deter families from seeking help and so overload the system with false reports that workers have less time to find children in real danger. 

At a hearing of a commission “studying” the issue in Massachusetts (they’re not really studying mandatory reporting, mostly they’re looking for excuses to expand it) Dr. Mical Raz, who literally wrote the book on this topic, pointed out a new study, which includes this: 

Whereas most policy or practice changes [by legislatures or family policing agencies] resulted in increased reports, most changes served to decrease the number of substantiations. 

In some cases that is to be expected.  For example, in most states all that it takes to “substantiate” an allegation of abuse or, far more often, so-called “neglect,” is for a caseworker to check a box on a form saying s/he thinks it’s slightly more likely than not that the abuse or “neglect” occurred and was caused by the accused.  There is no impartial hearing of any kind beforehand. Caseworkers sometimes proclaim they base these decisions on “intuition” or “gut feeling” or, in Massachusetts “vibe.” 

When the standard of proof is raised slightly – though it’s still just a caseworker’s assessment – both reports and substantiation go down. 

But the researchers found something else they said was “unexpected” – though I can’t imagine why anyone who knows how the system really works would be surprised: 

Sixteen states (32%) made changes to the scope of maltreatment, such as adding new categories of maltreatment or requiring certain populations be referred or investigated; the most common change was to add infants born with positive drug screens. Broadening the scope of maltreatment was associated with increased reports (5%), as expected, providing empirical evidence that these policy changes do indeed widen the reach of child welfare involvement. However, broadening the scope was also associated with decreased substantiated reports, which was unexpected, given that these policy changes were also intended to expand the range of what defined substantiated maltreatment. It could be that broadening the scope of maltreatment may increase the number of reports for lower-risk families that are ultimately unsubstantiated. [Emphasis added.] 

Ya think?

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending April 14, 2021

 ● Remember all that fearmongering about COVID-19 leading to a “pandemic of child abuse”?  (Of course you do, since even after several national news organizations challenged it, the fearmongering kept right on going.)  Remember the dire predictions of a vast surge in child abuse reports when all those battered and bruised children came limping back to class and their horrified teachers saw what their evil parents had done to them?  

A study from New York City finds that it didn’t happen.  When the family police had to step back, mutual aid networks stepped up. That prompted me to check one of the states that has been most fanatical about forcing schools to reopen: Florida.  It didn’t happen there, either.  I have a blog post about it, with a link to the full study. 

● When I saw the headline I thought this story from a television station in Connecticut was going to be the usual fearmongering.  On the contrary, a spokesman for the state child welfare agency had a very different take on the decline in reports alleging abuse and neglect: 

“What did we find during the pandemic and what are we still finding now? Families are incredibly resilient. Communities are the best form of support for families,” [DCF spokesman Ken] Mysogland said. 

Many of these families need housing, food or broadband internet service.  “What children and families need are those concrete and tangible supports. Versus surveillance by a government agency,” Mysogland said. 

● If only a school in Michigan had turned to a mutual aid network when a struggling father was only able to get his children to school 75 percent of the time, compared to a countywide average of 85 percent.  Instead, they called the family police – who tore away the children.  They even managed to get the courts to terminate the children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights).  The Michigan Supreme Court had to step in to reverse the termination. 

A child welfare appellate clinic run by Prof. Vivek Sankaran won the case.  But, he writes: 

our appellate victory will never erase the harm done to this family. Our client has not seen his children in nearly two years. During this time, the children formed relationships with other adults, which will now be disrupted. These children may never be able to overcome the trauma created by a foster care system that unnecessarily separated them from their father, placed them with strangers, and needlessly terminated their father’s right, only to have our state’s highest court correct these errors years later. 

● The mutual aid approach got a big, albeit indirect boost, thanks to the American Rescue Plan.  As Kendra Hurley explains in Early Learning Nation:

The relief package is the most radical child protection plan this country has seen. Unlike our current approach to child maltreatment, it funds the very measures that have been demonstrated to keep kids out of foster care and safe in their homes. 

● Mandated child abuse reporting is a failure.  One-time proponents have turned against the current system of massive mandated reporting, and study after study shows that it backfires – discouraging families from reaching out for help and overloading the system, making it harder to find children in real danger. 

But a commission studying mandatory reporting in Massachusetts appears to have limited its discussion to whether to expand mandatory reporting a little, or expand it a lot. NCCPR’s testimony on the commission’s proposals is available here. 

● Mandated reporting is a contributor to still another danger to children: KQED Public Radio reports on an alarming rise in syphilis in newborns.  The disease is easily treatable during pregnancy. So why is it increasing?  According to a former director of the California Department of Public Health: 

"They're very concerned about what's going to happen when they're found to be pregnant and using drugs. They're concerned that their drug use will be reported and then CPS will be involved and their children will be taken away." 

So congratulations, all you backers of mandatory reporting laws, and all you supporters of making the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act even tougher: You’ve created still another hazard for children.

The Washington Post has a very good story about some excellent foster parents. They saw that love is more important than money.  So they fought against the state child welfare agency (Florida, again, of course) to allow their foster child, a young boy who migrated to the United States with an abusive uncle, to return to his parents in Guatemala.  But, of course, as Prof. Sankaran pointed out, child welfare agencies putting money before love doesn’t just happen with immigrant children: 

The American legal system has long treated poor or minority families differently than White families, said Vivek Sankaran, a law professor at the University of Michigan who has studied termination of parental rights cases.

● That fact is aptly illustrated by two excellent stories in Next City. They examine the racial bias that permeates child welfare in Philadelphia – and that means the bias that permeates child welfare everywhere. 

● Two analyses of that long, complicated court decision concerning the Indian Child Welfare Act: One from Indian Country Today, the other from The Imprint.  (And here’s a reminder of why the law is needed.) 

● And finally, congratulations to Jeanette Vega and Bianca Shaw – the new co-directors of Rise!

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Curbing The Cruelty: NCCPR testimony to Massachusetts Mandated Reporter commission

Mandated reporting of alleged child abuse and neglect is a failure.  One-time proponents have turned against the current system of massive mandated reporting, and study after study shows that it backfires – discouraging families from reaching out for help and overloading the system, making it harder to find children in real danger. 

Yet in Massachusetts, a commission on mandatory reporting appears to have limited its discussion to whether to expand mandatory reporting a little, or expand it a lot.  And even as other states consider narrowing their neglect laws to reduce the confusion of poverty with neglect, the commission is considering making that confusion easier.  All this in a state that already tears apart families – especially poor families of color – at a rate 60% above the national average. 

The commission’s myopia is a microcosm of the cycle of failure that has plagued Massachusetts child welfare for decades – a cycle that has made all of the state’s vulnerable children less safe.  

Monday, April 12, 2021

Mutual aid vs. the family police: Guess which approach keeps kids safer

A new study debunks not only the “pandemic of child abuse” myth but myths about abolition as well. 

When COVID-19 forced New York City's family policing agency to step back, mutual aid organizations,
such as Bed-Stuy Srong in Brooklyn, stepped up - and child safety improved. 

It should have been obvious from the beginning: The pandemic of child abuse claims were bull--it.  It also should have been obvious that such claims are, uh, racist. 

So I’m pessimistic about how much good it will do to point out the findings of a new study by Prof. Anna Arons of New York University School of Law, looking at actual data from before, during and the transition-to-after COVID-19 in New York City.  And I’m pessimistic about how much good it will do to point out that NCCPR’s own check of similar data in Florida produced similar results.  But let’s give it a try. 

The data show that none of the dire predictions of the fearmongers came to pass.  And the new study shows more: In New York City, when the family police agency – the city’s Administration for Children’s Services – was forced to step back, community-based, community-run mutual aid organizations stepped up.  That, plus direct cash payments to individuals included in federal stimulus bills, made children safer. 

The study has lessons not only when it comes to fearmongering about COVID-19 and child abuse, but also about the word that strikes terror in the heart of the “child welfare” establishment: abolition. 

The study is only the latest challenge to the “master narrative” about child abuse and COVID-19 that emerged as soon as the pandemic began.  You remember the claims (hard to forget, since they still haven’t stopped): As soon as mostly white middle-class mandated reporters – especially teachers and other school personnel – no longer had their “eyes” constantly on overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite children due to COVID-19 school closings, the children’s parents would unleash upon them a pandemic of child abuse. 

So of course, the fearmongers claimed, there would be a huge surge in child abuse reports once the kids were back in school and their teachers could see what their parents had done to them. There even were calls to recruit more foster parents because, inevitably, so many more children would need to be taken away. 

But even after several national news organizations challenged the fearmongering, local reporters across the country accepted the myth as fact.  Even after that bastion of child welfare establishment scholarship, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, challenged the claims, the stories continued.  

That’s partly because of the racism that permeates all aspects of society – even if many in child welfare claim immunity.  But it’s also the result of 50 years of “health terrorism,” decade after decade of suggesting that extremely rare horror stories were common and there’s a child abuser under every bed. 

But the COVID-related claims are especially dangerous. In addition to the dangers of needlessly destroying families and overloading the system with false reports, giving workers less time to find children in real danger, the mythology risks increasing the spread of COVID-19 among families and caseworkers alike. 

These claims also fuel calls for premature full reopening of schools – in order to get those white middle-class eyes back on the kids - based on the idea that Black and Brown parents are a greater danger to their children than a deadly disease.  That was always dangerously wrong – all the more so as we are learning how the more dangerous “UK variant” of COVID-19 is spread. 

Measuring safety 

In the paper, Prof. Arons offers several measures of safety, three of which stand out to me: 

Fewer alleged child abuse fatalities.  Like everything else in the family policing system, child welfare’s pandemic of fear has been driven by lurid stories of child abuse deaths.  The message has been: If you don’t peek inside the door when you’re supposedly helping a neighbor by dropping off food and report anything that your “gut feeling” or “intuition” says is wrong today, that child might be dead tomorrow. At least two recent stories have speculated that a child who died of abuse might have been saved had the schools been open.  They went on to draw sweeping conclusions about how such a case supposedly shows the need for what amounts to a massive child welfare surveillance state.  

But deaths also are the hardest form of child abuse to hide.  And when Prof. Arons compared reports alleging child abuse fatalities between February and June 2019 – before COVID -- to the same period in 2020, during the pandemic, Prof. Arons found that reports to New York’s child abuse hotline alleging fatal child abuse in New York City declined by 25 percent, from 63 such reports to 47.  

One always should be cautious in citing fatality data to as evidence for anything – for a reason for which we all should be grateful: Though each is the worst form a tragedy, they also are extremely rare, so rare that they might rise or fall year-to-year due to random chance. 

But remember – the fearmongers told us to expect a big increase in such fatalities, and the fearmongers will use any one case they can find to “prove” that we desperately need that massive child welfare surveillance state. 

So, at a minimum, since the predicted surge in fatalities hasn’t happened it is at least as likely, and probably more likely, that forcing the family police to step back saved children’s lives, rather than contributing to children’s deaths.  I’ll discuss possible reasons for this below. 

No “rebound” in numbers or severity. Perhaps even more significant is what has happened as schools have reopened in New York City.  If the fearmongers were right, thousands of battered and bruised children would be limping back into their classrooms and shocked teachers, seeing the welts and scars would be rushing to call the hotline – a “rebound” in calls that supposedly was going to swamp child protective services and foster homes.  If the fearmongers were right, there would be far more such calls than in a typical fall (when reports always go up as children return to school) and the proportion alleging physical and sexual abuse would be higher. 

Instead, from September through November 2020, the rate of increase in hotline calls from New York City was about the same as the previous (pre-COVID) year.  And the proportion of such reports alleging anything like the stuff of horror stories remained unchanged. Both years, the proportion of reports alleging only neglect – which usually means poverty – was the same, about 75 percent. 

This is all-the-more remarkable given the power of suggestion: From March 2020, when schools shut down, until their reopening in September, New York City teachers, administrators and other school personnel heard the same messages as the rest of us: Just wait until the kids come back!  You’ll see how horrible those parents were!  But even though they were primed to see a surge in physical and sexual abuse that supposedly had gone undetected, they didn’t.  Because it wasn’t there. 

Different state, similar results 

Of course, desperate apologists for the family police might try to claim that the New York results are because not enough children are learning in person yet.  But data also are available for one of the states that has been most fanatical about trying to force children back to in-person education – a state where the governor has been among the most demagogic about pressuring schools to reopen by exploiting the false narrative of a pandemic of child abuse: Florida (of course). 

From September through November 2019, before COVID, Florida’s child abuse hotline received 84,985 calls.  During the same period in 2020, after Gov. Ron DeSantis was pushing all schools to reopen, the number was 81,688, a difference of 3,297 in a state with more than 4.2 million children.  Each year, the proportion of calls “screened in” for investigation was nearly identical. 

When Florida breaks down reports by type of abuse alleged, it reports the data for the month an investigation was closed, not when it was opened, so that makes comparisons more difficult, but it’s clear that even with all those kids pushed back into in-person instruction there was no surge in reports alleging abuse as opposed to neglect – even though, again, the governor himself was issuing dire warnings. 

Back in November, Prof. Robert Latham, associate director of the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami (and probably child welfare’s foremost data nerd) wrote this: 

I wrote last month that if there wasn’t a big jump in the number of kids being removed by October (the typical high-point in Fall removals) then I was going to call the COVID prophecies bunk. And here we are with the October data and…nothing. The October removal numbers came in lower than expected. 

What went right? 

Prof. Arons cites two factors: The first was the emergence of a network of more than 60 mutual aid organizations throughout New York City. 

Mutual aid projects mobilized to provide an extraordinary array of services to community members who requested aid. Nearly every group organized grocery deliveries and provision of essential items like diapers, but others focused on more specialized services, like childcare for workers or mental health care and support groups. Rather than the exacting intake procedures required by charities and government social services, groups kept their barriers for entry low, requiring only that community members complete online request forms or call intake lines, and removing eligibility requirements that judged moral worthiness. 

Families stayed safely together not because of the family regulation system but because of its absence. Even in the midst of the nonstop trauma of 2020, community members worked for and with each other, providing their neighbors food, diapers, childcare, mental health services, and redistributing government wealth. [Emphasis in original]. 

Mutual aid projects had one other crucial feature: The people running them are not “mandatory reporters” of alleged child abuse or neglect – so no one had to be afraid to go to them for help. 

Families had a safe way to ameliorate the poverty that is so often confused with neglect. They had a community-based support system to ease the stress that, in rare cases, might have prompted a parent to lash out and abuse their child.  At the same time, as Prof. Jane Spinak of Columbia University Law School predicted at the start of the pandemic, the reduction in calls may have given workers more opportunity to find the very few children in real danger in time – which might have contributed to the decline in reports alleging fatal child abuse. 

So even as family policing apologists run around yelling about how the sky will fall if we abolish the child welfare surveillance state, something very much like it happened in New York City – and children wound up better off.  Prof. Arons calls her study, “An Unintended Abolition.” 

But what about Florida? I know of only one mutual aid group in that state, though of course there may be many more.  But if, in fact, mutual aid wasn’t as much of a factor in Florida, what was? 

For starters, there is the simple fact that the kind of child abuse we think of when we hear those words – the beatings, torture and murder that the fearmongers revel in – is, in fact, extremely rare, but we’ve been conditioned by health terrorism to think otherwise.  Overwhelmingly, families love their children and cope with whatever stress the world dishes out.  

But there also was a second factor in Prof. Arons’ analysis, one which applies nationwide: 


As Prof. Arons writes: 

Together with the increase in mutual aid came a rare influx of government aid with few strings attached. The CARES Act, passed in early April 2020, provided a one-time stimulus payment of $1,200 per adult for individuals earning less than $75,000 annually, with an additional $500 payment for each child under the age of 17, and an extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits, through the end of July 2020. Together, these measures represented a transfer of funds from the government to the people larger than all other non-retirement programs combined. 

This real-world experience adds to the wealth of studies showing that even small additional amounts of cash dramatically reduce what family policing agencies call “child neglect.” This additional cash, and the help of mutual aid organizations to which families can turn without fear also prevent problems from escalating, reducing the already low probability that families will lash out at their children. 

The new danger in believing the fearmongers 

All of this takes on even greater significance as our knowledge of COVID-19 and its variants grows.  At least as early as March 19, one of the nation’s leading infectious disease experts, a member of the Biden Transition Team’s COVID task force was explaining why he’d changed his mind about the safety of a full reopening of schools.  Here’s what Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told a Boston television station

“I, for one, was a strong supporter of opening schools, particularly K through 8, saying the epidemiology here is compelling, that there’s just very little transmission -- to kids, from kids, by kids and that we could open schools,” Osterholm said. “Well, B.1.1.7 [The U.K. variant] has totally turned that on its head.” 

“I think school openings today are going to greatly enhance transmission of B.1.1.7 in our communities,” Osterholm said. “And I predict that within weeks we will be revisiting this issue -- unfortunately, after we’ve had substantial transmission.” 

Yet the fearmongering stories remain a staple of local news. 

Three days after Dr. Osterholm spoke, a newspaper published a story (no, I won’t link to it) in which Dr. Rachel Berger, one of the foremost proponents of a massive child welfare surveillance state, someone who's gone out of her way to minimize the harm of tearing apart families said this: 

“I can’t emphasize enough the need to get back in school. …  At least, get them into a classroom. Get a teacher seeing these kids. … At this point, we know you can open schools as long as you do it well.” 

The same story includes a similarly panicky quote from a local district attorney – and, again, all of this was published three days after Dr. Osterholm’s warning.

The fearmongers’ false, dangerous message, is unmistakable: Poor parents, especially poor parents of color are a greater danger to their children than a deadly disease. 

Time for an intended abolition? 

What really endangers children, of course, is the extent to which America’s family policing establishment has dehumanized the Black and Brown families it professes to want to help.  The family policing establishment finds it inconceivable that families who always have had to cope with far more than their white middle-class counterparts also can cope with the stress of a pandemic without taking it out on their kids.  They find it unimaginable that these parents love their children – just like white people do! They find it incomprehensible that the children and families will do better without the “counseling,” “parent education” and, worst of all, foster care, they seek to inflict. 

But now we’ve seen it happen.  We don’t have to ask what abolition would do – we’ve seen an unintended abolition make families safer. 

So imagine how well an intended abolition could work.  Imagine how much the safety and well-being of America’s impoverished children would improve were there a phased transition from agency-inflicted “preventive services” and foster care to a system that emphasized concrete help provided by community-based agencies.  Imagine if we phased out mandatory reporting laws, so no one ever need fear asking for such help.  Imagine if we drastically scaled back the family police. 

COVID-19 didn’t teach us exactly what that would look like.  But it taught us it would look a hell of a lot better than what we have now.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending April 6, 2021

● What does it mean to destroy a family after confusing that family’s poverty with neglect? Two stories, one from Kansas City Star editorial writer Toriano Porter the other from Larua Ziegler of KCUR Public Radio examine one such case in Missouri.  I have a blog post about the many lessons from this case, with links to both stories. 

The Imprint takes a new look at Blind Removal Meetings as a way to curb racial bias.  On the one hand, new data suggest the decline in the proportion of Black children torn from their homes in Nassau County, New York, was neither as great nor as steady as originally reported.  On the other hand, Blind Removal Meetings also eliminate data suggesting family income – and that may help explain a dramatic decline in removals of children of all races.  (As you read the story, I think it’s most important to stay focused on all of the numbers, and not on the snide, sneering comments from a take-the-child-and-run extremist who essentially gloats about some of them.) 

● Both the Imprint story and the Missouri stories are built around cases that involve the widespread problem of taking children from victims of domestic violence – even though that was not the primary focus of any of them.  That’s one more indication of how widespread this particular horror, exposed so well by USA Today Network reporters in Florida, is across the country.  And NCCPR has some context on how this widespread practice hurts children. 

● The director of one of those awful parking place “shelters,” this one in Nebraska, claims he hears the cries of foster children.  But Melanie Williams Smotherman of the Family Advocacy Movement and I don’t think he really understands what they’re saying. We have an op-ed column about it in the Lincoln Journal Star. 

● Several state legislatures around the country are considering what can best be called “right to childhood” laws.  One of them is Oklahoma, where the Enid News & Eagle ties the legislation to a larger issue: As the editorial puts it: Poverty does not equal neglect

● The time when the perspective of organizations such as NCCPR is most needed is the time when it is hardest for a reader, or a reporter, to hear that perspective: after learning all about the worst child abuse some monsters -- and in this case that’s the right word -- inflict on children. So I’m grateful to Kim Strong and her colleagues at the York Daily Record for including NCCPR’s perspective in this story. (It's behind a paywall but they've got some good deals.) 

In an interview with NPR Julie Lurie of Mother Jones discusses her story about the real effects of COVID-19 on child welfare: prolonged delays in reunifying families and an ongoing mad rush to terminate parental rights. 

● What happens when a child has an illness and doctors don’t know what to do about it? Accuse the parents of child abuse, of course!  The San Diego Union-Tribune has a story about a lawsuit brought by a family alleging exactly that happened to them.  And Mike Hixenbaugh of NBC News, along with Keri Blakinger and Cayla Harris have a story on a bill that would make it a little harder to do this to families in Texas.  Hixenbaugh and Blakinger have done an extensive series of stories on these issues. 

● And finally, our annual reminder: If it’s April Fools, it must be Child Abuse Hype and Hysteria Month.