Sunday, October 31, 2021

#CASAsoWhite: Our annual Halloween reminder to CASA: No, it’s not a good idea to raise money by holding a talent show with a blackface act. (And yes, one CASA chapter actually did that.)

We suggest that the National office for the Court-Appointed Special Advocates program use this item from The Daily Show as a training video

In 2018, responding to former Today Show anchor Megyn Kelly’s appalling attempt to justify blackface, (for which she has apologized) her colleague Craig Melvin noted that, as a CNN story put it, “this controversy is an opportunity to inform people — but said most people already knew how offensive blackface is.”

Most people, but apparently not one chapter of that most sacred cow in child welfare Court-Appointed Special Advocates.  Oh, they’ve learned in the years since they included a blackface act in a fundraiser, especially since they apparently eventually apologized – but that is just one example of the racial bias that plagues CASA.  And that, of course, raises fundamental questions about the role of CASA in deciding the fate of children who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately children of color.  Even more questions are raised by the latest study of CASA's effectiveness. And there's much more about CASA in NCCPR's presentation at the 2021 Kempe Center conference.

So every Halloween, I plan to reprint this post from 2017:  

This Halloween, The Daily Show offers a useful history lesson: The topic, why it’s a really bad idea for white people to dress up in blackface:





But the lesson isn’t just useful for Halloween. It’s also something that anyone involved with that most sacred cow of child welfare – Court-Appointed Special Advocates -- needs to know.

CASA is a program in which minimally trained volunteers, overwhelmingly white and middle-class, are assigned to families who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite. Then they tell judges if the children should be taken from those families, sometimes forever.   That, of course, raises problems of inherent bias.  But some CASA chapters have made their biases depressingly obvious.

Consider what happened nine years ago in Arkansas City, Kansas. To raise funds for the local CASA chapter, they held a talent competition. The winning act featured the mayor of Arkansas City – dressed in blackface.  The head of the local CASA chapter couldn’t understand why that was a problem.   "It wasn't black black," she said. "It was all really just tan." That’s only the beginning. All the awful details are here.

It would be one thing if this were just an isolated example of racial bias. But it’s not.

● There was the CASA chapter in Marin County, California, which fell apart when the state CASA association merely asked that they strive for more diversity among the volunteers.

● There was the appalling racist rant by someone who says he volunteered in a scandal-plagued Washington State CASA program for 20 years.

● There’s the fact that the most comprehensive study ever done of CASA, a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, found that CASA volunteers spend significantly less time on a case if the child to whom they are assigned is Black.

● And then there’s the question of whether the very structure of CASA makes it, in the words of a law review article, “an exercise of white supremacy.”

Showing the Daily Show video won’t solve all these problems; not even close. But it might help prevent the worst excesses of racial bias in CASA programs.

Originally published, Oct. 30, 2017

Friday, October 29, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending October 27, 2021

 ● Remember when KING-TV in Seattle revealed how the state family policing agency was using techniques described by international human rights organizations as torture to coerce youth into accepting placements in their cruddy group homes and institutions?  The state could have responding by not taking away so many children so the children who really must be in foster care would have placements that are not cruddy. 

But anybody who knows the track record of  Ross Hunter, who runs the Washington State family policing agency, knows that’s not likely to happen on his watch.  Instead, KING-TV reports in a follow-up story, the state is going to try to get the courts to force children into these cruddy placements. 

One foster youth who turned down such placements told KING: 

she frequently refused placements that were hours away from her hometown and her school. But she also turned down placements when she had concerns about her well-being or safety, including one home where she said she was inappropriately touched by a foster parent 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,” she said. 

● Last week, I noted that  THE CITY reported on a fight in the New York City Council over whether the city’s family policing agency will continue to be able to run roughshod over families by refusing to tell them about the few rights they have when a caseworker turns up at the door.  Now the Daily News and The Imprint have stories about it.  

The New York Times ignored the story. They were too busy elsewhere. I have a blog post about it. 

● You can bet the Times story will be used to try to expand the city’s “predictive analytics” family policing algorithm.  There’s going to be a forum about that in early November.  I have a blog post about the disturbing track record of a star panelist. 

Vice News has a story about the destruction of indigenous families in Canada. Based on earlier reporting from CBC News, the Vice story perfectly sums up the entire family policing system in a single paragraph: 

In Newfoundland and Labrador, one Indigenous father told CBC News about a time when a social worker, accompanied by a police officer, barged into his house and announced his kids were being taken away. "Shut up," yelled the social worker. "I can do it because I can." 

● All over America, high-quality interdisciplinary family defense organizations are, at last, saying “No, you can’t.” Family police agencies and judges don’t like that.  That’s the real reason why, as The Imprint reports, one such organization, in Alameda County, California, just lost its contract. 

Carolina Public Press reports that the former director of a county family policing agency in North Carolina has pled guilty to a felony charge in connection with the the county’s hidden foster care scandal.  That still begs the question: Why is this horrendous practice legal in every other state? 

● Filter Magazine has an essay by Caitlin Becker, managing director of social work at The Bronx Defenders on why “We Social Workers Should Remember Our Values and Stop Policing.”  She writes: 

Social workers are supposed to challenge injustice, pursue social change, and value the dignity and worth of the people we serve. Our field is intended to support people and connect them with real assistance, not to partner with those who threaten their freedom and their lives. 

Prof. Shanta Trivedi, writing in Ms., notes that there was plenty of outrage when we found out the level of surveillance and control Jamie Spears was allowed to exercise over his daughter, Britney.  But, she writes, what impoverished families endure routinely at the hands of the family policing system is “Jamie Spears on steroids.” 

● And finally, each week I’m going to try to highlight one article from the Columbia Journal of Race and Law issue that published papers from the Strengthened Bonds conference. 

This week, from “Toward Community Control of Child Welfare Funding: Repeal the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and Delink Child Protection from Family Well-Being” by Angela Olivia Burton and Angeline Montauban:  

By  defining “child abuse and neglect” as a singular phenomenon, lawmakers knowingly created a false equivalence between  intentional  physical harm  to  children by their  parents and conditions of poverty, effectively transforming child poverty from a social, economic, and racial justice issue into a problem of individual parental pathology and deviant behavior. Conflating abuse  and  poverty-framed-as-neglect  allowed  policymakers  to avoid  addressing  deeply  entrenched  structural, economic, and racial inequities affecting children’s wellbeing.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

If there’s another foster-care panic in NYC, it’s on The New York Times

Once again, the newspaper proclaims a “series” of child abuse deaths - and appears to endorse get-tough 'solutions' - even though the rate of such deaths remains unchanged

 


            Back in late 2005, a reporter for The New York Times at the time, Leslie Kaufman, started writing stories claiming that there had been a “series” of deaths of New York City children “known to the system.”  She linked the supposed “series” or “string” of deaths to efforts to keep families together.  So the public was primed to scapegoat family preservation when Nixzmary Brown died in January, 2006 – leading to a foster-care panic, a sharp sudden increase in the number of children torn from everyone they know and love and consigned to the chaos of foster care. 

The panic was welcomed by the Times.  A headline on a 2006 story by Kaufman said that the new get-tough approach “Suggests a System Poised to Work.” 

            Wrote Kaufman: 

They liken it to the "broken windows" approach to fighting crime: stop criminals when they commit minor acts of vandalism, and they will never graduate to more serious offenses. 

            But there was no series of deaths. The rate of such deaths in 2005 was about the same as previous years.  Several happened to occur in closer succession than usual.  Either that or, for whatever reason, reporters were paying more attention.  

            When confronted about her false claim, Kaufman replied: “It was a series – but not statistically.” 

            The consequences of claiming a “series” where none existed “statistically,” and then scapegoating family preservation were horrendous for children.  The number of children torn from their homes over the course of a year surged 20% in two years.  And with so many more false reports and needless removals flooding the system, deaths of children “known to the system” increased.  One consequence -- the fanaticism with which schools persecute families by rushing to call the city’s family policing agency, the Administration for Children’s Services continues to this day.           


          But fortunately, as the rest of society has become more aware of the biases that permeate all forms of policing, including family policing, the Times has learned and now is much more  -- Nope.  Just kidding.  They’re at it again, almost word-for-word. 


This is from Tuesday’s Times story, recounting the horrifying recent deaths of children “known to the system.” 

Their deaths were among a string of fatalities involving children who were the subject of warnings to child welfare authorities or the police in New York City. While the number of homicides of children in the city this year is close to that of recent years, the series of killings … 

And waaaay down at the bottom: 

There have been 13 homicides against children under the age of 11 so far this year in New York City, just below the full-year average in recent years of about 15. … [Emphasis added.]
           These are what is known among journalists as “to-be-sure grafs” as in “To be sure, not everyone agrees with the thesis of our story, [insert token quote or statistic here] but, [return to the reporters’ thesis]…”  The Times story is sprinkled with other “to-be-sure grafs” like a token quote from a caseworker union leader and someone from ACS. 

But then, in a paragraph making it more likely that readers ignore all that and stay focused on the series-of-deaths-so-we’d-better-crack-down thesis, the reporters quickly add: 

Statistics, though, offer no comfort to loved ones mourning children whose lives ended in unimaginable terror and pain.

So, you see, it was a series, but not statistically.  And you should pay no attention to what mere data tell us when we’ve worked you into a frenzy about unimaginable terror and pain. 

This was not the first such story.  In August, two of the same three reporters did something similar (no, I’m not going to link to it).  And more than a year ago, the Times jumped on the fearmongering bandwagon about how the absence of mandated reporters constantly keeping watch over overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite children during COVID lockdowns would lead to a pandemic of child abuse.  It didn’t.  

But while statistics do not offer comfort to loved ones or anyone else contemplating the worst horrors inflicted on children, they do offer clues to which public policies work to reduce such horrors and which ones will backfire.  That’s why they should be at the center of any story about a supposed “series” or “string” (or, if you’re writing for a tabloid “spate”) of anything, not consigned to the to-be-sure grafs. 

So here are some data the Times story ignored. 

When it comes to homicide deaths of children previously “known to the system” that number has remained roughly the same every year from 2008 through 2019, the most recent for which I could find numbers.  In fact, the 2019 figure actually is down 30 percent from 2008, but that appears to be because the 2008 figure was unusually high. 

Here are some more data the Times ignored: 

            ● This current alleged “series” of deaths occurred at a time when New York City has about 7,600 children in foster care.        

● The series-but-not-statistically that Leslie Kaufman kept writing about took place when there were 19,000 children in foster care.   

● And when Elisa Izquierdo died in 1995, setting off the same calls to investigate more families and take away more children, New York City had more than 43,000 children in foster care.  

This does not suggest that more “broken windows policing” is the answer. 

            The reason it never works requires looking at more of those pesky data – and admittedly we’re in back-of-the-envelope territory here.  But every year ACS investigates reports of child abuse involving roughly 56,000 children (not including duplicate reports).  A death is considered “known to the system” if the child who died was the subject of even one such report in the previous ten years.  That means, on average, somewhere among, say 280,000 different children seen by investigators over ten years* there were 11 who were victims of child homicide in 2019. 

            In other words, in any given year, 0.004 percent of children – at most - who were “known to the system” in any form over ten years are homicide victims.  

            Here’s how that looks in a pie chart – and even that makes those 11 out of 280,000 easier to spot than in real life,  because the 11 are all in one place.  



            Also, it’s a hell of a lot harder to find that 0.004 percent when you’re an overwhelmed ACS worker always rushing on to the next case – almost all of which are false reports.  No matter how clear it looks to reporters with time to sift through all the documents, these still are needles in a haystack. 
 

Every time a politician – or a newspaper – sets off a foster-care panic, and every time some new “broken windows policing” protocol is instituted, the haystack gets bigger and the needles get harder to find. 

Later, I’ll get to the specific get-tough protocols for which the Times is taking credit (according to the story the changes come “in response to questions from The New York Times about the missteps…”).  But even worse than any specific measure is the general message: that if we just crack down hard enough, invade the homes of enough families and tear away enough children, child abuse deaths will stop. 

That’s implied when the Times regurgitates the Big Lie of American child welfare: the claim that keeping children safe and families together are at odds.  Or, as the Times put it: 

The child welfare agency, which has stepped up efforts in recent years to keep families together rather than send children to foster care, is under competing pressures: It spends much of its limited resources investigating maltreatment reports, often filed by estranged partners, which can lead to the unnecessary removal of a child from a home, according to lawyers for parents in the system. But if the agency plays down an abuse report, it risks leaving a child in harm’s way. 

            There’s so much wrong there it’s hard to know where to begin.  But let’s start with the bizarre emphasis on reports from estranged partners – a framing seemingly designed to trivialize the problem of false reports.  Yes, such malicious reports are part of the problem, but far bigger are malicious reports from schools.  Bigger still are CYA reports from various “mandated reporters.”  Probably biggest of all are well-intentioned false reports, often confusing poverty with “neglect” called in by people persuaded by a barrage of publicity and horror stories to report anything and everything. 

            The Times has every reason to know this.  Under previous metro editors, they produced one of the best stories ever written on the nature and scope of the problem – and the enormous harm of what the headline termed “The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow.’”  But if you want to minimize the enormous trauma inflicted on children by needless investigation and foster care and how often it happens, if you want to minimize the fact that overreporting and overreliance on the broken windows policing approach actually put children in harm’s way, you don’t remind people of that story. 

            If the Times reporters wanted something more recent, they could have attended the New York State Assembly public hearing last week in which, for hour after hour, families and family defenders testified about children traumatized by needless investigations, stripsearches and foster care.  The online news site The City thought the issues involved were newsworthy.  So did the Daily News. So did The Imprint. The Times did not. 

            Then there’s the implication that somehow this series of deaths – which, remember, is a series, but not statistically – is somehow related to “stepped up efforts in recent years to keep families together.” 

            As we’ve seen, the data show otherwise, which is why, if you want to push this theory, you have to deemphasize the data. 

            In fact, not only are these not competing pressures they are complimentary. The more you keep the false reports, the trivial cases and the poverty cases out of the system, the more time you have to try to find those needles in that giant haystack. 

But the Times denies readers that perspective – it doesn’t even make it into the “to be sure grafs.”  Instead, we hear about all the new “broken windows policing”-type measures, the city’s family police and other agencies are planning. 

Among the worst: “requiring home visits by the police in suspected abuse cases when someone in the family has a domestic violence history.”  Domestic violence victims already often are terrified of coming forward precisely because they fear, with good reason, that they will be charged with “failure to protect” for “allowing” their children to see them being beaten.  This does so much harm to children that removing them for this reason is illegal in New York – but that hasn’t ended the practice.  This new broken windows-style measure will only further scare domestic violence victims and give their abusers more power. 

The Times reporters might have found this out, had they spoken to any families who have endured this trauma, or, say, reached out to the network of lawyers who represent families in such cases. But either none of the three reporters who worked on the story bothered to make such a call – or they did, and ignored what they heard.  

The police also are pledging to “make more unannounced visits before closing cases and … if a child misses a medical appointment, that will also trigger a home visit.” 

But all over New York City, there are children who remain traumatized years after-the-fact by just such visits; children who dive under a bed when there’s a knock at the door because it might be the cops or ACS coming to interrogate them again, stripsearch them again, or take them away again.  And, by the way, there are all sorts of good reasons why a poor person, especially one required to jump through all sorts of pointless hoops imposed by ACS, might not manage to make it to every doctor’s appointment. 



            Imagine for a moment that the Times had declared there had been a “series” of murders of adults – even though the actual murder rate had remained unchanged – then pressured the police department, which responded by announcing it would dramatically increase stop-and-frisk policing. Would the Times have published that without so much as seeking a response?  Would the Times have bragged that the increased used of stop-and-frisk was “in response to questions from The New York Times”? 

Speaking of stripsearching, there also was this: 

The officials acknowledged a paradox at the heart of some cases: Their decision to seek a physical exam, which could turn up signs of abuse, is often based on how bad a child’s injuries look; but some injuries, like bleeding on the brain or soft tissue damage, can be invisible. 

Agency officials also noted that a medical exam typically requires a guardian’s consent; while a judge can order one, many judges will not if the child has no visible serious injuries, they said. 

What?  You mean judges are actually reluctant to expose children to the trauma of being stripsearched, poked and prodded by a total stranger when there is no evidence the child was injured?  What could they be thinking! 

Of course, the Times’ journalists’ middle-class status makes it extremely unlikely that anything like that could happen to their children. 

            The story also reports on how Safe Horizon, which runs “child advocacy centers” where those stripsearches often take place, is going to become even more vigilant.  If you want to see why that’s a problem, check out this Mother Jones story, and the role Safe Horizon played in bringing down misery and trauma upon the family at the center of it – a family in which the mother was a domestic violence victim. 

At no point was anyone who might dissent from these phony solutions included in the stories.  No former foster youth who remember the terror of those police knocks on the door, the stirpsearches and the foster care.  No family defense attorneys who might raise the issue of whether this approach only further inundates the system with false allegations trivial cases and poverty-confused-with-neglect cases – making it less likely those needles in the haystack will be found.  Again, this is like doing a story on stop-and-frisk and leaving out Black Lives Matter. 

The price of panic 

            But even if no city agency caved to the Times and promised to take some specific broken windows policing-type action, odds are the damage has been done.  Stories like this one, especially when there is more than one (now that there have been three at the Times you might almost call it a “series”) almost always set off foster-care panics.  Terrified of being on the front page of the Times (It used to be the Daily News, but the roles seem to be reversing) workers rush to tear apart more families and judges become more prone to rubber-stamp such decisions. 

           


Even if removals themselves don’t skyrocket, cases of oppressive family surveillance probably will.  While ACS likes to brag about its reduction in the number of children in foster care, there’s been an almost equal increase in families forced to jump through all sorts of hoops and face all sorts of intense surveillance even when the child remains at home. (And, as we’ve seen, “in response to questions from The New York Times” both the family police and the regular police are pledging to do even more of that.) 
 

Don’t overlook the weird, reluctant de-facto retraction at the end 

Down in the to-be-sure grafs at the very end of the story, right in between the one acknowledging the data and the one effectively suggesting we ignore those data, there is this: 

Some experts feared abuse would fester behind closed doors among families stuck in isolation after lockdown began last year, but [ACS Commissioner David] Hansell said this spring that there had been no signs of a spike. 

            So, more than a year after sewing fears that encouraged anyone and everyone to spy on impoverished families and turn them in to the family police because, after all, they were bound to be abusing their children, the Times publishes what amounts to a retraction – in the 39th paragraph of a 42-paragraph story that revives the fearmongering in another form. 

Bring on the straw man 

            There’s a depressingly standard hyper-defensive response to any criticism of badly-reported stories about child abuse deaths. Generally it’s some version of “Oh, so you don’t want us to report it when children die!  You don’t care if children are brutalized because all you care about are ‘parents rights’”! 

            I could as easily say that The New York Times doesn’t care if children die when the deaths occur at evenly-spaced intervals – since such deaths get far less attention under those circumstances. 

            More important, it’s a lie.  A lot of us want more coverage of child abuse deaths – with all the context the Times either left out or played down.  We’d like stories in which data are not brushed aside when they don’t fit the reporters’ master narrative. 

Because that kind of coverage would show that keeping families together is not antithetical to child safety; on the contrary, you can’t have child safety without family preservation.  Such coverage might finally lead us toward discussing what would give us a better chance of reducing the number of such deaths: things like abolishing mandatory reporting laws, which flood the system with false allegations and drive families and, again, especially victims of domestic violence, away from seeking help.  Things like bolstering the city’s network of high-quality family defense by getting family defenders involved the moment ACS starts investigating a case – no, not to get “bad parents” off, but to divert the vast numbers of cases that are nothing like the horror stories into better alternatives.  In addition to sparing children enormous trauma, that also would let ACS workers can move on to that next case that just might be one of this year’s 11 out of 280,000. 

You could also try consulting actual statisticians on what, if anything, can be concluded by rates of child abuse homicides.  (But then as one of my worst editors said, when I was a reporter and did that concerning some crime statistics: “You just reported us out of a great story.”) 

            And no, you can’t just include these perspectives once, as the Times did with that “Jane Crow” story.  Because not only among the general public but also reporters and editors, memories are short. 

            *- The 280,000 figure is a conservative estimate.  The total number of children in investigations over ten years is more like 560,000, but we can’t say 560,000 since over ten years, some families will come up several times.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

UPDATED: Another child welfare scholar with an agenda

 

The co-designer of Pittsburgh's notorious "scarlet number" predictive analytics
algorithm has some ideas that are even worse.

The same scholar who claims predictive analytics in child welfare isn’t biased also signs on to an extremist agenda calling for an automatic, mandatory extra level of family police surveillance of thousands of impoverished families.  They are disproportionately nonwhite families who have not so much as been accused of abuse or neglect.     

She also misunderstands abolition, mocks the words of a Black child welfare activist and doubled-down on the mockery after this post first was published.

Yet somehow, she’s been invited to speak on predictive analytics in New York City “child welfare” in November, but one of the foremost critics of that effort has not. [UPDATE, OCT. 30: After this post was published, she was added to the panel.]


Emily Putnam-Hornstein is probably America’s foremost proponent of using “predictive analytics” in child welfare – that is, mining vast quantities of data surrendered disproportionately by poor people and people of color and using it, without their informed consent, to determine if they are supposedly likely to be child abusers. 

Putnam-Hornstein co-designed the Allegheny Family Screening Tool, which stamps a risk score on every “neglect” case screened by the county’s child protective hotline, and the even more Orwellian – in both name and substance – “Hello, Baby,” which seeks to stamp the same sort of invisible “scarlet number” on every child in the county – at birth. 

Putnam-Hornstein says she is, in effect, just someone who just goes where the data lead.  She combines this with rhetoric about how her efforts are just ways to bolster prevention – and I think, in her own mind, she believes it. 

But every once in awhile we see something else: an ugly, extremist agenda. 

Earlier this year, Hornstein co-authored or “co-signed” (it’s described both ways on different pages), a paper with several of the most extreme proponents of tearing apart more families and/or denying that child welfare has a racism problem.  

The group was pulled together by Naomi Schaefer Riley of the American Enterprise Institute, someone who proudly compares her book attacking family preservation to the work of Charles Murray. Riley was kicked off a blog run by the Chronicle of Higher Education after one of her columns was widely condemned as racist.  More about her here.  

Other co-authors/co-signers include Elizabeth Bartholet, leader of child welfare’s “caucus of denial” – the group that says child welfare is magically immune from racial bias, Cassie Statuto Bevan, who co-authored the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act – and maintains the law didn’t do enough to tear apart families, and Penn State Professor Sarah Font who, in a now-deleted tweet (thank you Wayback Machine) declares that an alleged failure to prioritize children’s health, safety or existing relationships is a “feature” of the Indian Child Welfare Act.  She neglects to mention that a feature of Indian child welfare before ICWA was, uh, genocide.  

Prof. Font, the undisputed lead author of the paper, also is the lead author of the paper discussed here which includes a graphic in which everyone accused of child abuse and neglect is labeled a perpetrator – even after they’re exonerated. 


Of course, working with people who differ with you ideologically and finding common ground can be entirely reasonable.  I come at this from the political Left.  I’m glad to work with like-minded conservatives with whom I disagree on almost every issue except child welfare.  But Putnam-Hornstein authored/signed a document that is as extremist as you would expect from the authors.  It’s what they all agree on about child welfare itself that’s the problem. 

Consider this recommendation: 

…reauthorization appointments for public benefits provided to children who are not attending school and have not been recently seen by a medical professional could require (in-person) verification of the children’s well-being. [Parentheses in original.] 

Putnam-Hornstein and her coauthors make clear exactly who they are targeting: 

Children in poverty are estimated to experience maltreatment at a rate five times that of other children, and the overwhelming majority of impoverished children receive at least one public benefit. 

Well, yes. If laws effectively define poverty itself as neglect, and they do, then of course more poor children will be “estimated to experience maltreatment.” 

This also, of course, is a form of racial profiling, since nonwhite children are proportionately more likely to be poor and, therefore, proportionately more likely to apply for “public benefits.”  As for the whole surveillance-state problem, don’t worry, say Putnan-Hornstein & Co.: 

Although concerns that [child welfare services] already entails “state surveillance” of poor and minority families make such proposals controversial, there is historical precedent for requiring home visits as a condition of receiving public assistance. 

Once again, well, yes. There also is historical precedent for things like “whites only” signs at lunch counters bus terminals and other public accommodations. That doesn’t make them a good idea.  And when it comes to “home visits as a condition of receiving public assistance” the first “precedent” I could think of was blatantly racist. 

In short, the document Putnam-Hornstein authored/signed calls for requiring every impoverished family in America whose children have not been seen lately by a “mandated reporter” of child abuse to produce the children for a child abuse inspection in order to, say, quality for TANF benefits or SNAP benefits.  These child abuse inspections would be triggered by nothing except the fact that the family is poor. 

The selling of the algorithms 

All this is on top of the track record of Putnam-Hornstein and her allies when it comes to selling the predictive analytics model in Pittsburgh. 

● There’s the so-called independent ethics review of the first Allegheny County algorithm –done by a faculty colleague who wrote papers with Putnam-Hornstein’s co-designer of that very algorithm. 

● There was the county’s reassurance that the “Hello Baby” algorithm wouldn’t be biased because it doesn’t use databases that involve exclusively poor people.  (Unless, that is, you count juvenile justice system involvement and homelessness databases which are, de facto, limited almost exclusively to poor people.) 

● There’s the claim that “Hello Baby” is purely voluntary – except that you’re in it unless you remember to take advantage of just one opportunity to opt out. 

Misrepresenting abolition 

Then there’s the matter of how Putnam-Hornstein concluded one of her presentations promoting predictive analytics, dismissing the work of Black scholars and Black activists. 

In her concluding slide, she writes: “We are not going to ‘abolish’ the child protection system. And calling people ‘mandatory supporters’ is not a policy change.” She then reprints something she’d apparently said previously: “…the best abolitionists can come up with is ‘expand your role as a helper’ and ‘what are you going to do today to build another conversation’. Seriously?” 

No, calling people mandatory supporters is not a policy change.  But abolishing mandatory reporting, a demonstrably failed approach that endangers children, and providing the tools to allow teachers, doctors and others who now have to call the family police to instead give families actual help – i.e. supportis a policy change – and a damn smart one, well-summarized by one the field’s best activists, Joyce McMillan. She first coined the phrase “turn mandated reporters into mandated supporters.” 

That’s what the phrase means. I’m surprised Putnam-Hornstein, who holds a named professorship at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, didn’t seem to know it.

UPDATE, NOV. 6, 2021: In an email shortly after this post was published Putnam-Hornstein doubled down on her statement, writing:

I definitely don’t feel badly for finding “mandatory supporters” a totally laughable concept and language. Frankly, I would have thought you would also get why that is absurd and would be a bit more intellectually honest about that. That is not how the system is designed. 

 No, it's not how the system is designed, Prof. Putnam-Hornstein.  That's why there's an abolition movement.

As for abolition, it’s a new concept, and different people who use the term may mean different things by it.  But you don’t have to agree with all of it or any of it to know that there is already a wealth of information about specific abolitionist alternatives – and even a real world example -  that goes well beyond the demeaning summary Putnam-Hornstein offered.  

Nor should abolitionists be required to have immediately at-the-ready a some kind of 75-point master plan for exactly how to get rid of the current family policing system in order to be treated with respect instead of ridiculed. 

There also are abolitionist critiques specific to predictive analytics.  While J. Khadijah Abdurahman’s critique was just published, Prof. Dorothy Roberts’ critique was published well before Putnam-Hornstein offered up her demeaning caricature of the abolitionist perspective. 

And yet, somehow, next month when two academic institutions stage an online “examination” of predictive analytics in child welfare, with a special focus on New York City, Putnam-Hornstein will be there to give another sales pitch.  (After all, she’s a member of the city family policing agency’s "Predictive Analytics Advisory Group.”) And though some excellent critics from the American Civil Liberties Union are included, Abdurahman, whose critique is centered on New York City, is not.  [UPDATE: She is now!]

One more thing about the whole abolition debate: All of the alternatives proposed by abolitionists beat stamping a “scarlet number” risk score on every child at birth and forcing poor families to produce their children for inspection before receiving public benefits. 

Seriously.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending October 20, 2021

● We begin with, I kid you not, the table of contents from a law journal – specifically the issue of the Columbia Journal of Race and Law featuring papers presented at the Strengthened Bonds conference.  The full issue is here.  Here’s what you’ll find in it:

 PREFATORY MATERIAL

Editor’s Note—Growth in Unprecedented Times, Nicolás Quaid Galván 

Foreword—Strengthened Bonds: Abolishing the Child Welfare System and Re-Envisioning Child Well Being, Nancy D. Polikoff & Jane M. Spinak 

KEYNOTE ADDRESS: How I Became a Family Policing Abolitionist,  Dorothy Roberts 

ARTICLES 

Political-Economic Roots of Coercion—Slavery, Neoliberalism, and the Racial Family Policy Logic of Child and Social Welfare, Gwendoline M. Alphonso 

The Surveillance Tentacles of the Child Welfare SystemCharlotte Baughman, Tehra Coles, Jennifer Feinberg & Hope Newton 

Abolition, Settler Colonialism, and the Persistent Threat of Indian Child Welfare, Theresa Rocha Beardall & Frank Edwards 

Reimagining Schools’ Role Outside the Family Regulation System, Brianna Harvey, Josh Gupta-Kagan & Christopher Church 

Twentieth Century Black and Native Activism Against the Child Taking System: Lessons for the Present, Laura Briggs 

Toward Community Control of Child Welfare Funding: Repeal the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and Delink Child Protection from Family Well-Being, Angela Olivia Burton & Angeline Montauban 

Using Peacemaking Circles to Indigenize Tribal Child Welfare, Lauren van Schilfgaarde & Brett Lee Shelton 

How Racial Politics Led Directly to the Enactment of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997—The Worst Law Affecting Families Ever Enacted by Congress. Martin Guggenheim 

Mutual Deference Between Hospitals and Courts: How Mandated Reporting from Medical Providers Harms Families, Clara Presler 

The White Supremacy Hydra: How the Family First Prevention Service Act Reifies Pathology, Control, and Punishment in the Family Regulation System, Miriam Mack 

Assimilation, Removal, Discipline, and Confinement: Native Girls and Government Intervention, Addie C. Rolnick. 

Ending the Family Death Penalty and Building a World We Deserve Ashley Albert, Tiheba Bain, Elizabeth Brico, Bishop Marcia Dinkins, Kelis Houston, Joyce McMillan, VonyaQuarles, Lisa Sangoi, Erin Miles Cloud, and Adina Marx-Arpadi 

And see also from the Journal’s Forum: 

Calculating the Souls of Black Folk, Predictive Analytics in the New York City Administration for Children's Services. J. Khadijah Abdurahman

In other news:

● This really should be obvious: If you don’t know your rights then you don’t really have those rights.  New York City’s family policing agency, the Administration for Children’s Services,  desperately wants to keep it that way.  Because then ACS can keep right on barging into homes in the middle of the night, ordering that the children be awakened, questioned about the most intimate details of their lives and stripsearched – or maybe worse – without families having any idea that they can fight back.  THE CITY reports on a fight in the New York City Council over whether ACS will continue to be able to run roughshod over families. 

● Last month, two online news sites published more than 10,000 words about foster care in West Virginia.  Not one of those words came from a birth parent.  I have a blog post about why that’s a problem, and why so much of the journalism of child welfare has failed. 

● OK, I never expected to write this sentence: Paris Hilton has an op-ed in The Washington Post. It’s about the abuse of children who are institutionalized.  In her case, she was forced into an abusive institution by her own parents.  But, as she points out: 

An estimated 120,000 young people are housed in congregate-care facilities at any given time across the country, many of them placed through the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Hilton also took part in a webinar with other survivors, led by Think of Us and Breaking Code Silence.  And because she took part, Sixto Cancel of Think of Us said, people are paying a lot more attention than when the other survivors were speaking out on their own. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

How the journalism of child welfare fails

Two online news sites published more than 10,000 words about foster care in West Virginia.  Not one of those words came from a birth parent.



             Imagine for a moment that you are a reporter assigned to write a multi-part in-depth series on the criminal justice system.  Now, try to imagine submitting a three-part series of more than 10,000 words filled with the comments of judges, prosecutors, police officers and prison guards – but not one word from someone accused of a crime, or even from a defense lawyer.

             Hard to imagine, especially now, isn’t it?  Yet the equivalent happens, over and over and over, when the topic is foster care.  Because, consciously or not, while reporters may not believe all parents caught up in the system are evil – indeed they will rush to say: “No, no, we wrote an entire story about ‘prevention!’” they write as if they believe any parent whose child "had to be" taken away must be sick, sick sick!  Therefore, they are too subhuman to have their perspective shared with readers.

             No wonder.  Most reporters and, especially, their editors, are white and middle class.  Most foster parents are disproportionately white and overwhelmingly middle class.  Most caseworkers are disproportionately white and overwhelmingly middle-class. Parents who lose their children to foster care, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite. 

           


 
Reporters can identify with foster parents – they probably know some, or at least have friends who do – or if not that, then they may have friends who adopted a foster child. Reporters can identify with caseworkers - college-educated underpaid hardworking white-collar professionals, just like them.  Few journalists have any personal friends whose children have been forced to endure the trauma of needless foster care. 

            So birth parents become, at best, nonentities, at worst those awful people their foster or adoptive parent friends told them about.  So they’re unworthy of inclusion, unworthy of being heard.  That winds up doing enormous damage to children. 

           When I was starting out as a reporter, 45 years ago, I made all of the mistakes I criticize now.  But after all this time, journalism should have learned to do better.  Some journalists have; most have not. 

            The result is stories that, despite months of hard work by earnest, well-meaning reporters are filled with stereotypes and misconceptions that only make it harder to fix serious and real problems. 

            Case in point: The three-part series about West Virginia foster care published in September by Mountain State Spotlight and The GroundTruth Project, which also created Report for America.  The reporters for these stories are current and former Report for America Fellows. I single these stories out not because they are exceptionally awful - there’s far worse out there - but precisely because they are so typical of the journalism of child welfare. (For that same reason, though anyone can click on the link, I’m not naming the reporters; it’s their editors who should have asked more questions.) 

            Another reason to look closely at these stories: The flaws should be even more obvious when the state in question is West Virginia.  

            That’s because, when it comes to tearing apart families, West Virginia is among the most extreme outliers in America.  This is mentioned once, in passing, in the stories, and accorded no significance other than to illustrate a supposed need for more foster parents. 

In 2019, before COVID, even when factoring in rates of child poverty, West Virginia tore apart families at the third highest rate in America, a rate well over double the national average.  When you look at the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day, West Virginia is the fourth worst in America; again, that's even when factoring in rates of child poverty. 

Yeah, I know: Opioids.  The stories blithely attribute West Virginia’s high rate of removal to the fact that “More than half entered the system because of a parent’s substance abuse.”  That’s not correct. More than half entered the system because a worker checked the “substance abuse” box on a form; that is not necessarily the same thing.  Also: 

● While opioids made it worse, West Virginia was a family destruction outlier even before the opioid crisis.  

● It also assumes that the only solution when, say, a parent’s legal prescription for Oxycontin leads to addiction is to take away the children - as opposed to, say, drug treatment, something discussed in detail here.  

●Other states with severe opioid problems, such as Ohio, take away children at a rate that, while still too high, is far lower than the rate in West Virginia. 

The reporters either never spoke to – or ignored – all those families whose children were taken where opioids were not an issue - including all those victims of false allegations or cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect.  (Unless, of course, one believes that happens only in the other 49 states.) 

            Thus, one story discusses how West Virginia institutionalizes far too many children and sends many of them out of state.  The story reveals case after case in which these institutionalized children were abused.  But that is a story one West Virginia news organization or another has done every few years for decades.  And they all make the same mistake as the most recent stories: The problem is said to be due to a “shortage of foster parents.”  So there’s supposedly a desperate need for more people like someone I’ll call Saintly Foster Mom, a standard trope in these stories, who I’ll talk more about later. 

           
But the shortage of foster parents in West Virginia is artificial.  If opioid-plagued West Virginia cut the rate at which it tears apart families to the rate in opioid-plagued Ohio, half the children in West Virginia foster care wouldn’t be there.  “Shortage” solved.
 

            But because this point of view is entirely absent, this expose of horrible out-of-state placements of Vest Virginia foster children is likely to have the same substantive effect as all the other exposes of horrible out-of-state placements of West Virginia foster children: None. 

            Of there’ll be the usual expressions of shock and outrage, maybe legislative hearings, and perhaps some more money thrown at the state family policing agency, the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) to hire more caseworkers to take even more children.  All of that will give the news organizations something to write on journalism awards entry forms where they ask “What did the stories accomplish?”  

But it won’t accomplish anything for the kids.  Because by refusing to meaningfully consider wrongful removal, the series effectively lets DHHR off the hook.  The agency can keep right on coming back with the same old excuse: We have to do this, there’s a shortage of foster parents, you know. 

            That’s what happens when you limit your source base almost entirely to people who are part of the very system that has failed: The sources consist largely of people who now or in the past kept the West Virginia child removal machine running at full speed: current and former caseworkers for an assortment of “providers” or current or former high ranking officials of those “providers,” with the occasional politician expressing outrage thrown in. So of course the answer to everything is going to be some version of give us providers more money so we can rescue children – and, maybe while we’re at it, make those sick, sick, sick parents better. 

            The propaganda even affects the children themselves.  To their credit, the reporters at least spoke to some foster youth.  Included was one, now 15,  who 

entered the state foster care system at 6 years old; by the time he was 8, his social worker was transporting him to group homes outside West Virginia. “I was too messed up for foster programs.” [he said.] 

           No eight-year-old is too “messed up” for a family, either his own or, when that’s genuinely unsafe, a foster family.  The key is providing the family whatever it takes through wraparound services.  Wraparound pioneer Karl Dennis explains it well in this video:

 


The 15-year-old has internalized propaganda from the industry that institutionalizes children – and the journalists failed to do enough to question it.  The closest they came was a quote from Marcia Lowry of A Better Childhood, who filed one of her typical McLawsuits against the state.  She at least disagreed with those who said the solution to sending children to out-of-state institutions is to build more in-state institutions.  But Lowry's lawsuits suffer from the same failing as the stories: they ignore the huge number of children needlessly taken from their homes in the first place. 

Indeed, the journalists are so accepting of conventional wisdom that at one point they write: 

 The path to reducing the number of foster kids leaving the state isn’t clear, especially as West Virginia continues to experience waves of children affected by poverty, the COVID-19 pandemic and the drug crisis. 

What does children affected by poverty have to do with the need for foster care? ( unless, of course, you think it’s a good idea to confuse poverty with “neglect”?)  What does COVID have to do with it?  (Unless you buy into the widely-debunked (and, by the way, racially-biased) claims that COVID lockdowns set off a “pandemic of child abuse”Even in the case of children orphaned by COVID, there usually are extended family members who can step in.)  As for the drug crisis, that was discussed above. 

No, there is a perfectly clear path to reducing the number of foster kids leaving the state – but both public officials and journalists in West Virginia have chosen to ignore it. 

But what about the “prevention” story? 

What do you mean ignored it? the journalists might reply. We devoted one entire story to “prevention” and how West Virginia starts prevention programs and then cuts funding for them! 

            Except that this is the traditional provider-centric model of prevention.  The story describes an assortment of programs built largely around what providers want to provide: counseling and parent education – because, remember, those parents may not be evil but they sure are sick!  And we providers want to be noble healers; we didn’t get college degrees just to do the grubby work of providing concrete help to families! 

In fact, a small number of parents are evil.  A small number are sick. So for some of the latter, some forms of counseling and/or parent education are helpful.  Where substance abuse really is a problem that is a real sickness for which family-based drug treatment is essential.  But a prevention strategy built around providing only the help that makes the helpers feel good is doomed to failure - as West Virginia keeps proving. 

Overwhelmingly, the problem that leads to family separation is poverty – and the solution is money.  It doesn’t have to be a lot of money.  One study after another has found that even small amounts of cash significantly reduce what child welfare systems label as “neglect.”  And when "counseling" for some mental health problem or other really is needed, providing cash allows the parent to go out and buy some, just the way middle-class people with "mental health issues" do. Yet this perspective is, again, entirely lacking in the stories.  

Even as these stories point out that West Virginia spends $300 to $1,500 per day per child on those out-of-state institutions, and $31 a day for foster families, at no point is the idea of simply providing some of this cash to birth families even mentioned.  The state that often will spend $600 per day to institutionalize a child out-of-state apparently won’t spend $600 per month for a rent subsidy so a child isn’t taken away because of lack of housing or for a childcare subsidy so a child isn’t taken on a “lack of supervision” charge.  But the reporters never take note of this. 

A birth parent might have mentioned it.  So might a birth parent’s lawyer – but, again, their voices are absent amidst those 10,000 words. 

Enter “Saintly Foster Mom” 

            No typical in-depth look at foster care would be complete without Saintly Foster Mom – the character who has sacrificed so much to rescue helpless children from those evil – sorry, sick – parents, and who could do so much more if only “the system” didn’t treat her so badly.  You’ll find her in story after story – here’s another classic example.  And because they are not powerful people (though they have more power than birth parents) and have the best of intentions, I’m not naming the one in the West Virginia story – even though in that one, the subtext is unusually close to the surface.  Here’s how it begins: 

For [the foster mother], becoming a foster parent felt like a calling as early as high school. 

She remembers the little girl in her mom’s pre-K classroom, crying and wearing tattered clothes. One time the child came in with a broken eardrum. Every time [the future foster mom] visited she seemed to possess an ability to calm her. 

She dreamed of becoming a foster mother. 

“I have always felt like I was supposed to help kids in the system,” she said. 

That doesn't sound like someone who gets the confusion of poverty with neglect. 

And later there’s this: 

On the wall of their younger foster daughter’s bedroom, the [foster parents] have a print of a tree with multi-colored thumbprints of all eight kids they have fostered since 2018 on the branches. The other side lists their names, the day they arrived and the day they left. 

“When I walk in here, I see all my kids,” [the foster mother] said. 

            Your kids?  

           


A birth parent whose children were wrongly taken might have pointed out that there is something wrong with a total stranger saying that someone else’s children are hers.  But we never hear from such a parent.  So no one suggests that a foster parent who declares someone else’s child to be hers might not be objective about whether that child ever needed to be taken and whether that child should be reunified.
 

           At another point, the reporters note that one of the foster children refers to the foster parents as “mom” and “dad.” The reporters seem to see this as one more indication of how wonderful the foster parent is. 

            And then there’s this from another foster parent, speaking of the two foster children she went on to adopt: 

Two of her foster children “have a whole new life because DHHR did their job the right way,” she said. But sometimes “DHHR has bad days, DHHR makes bad choices.” 

            The rest of the story is a litany of complaints by foster parents concerning ill-treatment by DHHR and an assortment of private agencies.  They’re the same complaints aired in hundreds of other stories – and, odds are, many of them are valid. 

            But, as I’ve noted often before, it almost never seems to occur to the foster parents that if this is how the family policing agency treats them – and the agency really needs them – imagine how they treat birth parents.  It didn’t seem to occur to the reporters, either.  Like Saintly Foster Mom, the reporters seem to view the birth parents as maybe salvageable but, if not, then they’re disposable.  But that attitude creates the very system that has done all the harm the reporters have exposed. 

            Like so many other stories, these seem to have been written by earnest journalists with good intentions.  The solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism.  On its website, The GroundTruth Project declares that “We take responsibility for all of our work. When we make a mistake, we own it.”  

            Please take ownership of this one.  Please go back and try again.