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?