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 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. 

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.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

NCCPR in The Imprint: We Don’t Need ASFA to Shorten Foster Care Stays

Although it took longer than in many other aspects of American life, the racial justice reckoning finally may be having an effect on child welfare. As America is forced to take a new look at other draconian, racially biased laws of the 1990s – the “crime bill” and a law to “end welfare as we know it” – there now are calls to repeal the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act. ASFA targeted the same population, poor people of color (recall the hysteria over "crack babies") through a series of steps to encourage removal of their children and rush to keep them from their parents forever. 

But some of those who might support repeal are made nervous by a single data point: the average length of stay in foster care. I’ll address why I believe that hesitation is based on a faulty premise and discuss ways to reduce the length of stay in foster care, without hurting children as ASFA does. But first we need to review why it should be repealed.

Read the full column here.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Massachusetts Mandated Reporting Commission: Your guide to what I’ll bet the Commission chair LEAST wants you to hear and read


Photo by Jimmy Emerson

On April 27, I posted about the Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission.  Pushed, prodded, led and, I would argue, misled, by the Commission chair, state “Child Advocate” Maria Mossaides, the Commission spent nearly two years drafting recommendations almost all of which would expand mandated reporting and make the system more oppressive. As a sort of special bonus recommendation, Mossaides came up with a proposal that would make it even easier to confuse poverty with “neglect.” 

The Commissioners meant well, but, thanks to Mossaides, it appears they only heard one side of the story – until, at last, the Commission held public hearings.  Commission members said they were “shocked” “surprised” and “taken aback” when almost all of the speakers opposed their recommendations and warned of the dangers of further expanding the child welfare surveillance state. 

Now you can read and hear (though not see) for yourself. 

Nearly two weeks after the second hearing, the Commission has posted audio of the hearings.  There is no explanation for the lack of video.  The audio format makes it harder to follow and much harder to search to find particular witnesses. 

Ideally, of course, everyone would listen to all four hours and read all 53 written submissions. But since that is unlikely (I have not read all the written submissions myself yet) here is a handy guide to the parts of the hearing I’ll bet Mossaides least wants you to know about. 


FIRST HEARING, HOUR 2, starting at 13:37: Western Massachusetts Attorney Michelle Lucier, who represents both children and parents in child welfare cases threw out her prepared remarks to speak from the heart about the horrible and widespread practice of the state Department of Children and Families tearing children from the arms of domestic violence victims.  Note especially toward the end, at about 23 minutes in, when she speaks passionately of the foster children taken in such cases who call her begging to go back home. 

SECOND HEARING, HOUR 1, starting at 12:00: Prof. Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law (and a member of the NCCPR Board of Directors) author of Shattered Bonds: The Colorof Child Welfare, the definitive book on child welfare and race. 

SECOND HEARING, HOUR 1, Starting at 17:00: Dr. Benjamin Levi of Penn State University.  Dr. Levi actually has created a training program for mandated reporters.  Later in the hour, I spoke to take issue with some of his remarks.  But Levi decried the Massachusetts commission recommendations and the typical approach to mandated reporter training, saying at one point: 

I think it is unethical to encourage reports of any and all concerns that a child’s needs are not being met. Systems work by having standards. “When it doubt, report” is not a standard, it’s an invitation for things to go badly; for serious collateral damage despite best of intentions because the very experience of being assessed can be devastating to families already hanging on by a thread. 

SECOND HEARING, HOUR 2, starting right at the beginning at 0:22.  Fortunately one of the most powerful presentations is among the easiest to find, right at the start of the hour: Zoe Russell, a student attorney at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and head of their family practice area. 


Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence “The proposals encourage overreporting and will increase rather than decrease risks to survivors of sexual and domestic violence and their children.” 

Prof. Kelley Fong, who has done crucial, in-depth research on mandatory reporting.  Her statement includes powerful first-person accounts from families she interviewed. 

Dr. Mical Raz, who literally wrote the book on the problems of mandatory reporting, and how we got into this mess. 

The League of Women Voters. Yes, even they’re against the Commission recommendations. 

And, of course, the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. 

Some might argue I'm biased because I'm highlighting only testimony from people who opposed the Commission.  But while, as I said, I haven’t read all of the written statements, when it comes to the public hearings almost every witness opposed the recommendations. 

So if you’ve got four hours to spare …