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 Mandated Reporter Commission will make recommendations |
to the Massachusetts Legislature
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 read] That’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.
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:
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
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
● 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
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.)
preventive services programs should be taken away from DCF entirely and run by
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
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
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
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
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
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.