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.