Monday, May 31, 2021

Child welfare in Upstate New York: Another “unintended abolition”

If there’s one thing we “know” about child abuse and COVID-19 it’s that the very worst cases have skyrocketed, right?  After all, that’s what all those fearmongering news accounts have been telling us almost since the start of the pandemic. 

And of course, since these are the children most hurt, they absolutely have to go into residential treatment – because, well, we don’t want them with their horrible parents – and foster homes just can’t handle them, right?  That’s why, although residential treatment providers really, truly regret it, we simply have to institutionalize some children, don’t we? 

Actually, no. 

In fact, the pandemic has taught precisely the opposite lesson.  Says who? Says a residential treatment center that’s going to stop providing residential treatment. Because it’s not necessary after all. 

It’s happening at the Children’s Home of Jefferson County, in Upstate New York.  Like so many such places, it began as an orphanage – in 1859 - and then rebranded as a “residential treatment center” a century later – notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence that residential treatment doesn’t work

But unlike so many other such places, CHJC faced up to the evidence. And, even more remarkable, the pandemic helped them do it. 

“COVID taught us that kids and families can do much better if we work with them inside of their environment, rather than putting them in our environment,” the center’s director, Karen Richmond told WWNY-TV

At the same time, the story explains: 

the pandemic also resulted in new operational practices at all levels. With court closures, youth learning remotely, and services being provided virtually, there was a significantly reduced need for residential care. 

As a result, overall state trends of youth placed at the residential level of care also significantly decreased, allowing the home to identify alternative treatment options. 

In fact, instead of dozens of children institutionalized at CHJC, there are now only four.  Which shows, once again, that all the talk of how for “some” children only institutionalization works turned out to be so much b.s.  

And notice that line about how providing services remotely reduced the “need” for residential care.  This is still one more giveaway that the real purpose of institutionalizing children has been for the convenience of the institution.  Pile them up in one place, and all those “helpers” don’t have to run around from foster home to foster home and school to school. 

With COVID, that became unnecessary, in fact, it became impossible.  And, lo and behold, providing the services in the home, even remotely, turned out to work better. 

As for COVID supposedly putting children in more danger – the closing of this residential treatment program is further evidence that this, too, is largely b.s.  On the contrary, COVID allowed CHJC to discover that children do better when help is provided to children and families together.  Again, from the story: 

The COVID-19 pandemic changed previously long-term espoused child welfare beliefs and practices. Officials say one of its benefits was allowing youth and families, with support from children’s home service providers, to be successful in home-based settings. 

Or as Richmond put it: “You can’t fix the child if you don’t support the family.” 

This is not the first success due to unintended abolition, of course.  Prof. Anna Arons of New York University School of Law has shown how, when New York City’s family police agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, was forced to step back and community-run mutual aid organizations stepped up, children were safer. 

So now, all we need is for all the other “residential treatment centers” that constantly cry wolf when anyone tries to curb their longstanding dominance of “child welfare” to have crises of conscience, actually put the children first, and remake themselves in the way this one institution in Upstate New York is doing. 

Don’t hold your breath.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

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

A coalition of organizations, working with Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles has launched a week-long social media campaign to explain how the family regulation system really works.  Each day there are new Twitter threads and a video.  Here’s one of the videos. You can follow the whole campaign at @DontTakeOurKids 

What the death of George Floyd did to awaken America to the racism in policing, the death of Ma’Khia Bryant, killed by police outside her foster home, may be doing to awaken Ameerican to the racism in family policing – a.k.a. the “child welfare” system.  It is the theme of an extraordinary amount of very good commentary this week.

 ● In her “Unpack This” video for The Root, Felice Leon talks to Prof. Dorothy Roberts, author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, (and a member of the NCCPR Board of Directors) about how the system has been rooted in racism, all the way back to slavery. 

The Imprint is publishing a series of essays, in prose and poetry, from those with lived experience, about the meaning of Ms. Bryant’s life – and death – in foster care.  

In one essay, Dominique Freeman writes 

Ma’Khia Bryant, like many other Black girls in foster care, is placed under the control of a system designed to protect, honor and shelter them, but does the exact opposite at an alarming rate. It inflicts physical and psychological harm, which can ultimately lead to death. 

In another, Angela Braxton writes: 

Even if we do figure out a way to navigate the system to bring our children home, there’s always another hoop we have to jump through as our children languish in care, being further traumatized with each new home or placement, being constantly reminded that their birth mother isn’t “good enough,” beating our Black children down mentally, physically and emotionally until they too believe they are not “good enough” or white enough to be worth anything. Reinforcing this by the words that “you’re a lost cause, you’ll be just like your parents,” told by those who were chosen to better care for them. 

● And in USA Today, leaders of the Juvenile Law Center, which, up to now, has not been particularly active on curbing needless removal of children to foster care, discuss how, as the headline puts it, “Cop killing of teen shows how child welfare, police derail young Black and brown lives.” 

In other news: 

● The issue of racism in child welfare took on new relevance in Colorado after a judge in child welfare cases resigned under pressure after her racist comments became public.  But what about all the other comments from all the other judges that no one ever hears – especially in most states, where child welfare court hearings are closed to press and public?  Colorado’s “Child Protection Ombudsman,” Stephanie Villafuerte writes about this for the Colorado Sun. 

● Villafuerte is unusual in her deep understanding that family regulation systems (a more accurate term than “child welfare”) err in all directions.  Far more common are “Child Advocates” like the one in Massachusetts, who is on a crusade to make that state’s child welfare surveillance state even bigger and more oppressive.  I have another blog post about how she’s doing it

● One of the ways she does it is to point to the fact that the Massachusetts family regulation agency has set up one-stop drop-in centers where families can go for help.  Lots of systems are trying to hide their coercive nature behind such centers.  It’s not that such places do no good, it’s that as long as they are run by agencies with the power to take away children – instead of by and for the communities most affected – people will be afraid to use them.  That’s why when New York City’s family regulation agency announced an expansion of such centers, the parents who write and edit Rise weren’t buying it.  Rise has a better approach. 

● One better approach is as simple as providing impoverished families with a little more money, or the equivalent.  Still more evidence for this comes from a new study showing that simply providing greater access to benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – or what used to be called foodstamps) is enough to reduce what family regulation agencies call “neglect.” 

● Those great stories from NPR and The Marshall Project about states effectively stealing money that rightfully belongs to foster children are getting results.  The Las Vegas Sun called on Nevada officials to end the practice.  And legislation to stop it has been introduced in Nebraska. 

● What happens to foster children who don’t want to go to some cruddy night to night group home placement?  According to KING-TV Seattle, this: 

Four people, who claimed they supervised foster kids overnight in cars and offices, said their managers encouraged them to use psychological tactics to make the youth miserable. They say they were told to do things like blast air conditioning or turn off the heat to make the youth intentionally cold. … Three workers said they were instructed not to allow youth to fall asleep throughout the night. [Emphasis added.] 

As I note in a blog post, though the story doesn’t mention it, sleep deprivation is commonly defined as torture – the CIA used it on prisoners at Guantanamo.

● And the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports on questions about still another of those “child abuse pediatricians.”

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Washington State tries the Gitmo approach to child welfare

KING-TV in Seattle recently reported on something one wouldn’t expect even from a child welfare agency.    

Washington State foster children have spent thousands of nights in hotel rooms and offices. (Unfortunately, that’s not the unexpected part.)  But what happens when, often for good reason,  foster children don’t want to go to an office, or to some cruddy group home where the agency wants to force them to spend the night?  See for yourself:

 KING-TV found 

… a years-long pattern of Washington child protection workers dangling basic necessities like a safe, warm place to sleep as a way to get certain “hard to place” foster children to behave or follow orders. … The investigation … uncovered a DCYF culture where “punitive” actions toward some children and teens without placements are not only condoned but encouraged by some department leaders. … 

DCYF managers withheld hotel beds from some foster kids, and they instructed social workers to make the foster youth uncomfortable with inadequate sleeping arrangements, like in cars without blankets and in state offices without beds. This occurred when the kids acted out or refused to go to a placement at a foster home or group home, … 

And here’s where we get to the matter of what might be a reasonable topic for an international human rights inquiry: 

Four people, who claimed they supervised foster kids overnight in cars and offices, said their managers encouraged them to use psychological tactics to make the youth miserable. They say they were told to do things like blast air conditioning or turn off the heat to make the youth intentionally cold. … Three workers said they were instructed not to allow youth to fall asleep throughout the night. [Emphasis added.] 

Though the story doesn’t mention it, sleep deprivation is commonly defined as torture – the CIA used it on prisoners at Guantanamo. 

This still leaves a few questions. 

Why did some of these children resist going where DCYF wanted to put them? From the story:

Taylor Campbell, a 20-year-old woman in Washington state’s extended foster care program, said as a teenager, she turned down many placements where she didn’t feel comfortable — including one home where she said she was inappropriately touched during a prior stay. 

“The state, they take kids from people that do those things. And then to force a child to openly go through a home like that, that was just the turning point for me and I felt I was lost,” said Campbell, who became a ward of the state at age 15. 

She’s not alone in that assessment. 

“Bouncing around from hotel rooms to cars, not having a stable placement — it made these kids’ behaviors worse,” [a caseworker] said. “I feel like the system is hurting these kids more. It’s way worse than some of the scenarios they have come from.” …

 “It pisses me off that a parent can have their kid taken away for the same thing that we are putting them through,” said a current female after-hours social worker based in Kent, who agreed to speak to KING 5 only under the condition of anonymity. “It’s not healthy. It’s not productive. It’s not safe for the employees. It’s not safe for the kids.” 

Why does this constant moving from placement to placement happen? For starters, and this is one place the story was mistaken, it’s not because of a “shortage” of foster parents.  It’s because Washington State routinely tears apart families at a rate above the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in. (The lead in to the story, in which all of the children are described has having been "rescued from dangerous or neglectful homes, also is incorrect. More often they were needlessly taken when family poverty was confused with "neglect.")

Why are frontline workers allegedly required by their superiors to do these horrible things to children? That should be a question for DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter.  But perhaps the answer is rooted in the mentality revealed by the way Hunter himself responded to COVID-19  - one of the worst such responses in the nation. That response suggested a contempt for parents.  But the behavior KING-TV has revealed in his agency raises questions about how Hunter really feels about the kids.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

A propaganda document from that commission in Massachusetts

Ever since public hearings of a commission studying mandatory
child abuse reporting in Massachusetts didn't go the way the 
Commission chair wanted, she's been trying to spin the testimony 
like, well, you know ... (Photo by wannapik)

The commission is meeting again today (May 20) at 10:00 AM. 

After spending nearly two years on the task, a Commission studying mandatory child abuse reporting in Massachusetts finally held public hearings on draft recommendations.  Almost all of the recommendations would expand reporting and one would even make it easier to confuse poverty with “neglect.”  The commissioners were not prepared for what they heard during the hearings.  Some members said they were “shocked,” “surprised” and “taken aback” by the hearing testimony.  

That’s because, at two virtual hearings lasting a total of four hours, almost every speaker was opposed to the recommendations.  Speaker after speaker talked about how the proposals would sweep more families, especially poor families of color, into the net of family policing, doing their children enormous harm in the process.  They spoke of how the recommendations would deter families from seeking help and further overload the system, making it even harder to find children in real danger. 

The reason some members of the commission were so shocked is that they’ve been misled by the commission chair (and the state’s foremost advocate of a child welfare surveillance state and a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare) state “Child Advocate” Maria Mossaides.  In addition to chairing the commission, her office staffs it. 

For nearly two years, Mossaides and her staff shut out the views heard at the hearings, handpicking speakers for presentations who would reinforce Mossaides’ desire to make the failed system of mandatory reporting even bigger and more powerful.  

That is likely to continue at a Commission meeting today, when a presentation on how screening of reports works will be given not by anyone who has studied it objectively but by, yes, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.  That is, of course, the agency that does the screening, investigates the reports, and takes away children at a rate 60% above the national average, even when rates of family poverty are factored in. 

To get the full impact of those public hearings, you had to be there.  Or at least listen to the recording of the hearings.  The staff has made that as inconvenient as possible, posting audio only. 

And in what seems to be the hope that commissioners won’t pour through all that testimony, Mosssaides promised a “summary.”   That summary was presented to the Commission at a meeting on May 10 – but withheld from the public, except for the portions we could make out while a staffer shared her screen during the virtual meeting.  It wasn’t until days later that they finally uploaded the document. 

The summary that’s not a summary 

It turns out it isn’t a summary at all.  Most of the testimony isn’t even mentioned – and readers get no sense of the scope and power of the arguments against Commission draft recommendations.  Worse, the summary is a propaganda document, misstating the arguments and misleading commissioners about the state of research on mandatory reporting.  So we’re going to go through parts of the document point-by-point and try to set at least some of the record straight.  In the sections below, excerpts from the “summary” document are in italics: 

Why mandated reporting?

The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) requires that every state have provisions or procedures requiring the reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect. 

CAPTA does indeed require this, but the only penalty for putting children’s needs first and not adopting the failed regime of mandatory reporting is loss of a very small amount of federal funds.  Although Mossaides tried to scare the commission into believing $400 million was at stake, the real number is probably under $2 million

There are ethics arguments that children because of their age and abilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse or neglect (as can be seen with other vulnerable populations) and are at a disadvantage in exercising self-protection and self-care. 

Note the implication: If we don’t have mandatory reporting children supposedly are defenseless!  In fact, eliminating mandatory reporting does not eliminate reporting – rather, it allows professionals to exercise their professional judgment.  The failure to allow such judgment has made children less safe. 

Does mandated reporting “work?”

This is a complex question which depends on the framing of the question. 

No, actually it’s not complex at all.  If mandatory reporting makes children safer it works.  If, on the other hand, it deters families from seeking help and overloads the system with so many false reports that workers are less likely to find children in real danger, even as thousands of children, especially children of color, are traumatized by needless investigations and needless foster care, then it doesn’t work.  

The evidence is in: It doesn’t work. That’s why one after another, some of the most prominent proponents of mandatory reporting have had second thoughts. 

But it appears that none of this research and none of this scholarly analysis was shared with the commissioners for nearly two years. 

Also, if you now admit you don’t know if mandatory reporting works, Ms. Mossaides, why have you spent nearly two years desperately trying to expand it? 

The majority of cases reported to DCF come from mandated reporters. Reports from mandated reporters are screened-in at a higher rate than reports that come from non-mandated reporters. 

Again, notice what Mossaides and her staff are trying to do here: imply that without mandatory reporting more reliable reporters somehow will be shut out.  But if there were no mandatory reporting, teachers, doctors etc. still would be free to report.  They simply wouldn’t have to report when, in their professional judgment, they felt there was not actual abuse or neglect or when they thought the report would do more harm than good.  And they wouldn’t have to file “CYA” reports for fear of what would happen to them if they don’t (such as the fines the Commission may recommend increasing up to ten-fold). Eliminating mandatory reporting would increase the reliability of reports. 

Data shows us that there is disproportionality in the rates of Hispanic/Latinx and Black children coming to DCF’s attention relative to their proportion in the Massachusetts population. The data available however is not broken down by mandated reporters versus non-mandated reporters nor is it broken down by reporter type. 

In other words: Maybe mandatory reporters are so wise that they aren’t the cause of the racial bias in the system. Well, if they’re that wise, shouldn’t they be trusted about when to report and when not to report, instead of being forced to report? 

The Commission has also discussed at several meetings the success of the Family Resource Centers in Massachusetts which provide services to families throughout the Commonwealth and who served 10,869 unduplicated families in 2019 providing such services as help with food instability, parenting groups and classes, assistance with housing instability, accessing resources for children including child care and after school care as well as physical products such as diapers, and so on. 

The implication here is: See? People aren’t deterred from seeking help because they go to Family Resource Centers!  But actual research shows that mandatory reporting is a pervasive deterrent to seeking all sorts of help.  The fact that some people are willing to risk being turned into the child abuse police if they go to a family resource center tells us nothing about how many are deterred from reaching out.  

And now, let’s look at the heart of Mossaides’ effort to salvage her awful recommendations: 

It can be true both that some families will retreat from available services feeling they cannot trust mandated reporters and there is no safe place where they can express their needs or be fallible individuals (as we all are), and it can also be true that DCF provides relevant and critical services to communities and families who identify themselves as needing help and are able and willing to access that help through the avenues that are available to them. 

So then the question is: How do we provide the help without forcing any families to retreat? Answer: Abolish mandatory reporting.  And make those “relevant and critical services” available through an agency that does not also have the power to take away children. 

It can be true that mandated reporters operate on implicit bias and that structural racism affects both experiences and perceptions of experiences, it can also be true that mandated reporters serve as critical lifelines to children who urgently need help. 

No, actually it can’t.  Reporters can serve as such lifelines – the fact that they are mandated to report does not make them any more likely – and probably less likely – to be such a lifeline.  Mandatory reporting impedes the lifeline function for the reasons noted previously. 

It can be true that many cases are screened-out by DCF at the screening stage, and it can also be true that a screen-out does not mean that the reporter was incorrect in their analysis of the situation. 

This is one of the most misleading statements in the entire summary.  The canard about screenouts and unfounded reports not being false has been around for decades.  As is so often the case, there is a molehill of truth under a mountain of hype and distortion. 

Obviously, every decision to screen out a report won’t be correct, just as every decision to label a case unfounded after investigation won’t be correct. But, and somehow Mossaides forgot to mention this, every decision to screen in or substantiate a report won’t be correct either. 

But guess which is more likely. 

The only study we know of to actually second guess worker decisions found that they are two to six times more likely to wrongly substantiate an allegation than they are to wrongly declare one to be unfounded.  So the fact that, nationwide, 91% - ninety-one percent – of hotline calls wind up screened out or unfounded is representative of the overall accuracy of a system built on mandatory reporting – in fact, it overstates the accuracy of that system.  It means that false allegations are flooding the system at every turn; again, making it less likely that workers will find children in real danger. 

Now, let’s move on to how the document misrepresents the actual testimony, when it summarizes criticism of mandatory reporting: 

Mandated reporting is surveillance of families that has a far more detrimental effect on society and children than does the abuse or neglect that although real, is less common than is suggested by DCF over-involvement with families. 

No one said that all “abuse or neglect” is inherently less serious than surveillance – by summarizing testimony this way Mossaides wants you to believe all those witnesses were minimizing child abuse.  

Rather, what those witnesses said is that overwhelmingly, the reports are false, and many of the rest are poverty cases – and in those cases the real harm to children comes from the surveillance, the investigation and, worst of all, needless foster care.  At the same time – and yes it’s worth repeating again – the system so deluges workers with false reports that finding the children in real danger is harder. 

Oh, but wait, the summary does address this issue – and promptly distorts it, summarizing the position of critics as follows: 

There will so many new filings, mostly unsupported and biased filings, based on this expansion that DCF will be so burdened current case practice will suffer. DCF would need significant additional resources to handle this burden. 

Except that, during the spoken testimony at least (I didn’t read all of the written submissions) nobody uttered that second sentence.  Rather Mossaides is teeing up the idea that she will try to get her Commission to recommend to the State Legislature both an expansion of mandatory reporting and spending vast new sums of money to cover it. 

But, of course, she knows the new spending is unlikely to be forthcoming.  Then, when she gets the vastly bigger surveillance state she wants and the system is overwhelmed she can say: Well, that’s not my fault, we told the legislature to spend more money! 

But even if you could get the money, we did not hear anybody say even more money would work. If you simply go on still another caseworker hiring binge, all the new workers chase all the new false reports and all you get is the same lousy system only bigger.  This can be seen by the fact that Massachusetts already spends on child welfare at one of the highest rates in the country – because all those needless investigations and all that needless foster care is expensive. 

Not in the summary, but … 

It’s also worth noting here something that’s not in the summary document but that Mossaides mentioned at the last Commission meeting: She argued that there won’t really be a flood of new reports because the last time categories of mandated reporters were expanded there wasn’t much of an increase. 

But that previous occasion included a much smaller expansion than the Commission contemplates recommending now.  And in a state like Massachusetts, which already tears apart families at a rate 60% above the national average, any expansion of false reports endangers children. 

Bottom line: The Commission can’t rely on the summary document to understand what happened at the hearings, or to understand mandatory reporting.  It’s a big ask, but the commissioners really need to listen to all the testimony. 

If they do, they may well be even more shocked, surprised and taken aback.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

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

● Well what do you know?  The workaround used by a North Carolina family police agency to tear apart families when judges refused to rubber-stamp their requests is illegal. Carolina Public Press reports on a big victory against the scandal of hidden foster care.  And we have additional context in this blog post

● Remember those great stories a team of USA Today Network Florida reporters did about the harm done to children when they are taken from mothers whose only “crime” is to be, themselves, victims of domestic violence?  Think it can’t bet any worse? Check out this story from First Coast News in Jacksonville, and think again. 

● Then check out the harm done to other Florida children when their grandmother dared to make a simple request for help

● But there is also progress.  For decades one of the most regressive forces in child welfare was the American Academy of Pediatrics.  Then, at long last, they decided to actually listen to families.  Their new approach still isn’t everything it should be but it represents significant progress. 

● And Texas has a new law bolstering access to lawyers for families under investigation by the family police and narrowing the definition of “neglect” to make it harder to confuse it with poverty.

The Imprint looks at the importance of the Indian Child Welfare Act through cases handled by Minnesota’s ICWA Law Center

● After a year in which almost all parents had to become homeschoolers, at least in part, you would think there would be higher priorities even on the part of those desperate to tear apart more families than further harassing homeschoolers.  But for those who think every family needs to be under omnipresent surveillance, apparently there’s no time like the present.  Jim Mason of the Home School Legal Defense Association responds in National Review.  But this isn’t just an issue for the political right. The rationale for ratcheting up child welfare surveillance of homeschoolers is identical to the rationale applied to nonwhite families during the worst of COVID-19. 

● There’s a follow-up to those outstanding stories by The Marshall Project and NPR about states using a legal loophole to steal money from foster children to help fund their child welfare systems. The radio stories are herehere and here.  Now The Marshall Project has a state-by-state breakdown of how much is stolen and a step-by-step guide for foster youth to find out if they’ve had money stolen from them and, if so, how to fight back.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

NCCPR News and commentary round-up, week ending May 11, 2021

● There was one key turning point in the events leading to the tragic death of Ma’Khia Bryant in front of her foster home.  As her grandmother told The New York Times in this superb, comprehensive account: "They could’ve just given me what they give one foster parent, and then I could’ve gotten housing, taken care of the kids and done what I needed to do.”  As the headline in the print edition put it: “Teenage Girl Killed by Officer in Columbus Ached to Go Home.” I also have a blog post about the tragedy.   

The Imprint has two stories about more progressive legislation from New York:  One story discusses how existing law legalizing marijuana also curbs the ability of family policing agencies to make marijuana use an excuse to harass families.  The other story deals with an ambitious agenda to protect children from arbitrary investigations and removal, including bills that would require truly informed consent for drug testing new and expectant mothers, replace anonymous reporting to the state child abuse hotline with confidential reporting and provide families the equivalent of Miranda rights when the family police show up at the door.

● The Massachusetts “Child Advocate” has made so many misleading statements concerning child welfare in general and “mandated reporting” in particular that it’s hard to keep up.  I added two blog posts on the topic just in the past week.  You can read them here, along with previous posts about the commission the “Child Advocate” chairs. 

● Since child welfare agencies never, ever confuse poverty with “neglect” – just ask them! – this story, about how a court decision striking down an eviction moratorium is likely to lead to more placement of children in foster care can’t possibly right – right?  And surely the mere filing of an eviction notice shouldn’t lead to an increase in reports alleging abuse or neglect, right?  And yet, according to a new study, it does.  Oh, and of course, raising the minimum wage certainly wouldn’t lead to a decline in “neglect” reports – except, as Prof. Lindsey Bullinger of Georgia Tech University discusses on The Imprint podcast (starting at about 22:20 in), it does. 

● Vivek Sankaran writes about another way to measure success for a lawyer – or anyone else who helps families torn apart by the family policing system. 

● And for anyone who missed the outstanding webinar Social Work and Abolishing the Family Regulation System, you can see it here: 

Monday, May 10, 2021

In Massachusetts, the “Child Advocate” wants to spin EVERYTHING. Falling for the spin will hurt children.

Fortunately, one state legislator is asking good questions.

A question from State Senator Adam Gomez (D-Springfield) seemed to
leave Massachusetts Child Advocate Maria Mossaides flummoxed.

Well, I suppose Massachusetts Child Advocate Maria Mossaides deserves credit for chutzpah.  Having just led, a better term would be – misled a commission into making draft recommendations that would make racial bias in child welfare worse, she now says her office should be tasked with studying whether the problem even exists. 

I’ll get to that below, first some background. 

There’s a script everyone is supposed to follow when the death of a child “known to the system” gets a lot of attention. 

● Politicians rush to express their shock and outrage.  Some agency or organization, an existing agency or maybe a “Blue Ribbon Commission,” issues the requisite scathingreport. (It’s always described as a scathing report so we might as well make it one word.) In Massachusetts, the job of issuing the scathingreport falls to Mossaides.  

● The scathingreport is filled with recommendations to make the child welfare surveillance state more draconian – make it easier to take children away, make it harder to return them home or both. 

● Legislators hold the obligatory public hearing and issue press releases about “cracking down on child abuse.” 

● The system is further overwhelmed by more families needlessly investigated and more children needlessly taken away. So workers have less time to prevent the next tragedy.  

Then the entire cycle repeats. 

But in Massachusetts, one state legislator has decided not to follow the script. 

As CommonWealth Magazine reports, at a hearing concerning the most recent tragedy to set off this cycle of despair, the death of David Almond, State Sen. Adam Gomez, a Democrat from Springfield, asked a simple question of Mossaides: Was the real reason Almond was returned to a dangerous home something that is nowhere mentioned in the scathingreport. Was it because the family is white? 

Mossaides apparently was flummoxed.  This wasn’t in the scathingreport, and it’s certainly not in the “script.”  But she hinted at the excuse those “in denial” always use when confronted with racial bias in child welfare.  
She noted that, historically, child welfare agencies have always focused on poorer families. Given minority poverty rates, that has translated into “a disproportionate surveillance on communities of color,” she said. 

The irony, of course, is that for decades child welfare agencies denied that, too.  They said they never simply investigated children because of poverty.  But confronted with their racial bias, apparently they’ll cop to class bias. 

In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that it’s class bias and racial bias. 

But the thing about Mossaides is, she wants to be the one to spin everything in Massachusetts child welfare.  So, CommonWealth Magazine reports, 

Mossaides said in her testimony that she would like the Legislature to give her office money to do a qualitative review of the DCF caseload to determine why racial disproportionality exists, with an emphasis on what happens when a complaint is first filed. “We need qualitative data in order to figure out where the problem is so we can make recommendations about what we think proposed solutions might be to reduce disproportionality,” Mossaides said. 

Where, oh where to begin. 

We know why racial disproportionality exists in child welfare.  (Spoiler alert: It has to do with racism.)  It’s been studied and studied and studied again.  Here – again -- is a summary of a small portion of that research. 

● Prof. Dorothy Roberts explained it all in her book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare,– 20 years ago.  She explained it again – directly to Mossaides – just last month. 

● Mossaides has been Child Advocate since 2015.  Did she only just notice there’s a racial bias problem?  And wouldn’t that delayed recognition alone make her among the least qualified to oversee such a study? 

● As noted above Mossaides is leading – or more accurately – misleading a commission she chairs on mandatory reporting into making a series of recommendations that would worsen racial bias in the system.  She so misled the commission that members said they were “shocked” “surprised” and “taken aback” when, at the last minute, when finally public hearings were held, they heard the other side of the story.  

Then, at the commission’s most recent meeting, Mossaides got it wrong again - telling her fellow commissioners that if Massachusetts abolished mandatory reporting it would cost the state’s family policing agency, the Department of Children and Families, $400 million.  The real figure is more like $1.5 million. 

● The commission itself is strikingly lacking in diversity.  Yet, in the nearly two years it’s been active I am aware of no public expression of concern about this from Mossaides. 

So it should be apparent that if anyone still believes the issue of racial bias in child welfare needs “more study” the study should not be led by Maria Mossaides. 

Trying to spin poverty as well 

Mossaides also has been thrown on the defensive by all the testimony at recent commission public hearings about the widespread confusion of poverty with neglect. 

So now she’s trying to co-opt that issue in much the same way, by suggesting that her office do a “qualitative review” of cases to see if people are really calling in reports alleging child abuse “just” because of poverty or because of “poverty alone.” 

But as soon as anyone demands that poverty be “alone” you know they’re out to minimize the confusion of poverty with neglect and find ways to pretend it doesn’t happen. 

The thing about poverty is, it tends to have company.  Poverty breeds other problems.  So all someone like Mossaides needs to do is say: “See, in that case we sampled there was some other problem as well – so it wasn’t a poverty case!” Then the study she commissions and she oversees concludes that DCF doesn’t take children because of poverty “alone.” 

But the issue isn’t whether poverty is alone – the issue is whether the solution is money.  So, let’s say poverty causes stress that leads to depression.  You could say: See! We didn’t report the family because of poverty we reported the family because of depression!  

But if poverty caused the depression, odds are money will cure it.  And if it doesn’t quite do the job, money can also buy whatever therapy this parent might need – just as it does for “depressed” parents in Weston or Wellesley or Longmeadow. 

Study after study after study has found that small amounts of cash are all it takes to reduce what agencies like DCF call “neglect.”  So if the solution is money, then it’s a poverty case whether the poverty is “alone” or not. Such cases should not be called in to DCF, they should not be investigated by DCF and children in such cases should not be taken away by DCF. 

All that said, a qualitative study still would be a good idea -- under three conditions: 

● The terms of reference are broader: The question in each case should be: Could this have been handled without calling in an agency that has the power to take children away and otherwise coerce families? 

● The people doing the study represent not just racial and ethnic diversity but viewpoint diversity – as happened in 2005 when New Jersey’s then-Child Advocate, Kevin Ryan commissioned such a study. 

● Maria Mossaides and the Office of Child Advocate are not allowed anywhere near it.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Mass “Child Advocate” misleads on $ consequences of abolishing mandatory reporting

The Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission just wrapped up another meeting – once again the chair, State “Child Advocate” Maria Mossaides seemed to do more talking than everyone else combined.  And, once again something she said was grossly misleading.

Mossaides claimed that if mandatory reporting were abolished, Massachusetts DCF would lose “half its $1 billion budget.”  At another point she revised that downward a little to $400 million. 

But the real figure is probably, at most, $1.5 $1.7 million.

It is true that the federal Child Abuse Prevention and TreatmentAct (CAPTA) requires states to have mandated reporting laws in order to get some federal funds – but only funds given via CAPTA itself.  And for the entire US of A, the total amount available under CAPTA in 2019 was $178 million.   

Access to only part of that $178 million requires having a mandatory reporting law. 

It appears that Massachusetts expected to get about $1.5 million in CAPTA funding in 2019 according to this DCF document. [UPDATE, FEB 9, 2024: As of FFY 2022, the amount Massachusetts could, theoretically, lose if it got rid of mandatory reporting has risen - to $1.7 million.]

Of course, it’s possible that this document doesn’t cover every penny Massachusetts gets under CAPTA.  And the figure may go up in 2021 because CAPTA got a funding boost as part of the COVID relief bill.  But whatever the exact amount, it’s the difference between a drop in the bucket and two drops in the bucket.  And the amount saved in not chasing down false reports and engaging in less needless surveillance of families probably would more than make up for it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

UPDATED: Yes, Ma’Khia Bryant’s family poverty was confused with neglect – and yes, that contributed to her death while in foster care

Both nationally and in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine
has been part of the problem

UPDATE, MAY 8, 2021: A team of New York Times reporters did indeed look wider and deeper. They have a comprehensive account of the crucial role played in this tragedy by the failure of the "child welfare" system.

At first, most news accounts about the death of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant focused on the immediate cause of death: She was shot by a Columbus, Ohio police officer outside the foster home where she was forced to live, a home to which police often had been called before. 

But now, the focus has expanded to the role of foster care itself. But it hasn’t expanded far enough.  Some news accounts have accepted the usual excuses – not enough foster parents, not enough support for foster parents, not enough money spent on the system, and you know, it’s Ohio, so, opioids, right? 


Look wider and look deeper, and we can see the real lessons from this tragedy: 

Confusion of poverty with “neglect.” The biggest single problem in child welfare is the confusion of poverty with “neglect” – compounded by the racial bias that permeates the system.  In this case, we don’t know why Ma’Khia was taken from her parents.  But we know that initially she was placed with a grandmother. 

And it’s clear that the reasons she was taken from her grandmother were rooted in poverty – including lack of housing.  There’s a detailed discussion of this in a Columbus Dispatch story, and even though it’s the agency’s side of the story (from the court file, which is the child welfare equivalent of “police say…”) it still is clear that if the grandmother had gotten anywhere near the financial assistance and other support that stranger-care parents get to take in foster children, Ma’Khia could have remained with her grandmother.  UPDATE, MAY 8, 2021: The New York Times account confirms that the crucial turning point in this case was the needless separation of the children from their grandmother.

There is a pointless debate in some child welfare circles over whether children are taken away because of poverty alone.  It’s pointless because, as this tragedy illustrates, if the solution is just a little bit of money (and there is plenty of evidence for that) it doesn’t matter if the poverty is “alone.” 

The “shortage” of foster parents is artificial.  The confusion of poverty with neglect, and racial bias, are key reasons why so many children are taken needlessly from their homes. In addition to the enormous emotional harm done to children (the same sort of harm we saw at the Mexican border), this overloads the system, making it harder for workers to find the relatively few children in real danger. 

But it also does something else: It creates an artificial “shortage” of foster homes.  That leaves agencies begging for beds.  Beggars can’t be choosers, so there is enormous pressure to lower standards for foster parents and overcrowd foster homes.  There also is enormous pressure to ignore abuse in foster homes, group homes and institutions.  (USA Today Network journalists just did some excellent reporting on this).   

Multiple independent studies show that the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than in the general population – and far higher than agencies admit to in official statistics. 

Indeed there is some irony in the fact that it took a police shooting to call attention to the
risks of foster care, when so often the abuse is committed in the foster home, group home or institution itself. 

You can’t fix this with more licensing rules and inspections.  As long as there is an artificial shortage of foster homes there will be enormous pressure to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, and write no evil in the casefile.  

But if you get the children who don’t need to be in foster care back home, you’ll have plenty of room in good, safe foster homes for the relatively few children who need them.  The only way to fix foster care is to have less of it. 

Ohio is an outlier – and it’s NOT because of opioids.  Ohio takes away children at a rate 25% above the national average even when rates of child poverty are factored in. (And, the national average itself is way too high.) Ohio’s rate of removal is 50% percent higher than Connecticut – another state with a serious opioid abuse problem.  But Connecticut has invested heavily in home-based drug treatment.   

The problem of drug abuse, like the problem of child abuse, is serious and real.  But the same racial and class biases infest our response to both.  Entries into foster care didn’t rise because of opioids, they rose because of child welfare’s knee-jerk take-the-child-and-run response to opioids.  

In fact, within Ohio, where child welfare is county-run, there are significant differences in approach, with some counties successfully reducing the misuse and overuse of foster care. In contrast, while data on entries into care in Franklin County (metropolitan Columbus) are not readily available online, the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day in that county is sky high, vastly above the state and national averages.

It’s not a matter of money, either.  I’m a tax-and-spend liberal and proud of it; there’s nothing at which I’d rather throw money than child welfare – which is not the same as the child welfare system.  But as of 2016 which, unfortunately, is the most recent year for which data are available, Ohio spent at a rate above the national average.  But the great paradox of child welfare is that the worse the option the more it costs.  Safe, proven alternatives to foster homes cost less than foster homes, which cost less than group homes, which cost less than institutions.  Yes, we should spend more – but only if we also spend smarter. 

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine is part of the problem.
  Back in 1995, I testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on child welfare issues.  It was a great lesson for me in how this issue crosses partisan lines.  The two Senators who most understood that protecting children demanded more, not less, effort to preserve families were Democrat Paul Wellstone and Republican Dan Coats.  Those most prone to ignore what really works and push for increasing surveillance and child removal were Democrat Chris Dodd – and Republican Mike DeWine.  

DeWine would go on to be a prime sponsor of a law now targeted for repeal by many racial justice activists, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act.  ASFA embedded racial and class bias in every part of the system, it encouraged the needless removal of children and a mad rush to terminate parental rights.  And no, it is not necessary to reduce the time children spend in foster care.  

He’s brought that same hostility to poor families of color to his work as governor. Of course, if you ask him, the governor will tell you he really, truly believes in “prevention” and wants to use foster care only as a last resort.  But part of the problem with the child welfare debate is that we all say that.  In fact, we all say most of the same things.  (Have you ever heard anyone say:  “Boy do I hate prevention, if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s prevention!”?)  And, by and large, when people say this, they are sincere.  But we have vastly different definitions of what constitutes prevention – and what constitutes “last resort.” 

If Ohio really believed in prevention and really took children only as a last resort, odds are Ma’Khia Bryant would be alive today.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending May 4, 2021

Before the news, a note about an event this evening (Wednesday, May 5). It’s sponsored by the Network to Advance Abolitionist Social Work – and when you see who’s speaking, you won’t want to miss it. 

Now, the news: 

● During a virtual court hearing, a ten-year-old girl is asked where she wants to live. As Sylvia A. Harvey reports for Type Investigations and The Imprint she replies: “With my dad.” 

When [her lawyer] encourages her to elaborate, her eyes start to well. “Because. I really miss him.” Her dad’s lawyer asks her about their relationship. Does she feel safe with her dad and does he take good care of her? The girl sobs through her answer, one hand covering her mouth: “Yes.” 

Once her testimony is over, she is excused from juvenile court which, in Minnesota, is open to the public. She wipes away her tears, hits the red “leave meeting” button on her computer, and is off to her next class, PE. Her 13-year-old brother will testify next, offering the same emotional plea to remain with his dad. 

But these children, and so many others, risk having their rights to their parents terminated and losing their families forever, all because of the arbitrary, capricious and cruel timelines in a racist federal law, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act.  Harvey’s story documents the true human cost to children – made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Even some people who know ASFA does these horrible things still fret over repealing it because of one myth. NCCPR in The Imprint: We Don’t Need The Adoption and Safe Families Act to Shorten Foster Care Stays 

● A prime sponsor of ASFA was then-Senator Mike DeWine. Now he’s governor of Ohio, and his same attachment to a take-the-child-and-run mentality may have contributed to the death of a foster child, Ma’Khia Bryant.  Before a police officer pulled the trigger and killed her during a fight outside her foster home, M’Khia was taken from her grandmother – when the family’s poverty was confused with “neglect.”  I have a post about it on this blog.

Last week’s round-up led with the web version of an NPR / Marshall Project investigation into the common practice of “child welfare” agencies stealing money that rightfully belongs to foster children.  But it’s even more powerful when you hear it – from foster youth talking about how the theft cost them far more than money, to how getting the money back helped one former foster youth become a doctor to a video from the consulting firm Maximus bragging about helping states find – and take – the money for themselves.  The three-part radio series is available here, here and here. 

And again a reminder: As you listen, consider that the last time legislation was introduced in Congress to stop this theft, the Children’s Defense Fund and the Child Welfare League of America sided with the thieves, not the kids. 

● For decades, the only thing state lawmakers and blue-ribbon commissions could think to do about “child abuse” was to expand the child welfare surveillance state.  It sounded great in a press release, but it was a disaster for children, tearing apart families needlessly and leaving caseworkers less time to find children in real danger.  

Now, at last, some states are catching on. The Washington State Legislature has passed – nearly unanimously – legislation to narrow definitions of neglect and the scope of intervention by the family police.  As the Seattle Times reports: 

The bill changes what the state has to prove in the first stages of a case, before a full fact-finding hearing before a judge, from a “serious threat of substantial harm” to “imminent physical harm.” 

While a difference of only a few words, “the current statute says, look as far into the future as you want and consider any possible harm to the child,” Tara Urs, special counsel for civil policy and practice at the King County Department of Public Defense, explained in a recent interview. The words “imminent” and “physical,” she said, “would narrow the focus to this immediate situation.” 

The bill also prevents the state from removing children because of certain conditions in the home — including poverty, inadequate housing, a parent’s mental illness and substance use — unless there is a specific connection to such a danger. 

● An ambitious agenda from New York family advocates, announced at a news conference on Monday, includes Miranda rights for families, no drug testing of new and expecting mothers by hospitals without written informed consent and replacing anonymous reporting with confidential reporting.  As The Imprint reports: 

“There is no welfare or protection to be found in this system at all,” said Halimah Washington, a Bronx mother, activist and community coordinator for the parent advocacy group Rise who is among the supporters of the proposed legislation. “Every day, the family regulation system disrupts the lives of thousands of families, exposing them to the long-lasting harms and traumas of unyielding surveillance, monitoring, separation and dissolution.” 

You can read more about the broad range of support for these bills, and find a link to the news conference video in this press release from The Bronx Defenders.

● Other states also are moving in a better direction, passing what should be called “right to childhood” bills.  Lenore Skenazy writes about two of those bills in Reason. (And, in the days since the story was published, one of the bills, from Oklahoma, was signed into law.) 

● Of course not every state has gotten the message.  In Massachusetts, the state’s “Child Advocate” has been trying to drag the state full-speed backwards.  But the commission she has led – a better term would be misled – for nearly two years is having second thoughts.  The commission finally has published the public hearing testimony that may be leading to a change of some hearts and minds.  But they made things hard to find.  I have a guide in this blog post. 

Carolina Public Press reports that “hidden foster care” – using coerced “voluntary” placements to bypass even the minimal due process requirements of the family policing system to take children from their homes, is about to go on trial in North Carolina.  This blog post discusses the scandal in that state, and the whole issue of hidden foster care. 

KTRK-TV in Houston reports on still another case of racism in child welfare, this time against an Asian family. 

● Remember that judge in Colorado who resigned after being censured “for repeatedly using a racial slur and making insensitive comments to Black judicial employees regarding police brutality and systemic racism”?  Guess what kind of cases she handled. Two family defenders discuss the implications in the Denver Gazette. 

● And sometimes the things family police agencies due to families echo for decades.  Michelle Chan writes about one such case in the San Francisco Bay View.