Wednesday, June 30, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending June 30, 2021

● A commission studying mandatory child abuse reporting in Massachusetts makes child welfare history by reversing course and refusing to pass a series of horrible recommendations – because several commissioners listened closely to public hearing testimony, took it seriously, and changed their minds.  There’s a good story in CommonWealth Magazine and I have a blog post about it

The Imprint summarizes two new reports, one from Rise and one from the upEnd Movement, calling for a radical reenvisioning of child welfare. The story includes links to both documents. 

● And speaking of radical reenvisioning: "If foster care were a good thing, the only way we'd get in is through affirmative action,” says Joyce McMillan, founder of JMacForFamilies, during this webinar, Child Welfare Justice: A Public Health Abolitionist Approach sponsored by Radical Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago: 

Indiana Lawyer profiles a mother who finally won a ten-year battle for her son – freeing him from foster care with the help of a dedicated public defender.  The child never should have been placed at all.  

● But what if you don’t have a lawyer? We hear a lot about states where parents don’t get high-quality representation.  But there are some states where they sometimes get no representation at all.  That may be about to change  thanks to pending legislation in one of those states – Minnesota. The Minnestoa bill also would reduce barriers to placing children with relatives in kinship foster care instead of with strangers.

The Houston Press takes a close look at racial bias in child welfare in Texas – and finds it’s even worse in Houston than in the state as a whole. 

A new Texas law requires child protective services to inform parents of at least some of their rights – including their right to record interviews when caseworkers interrogate them.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

In the end, it was the “Seinfeld” of Commissions: The Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission recommends -- NOTHING! (And that is a big step forward.)

This is NOT the Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission.
But they and the Commission do have something in common. (Photo by Alan Light.)

● At its final meeting Monday, the Commission refused to endorse recommendations to vastly widen the child welfare surveillance state – in a state that already tears apart families at a rate 60% above the national average.  

The refusal to accept all those bad recommendations is a testament to the growing power of family advocacy, a testament to the growing movement for racial justice and a testament to the power of facts in what is supposedly a post-fact world.  Most of all, it is a testament to the fact that even in our polarized society there are still people of goodwill who are willing to reconsider their assumptions. 

● As one Massachusetts critic of the Commission, Susan Elsen of the Massachusetts Law Reform Commission told CommonWealth Magazine: 

rather than focusing on expanding mandated reporting, the commission should be looking at how to address racial bias in the system; how to avoid undermining families’ trust in child welfare agencies and service providers; and how to get [the state Department of Children and Families] to provide more family stabilization services in the community. 

 “In terms of keeping kids safe, this assumption that the one way to keep kids safe is to expand the mandated reporting is not playing out in reality,” Elsen said. 

● The report remains secret until June 30 (this post is based on what commissioners said at their final public meeting and what could be seen when the report was screenshared). Now we have to start all over again with the Massachusetts Legislature.  But this just might be a turning point in how we protect children – not just in Massachusetts but nationwide. 

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.  It was supposed to be easy: High-profile child abuse cases in another state lead some Massachusetts legislators to spot (or have pointed out to them) a “loophole” in the state’s law that already requires huge numbers of people who work with children to report any suspicion of child abuse to the state Department of Children and Families.  They name a commission to study mandatory reporting with an eye toward closing the “loophole.”  

But they put in charge the state’s “Child Advocate” – Maria Mossaides, among the Massachusetts officials most fanatical about creating an ever-larger child welfare surveillance state.  

Unlike commissions directed by leaders with open minds, the process does not begin with public hearings.  Instead, Mossaides chooses what the commissioners will hear – and most of them were sympathetic state officials anyway, including two from DCF.  

Mossaides and her staff decide what the Commission will learn about and how they will learn it, with carefully staged presentations that leave no clue about the fact that mandatory reporting is, in fact, controversial and many one-time proponents have had second thoughts. 

By the time Mossaides is done, the Commission has produced draft recommendations that would have entrenched an extremist agenda. They would have vastly expanded who had to report, increased penalties for not reporting up to ten-fold, and made it even easier to confuse poverty with neglect. (Details are in a series of previous posts about the Commission.) 

But between the time the Commission started work and the time it issued the draft recommendations, the world changed.  Although the racial justice reckoning has been slow to reach child welfare, in Massachusetts it prompted opposition the Commission never expected.  It began with a letter from six lawyers pointing out case after case of false reports harming children.  

By the time Mossaides finally allowed public hearings, that opposition was fierce.  During a total of four hours of testimony, almost every witness excoriated the draft recommendations.  

It had an impact.  Here’s what one commissioner, Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan said before the hearings: 

“This statute hasn’t had a comprehensive look in a very long time.  It’s been amended a few times, adding things like clergy and certain other groups, but no one stepped back, put it all together and looked at all of it. That’s really where our focus has been. How do you make this work best to protect kids and at the same time be culturally competent?” 

Here's what she said at the first meeting after the hearings: 

I spent a lot of years thinking that [mandated reporting] gets us to a better place; I’m disheartened to hear maybe it really doesn’t - and even if it does, perception is reality.  A lot of well-credentialed, well-meaning experts think this doesn’t work. I don’t know how we’re going to get any legitimacy about finetuning the process if a significant number think the process doesn’t work anyway. … I was taken aback to hear so much of that conversation. 

Others used terms like “surprised” and “shocked.” 

Why didn’t they know? 

The obvious question: How could you have met for more than a year and still been shocked to hear these points of view?  The answer: Mossaides had an iron grip on the process, making sure the commission heard only what she wanted it to hear. 

Once that grip was broken, Mossaides and her allies on the Commission tried desperately to salvage the recommendations, including outvoting (in a sort of informal show of hands) dissenters who didn’t want the recommendations included in the report at all – because they had not been voted on and were not, in fact, Commission recommendations.  They compromised; agreeing to stronger language to make this clear. 

But Mossaides kept spinning right up to the very end, promoting the big lie of American child welfare – that curbing needless intrusion into families is at odds with child safety.  She even tried to suggest that racial justice was at odds with child safety, claiming that the new language in the report should talk about “balancing child protection and disproportionate impact on children of color.” 

But dissenting members of the Commission found that unacceptable.  One of them, Angela Brooks, director of the Children's Justice Unit in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, called Mossaides out on it.   

It appears that, in the end, a much more nuanced preamble to the report was adopted – though there was still some effort to sneak in the idea that mandatory reporting enhances child safety, which it does not. 

I say “it appears” because, though the meeting where the final report was discussed was public, the report itself was not.   The public had to read whatever it could as it scrolled by when the meeting was in screen share mode.  I managed to get these screenshots which include much, but not all, of the preamble:

But what’s in the other 98 pages?  We should find out tomorrow (June 30).  I think I saw at least one blatant attempt at deck stacking scroll by during the screen sharing; my guess is Mossaides and her staff did as much of that as they could get away with. 

Now it gets even harder 

It’s one thing to move members of a commission singularly focused on this issue.  But now the report goes to the Massachusetts Legislature. Like everyone else, the lawmakers have been exposed to decades of “health terrorism” – the deliberate misrepresentation of the scope of a problem to “raise awareness.”  (The phrase comes not from critics, but from people who admit to having engaged in the practice.)  

That’s why so many people who have good intentions, such as Kate Ginnis of DCF’s parent agency, a commissioner even more extreme than Mossaides, recoil in horror at the very thought of, say, abolishing mandated reporting – even though it almost certainly would make children safer. 

And even as tried to spin the report publicly, Mossaides also has a backchannel to key lawmakers.  We know this because – she said so; repeatedly referring to her conversations with those lawmakers. 

But the fact that there were people of goodwill on the Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission who listened to the public, took to heart what they heard and, yes, changed their minds is enormously encouraging.  It suggests the possibility that the health terrorists won’t win in the end, and that this might be the moment child welfare starts to change in Massachusetts and beyond. 

The Legislature today is where the Commission was two years ago.  One key legislator has made clear his views are perfectly aligned with Mossaides and Ginnis; another has shown more skepticism.  So now we have to start all over again and see if we can move them, too. 

As for the idea that this was a “Seinfeld Commission,” that’s meant as a compliment.  Sometimes recommending nothing is really something.

Friday, June 25, 2021

The report of the Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission needs an appendectomy


Yep; that appendix has really got to go.

Members desperate to expand the child welfare surveillance state are even suggesting that racial justice is contrary to child safety 

So, you chair a commission that spent nearly two years drafting recommendations that would vastly expand “mandatory reporting” of suspected child abuse and neglect – in a state that already tears apart families at a rate 60% above the national average when rates of child poverty are factored in. 

It’s all going soooo well – until that whole racial justice reckoning threatens to get in the way.  And then, when you finally hold public hearings (after the recommendations are drafted, instead of, say, at the very beginning), your draft recommendations are denounced – almost unanimously – for four hours.  More open-minded commissioners are restive – in fact, they pronounce themselves “shocked” “surprised” and “taken aback.” They start to wonder about whether the recommendations are really such a good idea.  There is now so much dissent that your commission does not actually vote on any recommendations. 

As Karl Malden used to say in those American Express commercials: What will you do? what will you do? 

If you’re Massachusetts “Child Advocate” Maria Mossaides, who chairs the Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission, you’ll try to sneak all those bad ideas into an “appendix” to your report and use ambiguous language to allow legislators to infer that the commission really does support those bad ideas.  And when it looks like that won’t work, you’ll propose language that suggests racial justice is at odds with child safety. 

That’s what happened at what was supposed to be the Commission’s final meeting Thursday.  Because Mossaides and her allies didn’t quite manage to pull this off, there will be another virtual meeting starting at 10:00 a.m. on Monday.  

Most of the discussion Thursday revolved around a part of a draft final report known as Appendix A.  It’s not entirely clear what’s in Appendix A, or the rest of the report. That’s because though the virtual meeting was public, the document was not.  Except when portions were screenshared, we could only infer what was in the report and the appendix. 

Commission member Lisa Hewitt of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which represents parents in child welfare cases, suggested dropping Appendix A. Why include an appendix filled with recommendations that predated the public hearings, recommendations for which there often was strong dissent among the commissioners and on which there was no vote? 

And why, she asked, was there so little discussion of the public hearing testimony, most of which trashed many of those recommendations – testimony “which was fantastic and truly impacted a lot of individuals on the [commission]?” She said including the appendix was “misleading.”  If the Commission didn’t get rid of the Appendix completely then “there should be much more explicit language [stating] that this has not been voted on and many of us don’t join in many of the suggestions.” 

One might expect that suggestion from someone whose organization represents parents.  But another commissioner, Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan agreed, saying that the way the appendix is presented “It’s hard not to read it as this is what the commission agrees to … It’s hard not to think this is where we came out.” 

Still another commissioner, Angela Brooks, director of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Children’s Justice Unit, said she had thought that Appendix A would include only the areas where there was agreement.  She was surprised to see included highly controversial ideas, such as drastically increasing penalties for failure to report. 

The Commission voted down the proposal to get rid of Appendix A.  Nor would they accept Brooks’ idea to limit it to where there was consensus.  Since there were no formal votes, Mossaides said, how can we possibly know where there’s consensus?  Actually, anyone who watched the meetings easily could figure that out. 

Mossaides and the rest what should be called the “surveillance-state caucus” would agree only to changing the language to make clear that the recommendations in Appendix A were never put to a vote and there was disagreement over some of them.  Then they immediately worked to undermine such language – by adapting the Big Lie of American child welfare, the false claim that child safety and family preservation are at odds - in a way that reveals a stunning degree of racial bias. 

Katie Ginnis of the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services, who is, if anything, more extreme than Mossaides, suggested that any such language be framed as the commission “trying to balance the welfare of children and these societal issues …How can we make changes in the interest of protecting children and be mindful of the disproportionate impact on Black and Brown families? We need to represent that tension.” 

Mossaides echoed the false framing, saying the language should talk about “balancing child protection and disproportionate impact on children of color.” 

What could be more emblematic of racial bias than suggesting that racial justice is contrary to child safety? 

What Mossaides and Ginnis really are saying is that Black people are inherently a greater
danger to their children than white people – so any attempt at equity puts child safety at risk.  The idea that the disproportionate impact of the child welfare surveillance state on Black families (and, in Massachusetts, Hispanic families) might have something to do with racism is not even on the table.

Also, though nonwhite families are disproportionately harmed by needless removal and the children welfare surveillance state, they are not the only ones harmed.  Impoverished white children also are subjected to needless surveillance, traumatized by needless investigations, and abused in foster care.  And overloading the system with false reports from all those mandated reporters makes it harder to find the few children in real danger – so contrary to Mossaides’ and Ginnis’ claims, most of the recommendations in Appendix A would make all Massachusetts children less safe. 

To her credit, Brooks wasn’t buying Mossaides’ and Ginnis’ framing.  She challenged the idea that “one side is expressed as protecting children and the other is societal inequities.” She said dissenting commissioners “are also [concerned about] protecting children; we’re concerned about the harm to children when unnecessarily removing them.  The tension on how best to protect children is on both sides.” 

Brooks also expressed concern about the “lack of representation by impacted communities and families” on the commission itself.  “We got good and meaningful testimony [at the hearings],” she said, “but that’s not the same thing as having full-time commission members sharing their perspectives.” 

To which Mossaides offered a reply that really amounted to: If she were choosing the commissioners it would have been different, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. 

Shhhh, don’t even mention abolishing mandatory reporting 

In still another indication of the surveillance-state caucus’ extremism, one section of the draft report dared to mention the fact that some hearing witnesses proposed abolishing mandatory reporting altogether.  The reason this idea is getting a lot of new support is that mandatory reporting has backfired; studies show it drives people away from seeking help and overloads the system with false reports, making it harder to find children in real danger. 

But the draft language left the impression that the commission never even thought about having a full discussion of something that, to Mossaides, is so horrifying.  

But even this wasn’t enough for at least one commissioner, who suggested that the fact that this idea came up at the hearings should not even be mentioned (presumably to avoid the possibility of legislators having their minds poisoned by such terrible ideas).  

Brooks said the language wrongly characterized the work of the Commission, or at least some members.  “It seems to discount the public comment period, and it’s not accurate to say we were focused solely on [improving mandatory reporting]. That sounds like we didn’t take into account the public comments.” 

Unfortunately, many commissioners didn’t take into account the public comments.  But it’s encouraging that enough of them did to prompt the kind of debate that took place at Thursday’s meeting – and maybe encourage legislators to do a little of that dangerous thinking after all. 

All NCCPR Child Welfare Blog posts about the Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission are available here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending June 22, 2021

● In April, I published a post to this blog about a study showing that there was no “pandemic of child abuse” in New York City when mandated reporting was cut way back by COVID-19.  I’ll bet a lot of people were so invested in the myth they simply refused to believe the research. But now, even the head of the New York City family policing agency admits it.  In fact, The Imprint reports, the commissioner of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, David Hansell told the City Council 

…it was just as likely that the pandemic was “a very positive thing” for children, who were able to spend more time at home with their parents. 

● The move to provide high-quality legal representation to families before the family police even knock at the door has spread to Detroit – or rather returned to Detroit, which pioneered it. 

● A battered mother in Los Angeles reaches out for help. Attorney Chris Martin, a leader of the L.A. #reimaginechildsafety campaign writes in WitnessLA about why "[s]he probably will regret taking that one brave stand for the rest of her life." 

● When it comes to ending systemic racism in child welfare, the rhetoric is easy. In contrast to those who are all talk and little or no action, the upEnd Movement’s new report calls for a series of action steps, including repealing the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act, abolishing mandatory reporting, divesting from foster care and using the money to help families, and ending all placements in group homes and institutions. 

● Most of the papers from last week’s Strengthened Bonds Symposium have not yet been published.  But one that has, on bias against Native American families, includes this stunning statistic: By the time they turn 18, one in three Native children in Minnesota will have endured separation from their families and placement in foster care – not one in three investigated, one in three actually torn from their parents. Perhaps that will come up at this webinar about Minnesota "child welfare" tomorrow, sponsored by Fostering Media Connections.

● In an interview with an online news site, a state legislator from Kansas lamented that when it comes to Kansas’ failed foster care system, “nobody even knows what questions to ask.”  Don’t worry. We’re here to help. 

● Another very good bill has become law in Texas – thanks in part to the outstanding reporting of NBC News and the Houston Chronicle. As they report: 

Under the new law, caregivers accused of abuse based on a medical report will be allowed to request that CPS get another opinion from a doctor whose expertise is relevant to the child’s injuries. And when parents get a second medical opinion on their own, the law will require judges to consider that evidence before issuing orders for children to be taken into state custody. 

The state also will fund a commission to examine the work – and the abuses – of “child abuse pediatricians.” 

● And finally, I was pleased to be the guest on Pauline Goldsmith-Johnson’s Foster Features podcast:  

Monday, June 21, 2021

Here are some of the right "questions to ask” about foster care in Kansas (and almost everywhere else).

Photo by J. Stephen Conn

In an interview with an online news site, a state legislator from Kansas, Rep. Susan Concannon, lamented that when it comes to Kansas’ failed foster care system, “nobody even knows what questions to ask.”  She’s right.   So here are some of the questions everyone in Kansas should be asking, beginning with one about the problem that drives everything else: 

● Why does Kansas tear apart families and consign children to the chaos of foster care at one of the highest rates in America?  It’s a rate nearly double the national average and higher than all but seven other states, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.  Why has Kansas been doing this for decades?  

The Kansas obsession with tearing apart families inflicts enormous emotional trauma on children – the same trauma we saw when children were torn from their parents at the Mexican border.  That’s one reason why multiple studies find that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes do better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.   

Kansas State Rep. Susan Concannon

Taking so many children needlessly creates an artificial “shortage” of foster homes, increasing the pressure to lower standards and overcrowd homes.  That increases the odds of abuse in foster care itself. Nationwide study after study finds abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes, the rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse. 

And all the time and effort spent on false allegations and needless removal of children is, in effect, stolen from finding the few children in real danger. That’s almost always the real reason for the tragic deaths of children “known to the system.”  So no, taking away all those children doesn’t make them safer.  On the contrary, the Kansas take-the-child-and-run approach makes all children less safe. 

● Is Kansas still exploiting a loophole in federal regulations (that’s the most generous interpretation) to avoid even counting a large number of short-term foster care placements? That’s something we documented in detail in our 2008 report on Kansas child welfare

● Why do we cling to stereotypes about all parents who lose children to foster care as sadists, brutes or hopeless addicts, when we should know better? Study after study shows that child welfare systems routinely confuse poverty with neglect.  Nowhere is that clearer than Kansas where cuts in public assistance were followed by increases in foster care.  Conversely, multiple studies find that even very small increases in cash significantly reduce what agencies call “neglect.” 

● Why do we assume spending more on the current lousy system will fix it when Kansas actually spends on child welfare at a rate well above the national average when family poverty is factored in? The reason Kansas spends so much and gets so little is no mystery: In child welfare, the worse the option the more it costs.  In addition to throwing away lives (as the Kansas City Star documented so well, more foster youth “graduate” to jail than to college) foster care wastes vast sums of money that could be better spent on safe, proven alternatives to keep families together.  If the Kansas family policing agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agency) is to be trusted to spend more, it needs to show it can spend smarter. 

● Why does Rep. Concannon think the system needs more court-appointed special advocates?  Has she read the comprehensive research showing that CASA backfires – prolonging foster care and reducing the likelihood that children will be reunified with their parents, while doing nothing to make children safer?  Has she read the law review article documenting how racial bias is baked into the CASA model?  Does she know about the Kansas CASA chapter that held a fundraiser featuring a blackface act?  

Yes, like most people in child welfare, CASA volunteers mean well.  But they are an inadvertent contributor to racial bias that runs so deep in Kansas that Black children are in foster care at a rate more than double their rate in the general population – a far worse record than the national average. 

● Why aren’t lawmakers focusing on a far more effective alternative – providing high-quality legal representation for families?  No, that’s not to get “bad parents” off.  It’s so families can have a defense team to craft alternatives to the cookie-cutter “service plans” issued by agencies like the Kansas Department of Children and Families, so their children can remain with them safely.  The model has been tested and proven everywhere from New York City to Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Has anyone concerned about Kansas child welfare even looked into it? 

One last question: Very few places in America come anywhere near getting child welfare right.  But those that do better begin by asking the right questions.  Is Kansas ready to start?

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending June 15, 2021

 Before the news a reminder: The Columbia Journal of Race and Law symposium Strengthened Bonds: Abolishing the Child Welfare System and Re-Envisioning Child Well-Being starts tonight!  Registration is still open for this free virtual event. 

● We begin the news round-up with this stunning video – a documentary from Al Jazeera.


Building on the work of USA Today Network reporters, the program shows the enormous trauma inflicted on children as the Florida Department of Children and Families tears them from parents whose only crime is themselves to be survivors of domestic violence.  The program offers compelling evidence that there is nothing unusual about these cases - or wrongful removal in general. 

A former DCF lawyer is asked in what percentage of cases the removal of the child from her or his parents was “absolutely necessary to keep the children safe.” He replies:  “That’s probably 5-to-10% of the cases at most.”  In the wake of the foster-care panic started by the Miami Herald, “we were doing more to protect our jobs than to protect children at times.”  A former caseworker agrees, saying that removal is “widely misused.” 

● The problem might be even worse in Massachusetts – indeed, we know that state’s family policing agency is even more prone to tear apart families in general than its counterpart in Florida.  And when it comes to inflicting unspeakable trauma on children of domestic violence survivors, the Massachusetts family policing agency, through its prominent place on a commission studying mandatory reporting, is fighting tooth-and-nail to be sure it keeps the untrammeled power to do just that.  (Of course, they don’t want that power because they’re sadists – they have all sorts of ways of rationalizing what they do.  But that doesn’t help the children.)  I have a blog post about it. 

● If Massachusetts perfectly illustrates now not to study a problem in child welfare (and it does), Illinois just demonstrated how to do it right. Check out the state’s new commission on racial bias in child welfare. 

● Bad journalism has a lot to do with what’s gone wrong in Florida.  But some journalists have understood child welfare for a long time.  I’ve reposted a blog from 2011 about one of them – now that he’s just won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. 

On The Imprint podcast, David Kelly, former special assistant to Jerry Milner when Milner ran the federal government’s Children’s Bureau, talks about the need to repeal ASFA (because, among other things, the law is racist), the fact that another law, the so-called Family First Act not only isn’t the revolutionary change the child welfare establishment claims, it might actually make racial disparities worse, and the need to curb hidden foster care.  And before all of that, at about 21:30 in, he’s asked the question everyone in child welfare has wanted to ask him for about for years. :-) 

● June is Family Reunification Month (you did know that, right, what with all the articles celebrating reunified families?  Oh, right, child welfare much prefers to celebrate when families are permanently destroyed.)  In any event, the ABA Center on Children and the Law is celebrating “Reunification Heroes.” Here’s a profile of one of them, Jey Rajaraman, chief counsel and supervising attorney for the Family Representation Project at Legal Services of New Jersey. 

● When reunification is impossible – the family has been legally destroyed and the child adopted – it often still makes sense for the child to maintain contact with her or his birth parents.  A bill to make that a little easier has passed the New York State Legislature

● The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute sponsored a Congressional briefing on those revelations from The Marshall Project and NPR about state agencies effectively stealing government benefits from foster children. The recording is available here.  I particularly recommend the presentations of Ian Marx starting at 15:14 and Lexie Gruber-Perez at 40:40.

● The first Native American to serve as Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, has a reminder of the role child welfare played in the destruction of Native American lives and the attempt to destroy an entire culture. 

● I have long maintained that family policing systems are arbitrary, capricious and cruel, erring in all directions.  The fate of a child often depends on race and income, of course, but also where the family lives, whether there’s been a high-profile tragedy in the news, which caseworker shows up at the door and what mood s/he’s in.  

Or it may depend on whether the local judge believes “poor people have poor ways” – as one judge told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which looked closely at some regional differences in Missouri.  And Carolina Public Press took an in-depth look at the enormous variation in practice across North Carolina.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Pulitzer winner who understands child welfare

Lobby of the Los Angeles Times building in 2011 (Photo by Chris Eason)

On Friday, the board that administers journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prizes gave the award for editorial writing to Robert Greene of the Los Angeles Times.  The award was for a series of editorials about criminal justice – including one noting the fact that decades later we’re still paying for our botched, racist response to crack cocaine. 

But over the years, Greene has also written with rare wisdom about child welfare, even when that meant subtly taking on his own newsroom. 

So by way of congratulating Mr. Greene, we reprint a post abut his work from ten years ago. At the time we concluded that his editorials about child welfare “should be required reading in every county office – and at every desk in the Times newsroom.”  

That’s still true – and not just at the Los Angeles Times: 


Foster care in Los Angeles: Two solid editorials from the L.A. Times

There is a ritual of sorts at American newsrooms.  After a reporter does a big project or one or more front page stories filled with alleged revelations about government shortcomings, the editorial page is supposed to give the reporter a pat on the back.  The editorial congratulates the reporter for her or his enterprise and demands that government immediately do whatever the reporter wants it to do. 

But all through the years that Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf has been trying to foment hype and hysteria about child welfare in Los Angeles, the Times editorial board has refused to play along. 

For a long time the editorial page was simply silent on the issue.  Then it offered up its own careful, measured assessments which simply ignored Therolf’s pet theories. 

But this week, the editorial board went further.  Instead of giving Therolf a pat on the back, the editorial board administered a kick a little lower.  As Celeste Fremon explains in this excellent analysis on her Blog WitnessLA, the criticism of Therolf’s reporting was subtle – but unmistakable. 

Most of the editorial Sunday blasted the Board of Supervisors for defying the Bureau of State Audits and refusing to provide the Bureau with reports on child abuse fatalities.  That is all-too-typical of the bunker mentality that has characterized the Board and DCFS, and the Times does an excellent job of demolishing the Board’s flimsy excuses.  But a newspaper coming out for more openness in government is strictly dog-bites-man stuff.  The man-bites-dog part of the editorial is this extraordinary paragraph: 

All that said, the supervisors' actions may be comprehensible, even if indefensible. Child deaths from abuse and neglect are fraught with emotion and can result in sensational headlines, in newspapers like this one, to which supervisors feel compelled to respond. One more study of fatalities, such as the state audit demanded after the killing of Seth Ireland, steeps policymakers in a swamp of exceptional failures and worst cases. It makes it easy to forget that data show overwhelmingly that outcomes are better for children who stay in their homes — even with families struggling with poverty, even in neighborhoods with inadequate schools — than for those removed by well-meaning or backside-covering county agencies. It makes it easy to forget that the county's most effective and most economical response to children in trouble is to help their families with resources and programs to cope with their challenges. 

But the Times wasn’t done.  The next day the Times published another editorial blasting governments that react to high-profile tragedies by becoming, among other things, “too prone to snatch children from their homes and too unwilling or too clueless to help troubled families.” 

The editorial continues: 

High-profile cases of abuse at the hands of violent or addicted parents resulted in panic and waves of removals, supposedly in the interests of child safety. Abuse in foster homes led officials to send children the other way, back to their families. Instead of a ladder leading upward, child welfare programs seemed to operate like a pendulum, swinging back and forth depending on the latest outrage. 

Later the editorial condemns “policy changes spurred by child deaths rather than hard data.”  It continues: 

But progress is real. Studies that follow children who were kept with their families or placed with relatives show that they do better in school, have fewer run-ins with the law and have better prospects for the future than their counterparts removed to foster care. 

The editorial concludes by calling for the appointment of a permanent director for the county Department of Children and Family Services “who will stand up to the Supervisors and not allow them to make panic, rather than progress, the key factor in departmental decisionmaking.” 

On one point I think the second editorial is mistaken.  For reasons discussed in one of the first posts to this Blog, foster-care panics don’t work in reverse – that is, with very rare exceptions, deaths of children in foster care don’t prompt child welfare agencies to take away fewer children.  Indeed, as we discuss in our report on Los Angeles child welfare, when Viola Vanclief died in foster care in 2010, Therolf wrote his stories in ways that appear intended to make sure that death didn’t prompt calls to reduce foster care.  And in fact, during the months after Viola’s death entries into care were higher than during the same months the year before. 

Nevertheless, both editorials are almost entirely on the mark.  They should be required reading in every county office – and at every desk in the Times newsroom.

Monday, June 14, 2021

In Massachusetts, the “child welfare” agency regularly throws battered women – and, especially, their children – under the bus. Now they’re fighting to keep it that way

 Of all the tragedies inflicted on children by the nation’s family policing agencies (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agencies), few are worse than tearing a child away from a parent (usually a mother) whose only “crime” is to herself be a survivor of domestic violence.  

All of the trauma for a child is compounded if the removal was for this reason.  One expert called it “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”  He testified in a lawsuit that led to making the practice illegal in New York State. (NCCPR’s Vice President was co-counsel for plaintiffs.)  But, as I’ve often written before, in much of the country, family police agency policy on this issue boils down to “please pass the salt.”  That is certainly true in Massachusetts.  And the state family policing agency is fighting tooth and nail to keep things just the way they are. 

As with so much that’s wrong in child welfare, the harm begins with mandatory reporting.  A battered woman works up the courage to break free from her abuser, often for the sake of the children.  But almost anywhere she turns for help, the helper is a “mandated reporter.”   Whether that reporter thinks it’s a good idea or is just afraid to do otherwise, the reporter may well call the family police.  If you want to know what happens next,  please take two minutes – just two minutes – to listen to this excerpt from the testimony of Western Massachusetts Attorney Michelle Lucier before a commission studying mandatory reporting in that state:

 (If you want to hear more, a recording of her full testimony is at the end of this post.) 

Then, for additional context, please read the testimony from Jane Doe, Inc, the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.  That will give a full understanding of how widespread the problem is – and how it places both battered women and their children in danger by deterring them from reaching out for help.  National research confirms it. 

But at a Commission meeting this week, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) and its parent agency, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), responded to that searing testimony with what amounts nothing but contempt for the lives and safety of battered women and their children. 

They opposed even a revision in mandatory reporting laws so small that it would change almost nothing. 

As a commission document explains, the commission is debating recommending that 

persons who provide direct confidential services to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or human trafficking should be excluded from mandated reporting responsibility. The reasoning behind the proposed exclusion is to reduce the barriers, or perceived barriers, in the way of persons who may be seeking immediate physical safety. Persons who seek physical safety are likely to be seeking to improve the safety situation for their children. 

Now, stop and consider how small that change would be.  First, it does not stop anyone from reporting what they believe to be child abuse or neglect.  It says only that a small subset of mandatory reporters, those specially trained to deal specifically with battered women seeking safety are not required to turn those women in to the family police.  Instead, they can use their professional training and their professional judgment.

As Jane Doe, Inc. pointed out, this does not go nearly far enough, because survivors 

will likely encounter a mandated reporter in a range of additional contexts such as education, healthcare, or other settings. 

Yet even this tiny proposed change ran into fierce opposition from the representative on the Commission from DCF, Cristina Tedstone, and from EOHHS Katherine Ginnis.  (Ginnis’ comments throughout the commission meetings suggest someone even more virulently opposed to any curbing of the Massachusetts child welfare surveillance state than the commission chair, state Child Advocate Maria Mossaides – and that’s saying a lot.)  

Adding insult to what often are literal injuries, Ginnis and Tedstone suggested the problem of battered women terrified to come forward for fear of mandated reporters turning them in could be solved by – you probably guessed: more training! 

We should just add to the training for mandated reporters, Tedstone and Ginnis say, so they’ll know when to turn in a battered mother and when not to.  And we should train our investigators in when to take away children (after already traumatizing them with needless investigations) and when not to. 

Yes, training, training, training, training, training, training.  It’s all that the family police and those who want them to have unlimited power over families ever suggest in answer to every abuse these agencies inflict on children in the name of “saving” them.  Indeed, this was so predictable, I devoted a section of my own testimony to the commission to why this never works. 

To get a sense of how insulting this is, particularly to families of color, imagine if a special commission were convened to study police brutality in Massachusetts. Imagine if they said that all the problems could be solved if we just gave the police more training. Imagine if they claimed the problem isn’t, say, massive use of stop-and-frisk policing; we just need to give the police more training in whom to stop and how to frisk them.  People would immediately recognize it for what it was: a whitewash – in every sense of the term. 

Yet somehow, in Massachusetts, DCF, EOHHS, and the Office of Child Advocate seem to think they can get away with brushing aside the harm the family police routinely inflict on battered mothers and their children with bromides about training. Sadly, they may be right. 

The idea of training-as-panacea is particularly ludicrous in the context of domestic violence survivors coming forward. 

For starters, DCF doesn’t even admit it has a problem.  How can they train workers to do better when everything supposedly is fine now?  DCF brags about having “domestic violence specialists” on staff who caseworkers can consult right now.  But as the testimony from Jane Doe, Inc., Michelle Lucier and others makes clear – that’s not working. The problem is severe and ongoing. 

But even if training worked in other contexts, it wouldn’t help here.  When it comes to
battered women coming forward, the key issue is fear – they’re afraid to tell someone who is a mandated reporter.  Do Tedstone, Ginnis and Mossaids seriously think that will change if someone posts a notice somewhere that says: “Don’t worry, that mandated reporter you’re thinking of talking to was required to take a new, improved training module – so they might not turn you in after all!”?

And, of course, DCF and EOHHS’s faith in training reeks of hypocrisy.  The recommendation they oppose says only that people who really do have specialized training in dealing with these issues should be allowed to use that training and exercise their own judgment. 

The opposition from DCF and EOHHS and, it appears, from Mossaides does not automatically mean the proposal will be voted down.  But none of the Commissioners at the meeting this week spoke in favor of it.* 

In the end, all of these issues will be in the hands of the Massachusetts Legislature.  The lawmakers will have to decide whether DCF should continue to have free reign to throw battered women and their children under the bus. 

So I hope they will listen to all of what Michelle Lucier had to say, read Jane Doe Inc.’s full testimony, and go through the rest of the public hearing testimony, which overwhelmingly opposed the approach that has dominated commission deliberations.  They can start here:


*-In contrast, it was encouraging to hear some opposition expressed to another Commission proposal – inserting into state law a definition of child “neglect” that omits any statement that poverty is not neglect.  Such a statement exists in current DCF regulations. Granted, the fact that Massachusetts regularly tears apart families at a rate 60% above the national average makes clear that no one is really paying attention to the poverty-is-not-neglect caveat, but that’s no reason to make things even worse.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending June 9, 2021

● What does it mean when everyone you might turn to for help also is a “mandated reporter,” required to turn you in to child protective services if they have any suspicion of child abuse – or if they’re simply afraid not to make a report?  Research shows what you’d expect – it discourages people from seeking help.  One mother talks about it in Rise, writing: 

Being scared of the child welfare system has an impact on almost everything I do. Every move I make has to be given careful thought—what doctors I go to and what I tell a doctor or therapist. 

● As leaders of Rise explain in The Imprint, this also explains why community groups – not child protective services agencies themselves – should be running “preventive services.” 

● High school students also know how family policing systems really work.  Check out the video some of them made:

● Three members of Congress are calling on the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families and the HHS Civil Rights Division to investigate “the events leading up to the tragic death of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant…” who was shot by a police officer outside her foster home.  A press release from one of those calling for the investigation, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) specifically notes that “Ohio children are placed in the foster care system at a rate 10 percent higher than the national average.”  (FYI: When you factor in rates of child poverty Ohio is even worse – and Franklin County, where Ma’Khia was in foster care, probably is far worse than the state average.) 

● Three national experts on kinship foster care zero-in on a key turning point that contributed to Ma’Khia’s death: her removal from her grandmother.  In The Imprint, they write: 

Bryant’s grandmother wasn’t unfit to care for her kin; rather, she was underserved by the child welfare system and then blamed when this underinvestment caused her to lose her housing. 

● After years of ignoring, or impeding, racial justice in child welfare, the group calling itself “Children’s Rights” now claims it’s “driving” the conversation about that very issue.  I have a blog post about how, in fact, others are at the wheel.  CR only just climbed into the backseat. 

● The head of the family regulation agency in Washington State, Ross Hunter, has come up with the perfect bureaucratic response to KING-TV Seattle’s investigative report documenting how his caseworkers and supervisors are forcing some foster children to sleep in cars – and worse – as punishment: pretend it’s not happening.  Fortunately, KING-TV reports in a follow-up story, several lawmakers and others in the state are not buying it.  

And here, from the follow-up story, is a reminder of what Hunter claims isn’t happening: 

The KING 5 investigation, which was based on a review of local and state records and interviews with foster youth and more than two dozen current and former DCYF employees, revealed agency supervisors instructed social workers to make youth sleep in uncomfortable places — like in social workers’ cars, on DCYF office floors and on plastic chairs and cots in office lobbies — when they refused to accept a placement at a foster home or group home. Some social workers said their bosses encouraged them to use other psychological tactics to make the youth even more miserable, like blasting the air conditioning, rolling down the windows or keeping the youth awake all night.

● The Omaha World Herald reports on a Nebraska state legislator who heard those NPR/Marshall Project stories about “child welfare” agencies using a legal loophole to effectively steal foster children’s money. The legislator has introduced a bill do stop it, and the World Herald has condemned the practice in an editorial

● And finally, from Indian Country Today

The world was shocked to hear about the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British, Columbia Canada. 

For many Indigenous people, however, the most shocking element of the story is not the discovery of the graves but the fact that it’s taken so long for non-Natives to acknowledge the grim details of this long-ignored history of Indian boarding and residential schools, a story that is part of both U.S. and Canadian history.

 As the story notes, the U.S. is well behind Canada both in acknowledging what was done to Native children in what were the “residential treatment centers” of their time (a time that lasted well into the 20th Century) and in doing anything about it.