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.