Sunday, November 28, 2021

Illinois “child welfare” sets a terrible record in 2020

The Illinois foster care panic may have ended 
in Chicago. But it's still tragically strong in 
other parts of the state.

The foster-care panic that started sweeping through the state in 2019 continued in 2020 – and in much of the state, 2021.  In some regions the number of families torn apart has more than doubled since 2017.

Guess what happened to child abuse deaths. 

When the federal government released its state-by-state figures on entries into foster care for Federal Fiscal Year 2020 there was good news in 47 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.  All of these places tore apart fewer families than they did in 2019.  In North Dakota entries were unchanged.  In Arkansas they increased by 1%. 

And then there was Illinois. 

At one time Illinois was, relatively speaking, a model for keeping children safely in their own homes.  Independent court monitors said so. 

But budget cuts already were undermining the progress when, in April, 2019, a high-profile child abuse death combined with dreadful leadership from state government started a foster care panic – much like the one that tore apart countless families in the 1990s.  I wrote about both panics in this 2019 post.  By September of 2019 entries into foster care already had skyrocketed by 17%.  And by September 2020, even as almost every other state saw a reduction in the number of children torn from their homes, in Illinois the number increased by 17% yet again. 


The number of Illinois children taken from their parents in 2020 is the highest since 1998.  For the first time in more than two decades, Illinois is tearing apart families at a rate
above the national average when rates of child poverty are factored in.

According to the state’s own data, statewide things got no better in 2021.  The total number of entries into foster care is almost identical to 2020.  But that hides vast differences among regions.  In Cook County (metropolitan Chicago) removals fell back to their pre-panic levels.  But in the Northern and Southern Regions of Illinois, they continue to skyrocket.  Entries in these regions have more than doubled since 2017. 

There probably are politicians who will try to spin this as something to celebrate – after all,  taking away vast numbers of children is bound to stop child abuse deaths, right?  Of course not.  That never happens.  Well, OK, maybe not stop them, but at least reduce the number a whole lot, right?  That never happens, either. 

The same state report makes clear that, on the contrary, during the first year of the panic, 2019, such deaths skyrocketed. The number fell back in 2020.  But in 2020, there still were six more such deaths than in 2018 – before the panic.  We don’t know the 2021 figure yet because the cause of death is undetermined in many cases – but it looks as though that figure will be similar. 

The reason this never works is something I explained in my earlier post about Illinois.  Child abuse deaths are as rare as they are tragic. They are needles in a haystack.  The blue circle is the “haystack” – the number of children who become known to the Illinois family policing agency, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), in any given year.  The red line are all the needles in one place (which actually makes them easier to spot).  Can you see it?  Look closely.

You’re never going to do a better job of finding the needles if you keep making the haystack bigger. But that’s exactly what Illinois politicians and DCFS leaders did.  (Full details on methods and sources are in the previous blog post.) 

Bottom line Illinois pols and DCFS: you trashed a system that once was, relatively speaking, a leader.  You vastly increased the number of children subjected to the enormous emotional trauma of needless separation – in fact, when it comes to needless family separation you vastly outperformed Donald Trump.  You subjected all these children to the high risk of abuse in foster care itself.  You’ve even got children sleeping in offices again.  

And all that did nothing – nothing – to prevent the very sorts of tragedies that prompted you to start this foster-care panic in the first place.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending November 24, 2021

I don't know if you can say "the handwriting is on the wall" for New York City's family policing agency, but this is one of the messages JMacForFamilies projected onto the wall of the fisrt-stop parking place "shelter" where some children are taken when they're torn from their parents in New York City. It was part of a protest last week.

● Hey, remember when New York City schools and the city’s family policing agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, promised that this year they wouldn’t traumatize children and families by sending caseworkers to investigate them on “educational neglect” charges just because they felt it was still unsafe to send them to in-person classes?  Chalkbeat checked to see if they were keeping their word.  Can you guess what they found? 

● Check out the video of Prof. Dorothy Roberts’ lecture on “Black Families Matter: How the U.S. Family Regulation System Punishes Poor People of Color.” By the way, the lecture was co-sponsored by the “Penn Program on Regulation.”  I mention this for the benefit of those who insist the system shouldn’t be called a “family regulation system” just because it, you know, regulates families. 

“Family Separation is as American as Mass Incarceration” according to the ACLU of Southern California. They’re part of the #reimaginechildsafety coalition in Los Angeles, and they have a blog post that gives an overview of how the family regulation system harms children in Los Angeles County. 

● The murder of a child in Hawaii, allegedly by the foster parents who adopted her has a lot of people seeking answers.  Here are some of the questions they need to ask

● And there’s still another case alleges horrifying abuse in Florida foster care.

Friday, November 19, 2021

An adopted foster child dies in Hawaii – but nobody seems to be asking the right questions

Ariel Sellers, as she was known before her adoption, was reported missing by her foster/adoptive parents.
Now they've been charged with her murder. (Honolulu police dept. photo)

We don’t know why six-year-old Ariel Sellers was taken from her parents. 

But we do know this: 

● Relatives were ready to take her in. They say Hawaii’s family police agency, known as “Child Welfare Services” (CWS) ignored them. 

● Instead Ariel was placed with strangers, Isaac and Lehua Kalua.  Ultimately, they adopted her and changed her name. At the time of her death, her legal name was Isabella Kalua.

● The foster/adoptive parents, who initially reported the child as missing, have been charged with murdering the child.  She allegedly died trapped in a dog cage with duct tape covering her mouth and nose. 

● Despite the pleas of relatives, Isabella’s siblings are still in foster care with strangers. The family is fighting to bring them home, and to overturn the adoption so at least in death Ariel will have her name back.

It’s all stunningly reminiscent of the tragic death of Sara Hunsicker in Pennsylvania.  (She’s better known as Grace Packer because before raping and murdering her, the foster/adoptive parents changed her name.) 

Diversion and double-standards 

But just as in the Hunsicker case, in this latest death the child welfare establishment has been quick to divert attention from its own failings.  And just as in the Hunsicker case, there’s been a tragic double standard in the response. 

CWS is actually whining about budget cuts and staff shortages – as though if you just made the agency that refused to place Isabella with relatives and rushed her into a quick-and-dirty adoptive placement even bigger, this wouldn’t have happened. 

And while whenever the alleged killer is a birth parent, there are accusations that government is going too much to keep families together, now that this child died in a foster/adoptive home, no one is asking if Hawaii is doing too much to tear families apart – even though Hawaii is another one of those states that has a hair-trigger when it comes to tearing apart families.  

In 2019, Hawaii took children from their parents at a rate well above the national average – even when rates of child poverty are factored in.  When you tear apart so many families, there is an enormous incentive to rush children into any home with a bed without looking too closely.  More than three-quarters of those children were taken not because of abuse, but because of “neglect” – which often is confused with poverty. 

We also know that abuse in foster care is widespread, and we know that agencies often turn a blind eye to such abuse. 

We also know that there are profound incentives to rush children into slipshod, quick-and-dirty adoptive placements.  Under the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act, states are paid a bounty of $4,000 to $10,000 for every finalized adoption over a baseline number.  What happens to the money if the adoption fails – or if the adoptive parents are accused of murder? Nothing – the state still gets to keep it! 

But the incentives go beyond the financial.  The one way an agency like CWS is guaranteed good press is when it gets those adoption numbers up. How many news organizations questioning what CWS did in this case have done treacly features about “Adoption Day” celebrations? How many will do them again tomorrow? 

So no, you can’t stop these tragedies by throwing more money at CWS or going on a caseworker hiring binge.  The only way to fix foster care is to have less of it. 

Only then will there be plenty of room in good, safe foster homes for the relatively few children who really need them.  And only then will workers have the time to find children in real danger, whether in their own homes or in foster care.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending November 17, 2021

 ● Let’s start by looking ahead to Saturday – it’s time for National Adoption Day!  Cake! Ice Cream! Balloons at the courthouse!  Because what could be more appropriate than a festival commemorating the aftermath of termination of children’s rights to the parents they were born with.  If termination of parental rights is child welfare’s equivalent of the death penalty, then what is Adoption Day but a macabre celebration of family executions

● If anyone still doubts how easy it is to “execute” a family, how casually it occurs and how much harm it does, check out these stories from Next City: In two parts they x-ray the soul of a family policing agency – in his case, Philadelphia, but it could be anywhere.  The picture is even uglier than you think. 

● Even when a child isn’t taken, the trauma inflicted by the child welfare surveillance state is huge.  “In early June, I had brought my children to the school building for the first time since the start of the pandemic to speak to the district superintendent and principal about my concerns regarding my children’s safety and dignity in their classrooms,” writes Shalonda Curtis-Hackett in the New York Daily News “Six days later, I was under investigation by ACS. 

The investigation and surveillance were invasive and dehumanizing. They checked our cabinets and fridge, scrutinized our living arrangements and questioned our lifestyle. We have been parents for 14 years and we have never been subjected to violence of this magnitude. After several visits, the ACS worker told me she was glad that she had my case because I would have scared her white co-worker.

● It will get uglier still as family regulation systems embrace “predictive analytics” – computerized racial profiling.  That’s why those who want to sell the idea in New York City were desperate to stack the deck at what was billed as a virtual “examination” of the topic.  They tried to shut out opponents like J. Khadijah Abdurahman – until family advocates and defenders fought to get her included.  And then they disabled the chat function, so no one else could directly challenge the predictive analytics salespeople, such as Emily Putnam-Hornstein, whose work is discussed here – and who even gets offended at the thought of the family regulation system being called a family regulation system. 

To see why they were so afraid of Abdurahman, start the event video here. Then watch as Aaron Horowitz, chief data scientist for the American Civil Liberties Union, systematically dismantles the arguments from the predictive analytics evangelists. 

● In Los Angeles, which tears apart families at the second highest rate of America’s biggest metropolitan areas, the #reimaginechildsafety coalition is out to change that.  Check out the story in The Imprint.  They’re already making a difference.  In more than 20 years of following the way the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors responds to child abuse tragedies I had never seen them even consider the possibility that the problem rests with taking away too many children in the first place – until Tuesday.  Check out The Imprint’s follow-up story and this story from the Los Angeles Daily News and City News Service. 

● Although it doesn’t get as much attention as the other populations targeted by family policing, children of disabled parents also are more likely to be forced into foster care.  Attorney Robyn Powell writes about what happens to those families in The Regulatory Review. 

● Don’t miss Andrea Elliott talking about her book, Invisible Child on the PBS NewsHour

● In Alaska, the Anchorage Daily News and Wisconsin Watch report, still another “child abuse pediatrician” is under fire. “'I am very fearful for anybody who has to bring their kids to Alaska CARES right now,' said Sarah Duran-Wood, a former forensic nurse at the clinic.” Why is Wisconsin Watch also reporting this story? Because that same child abuse pediatrician had left her previous job in Wisconsin under a cloud.

● In Florida, the cave-in to the Miami Herald’s crusade to tear apart more families even extends to financial incentives which have been skewed to encourage holding children in foster care and discourage sending them home.  I have a blog post about it.

● Here’s another example of the importance of financial incentives, and this time it’s good news.  You know how the residential treatment industry spent decades telling us that all those children absolutely positively had to be there and there was simply no way to care for them in families?  Amazingly, The Imprint reports, now that financial incentives are changing, institutions are finding a way! 

● But sometimes, it’s just the sheer banality of the system that’s infuriating.  Here’s a case in point.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

You get what you pay for: How Florida shifted funding priorities to foster care


Child welfare’s foremost data nerd has weighed in on the mess in central Florida child welfare caused by – well caused by a lot of things, including the dreadful performance of Eckerd Connects.  Eckerd is the “lead agency” in the region (though not for long) under Florida’s largely privatized system of family policing.  (Florida calls it a “Community-Based Care” (CBC) system of “child welfare,” but both those terms are euphemisms.) 

We wrote a detailed blog post about what went wrong last week.  Now there is a much more detailed post from Prof. Robert Latham, associate director of the University of Miami School of Law Children and Youth Law Clinic. He also has a degree in computer science and a talent for data visualization.  That makes him unafraid to go as deep into the weeds as necessary to determine whether a claim is true. 

In his most recent blog post, he documents, in chart after chart, why the claim by Eckerd that its failures are due to the agency not getting enough money is b.s.  As the headline for the post puts it “CBC Funding Doesn’t Make Children Live in Offices.” 

But there are some other significant observations.  Much as we did last week, Latham notes that 

None of the problems are new, and every player in the saga had some hand in creating the mess. The [Pinellas County] sheriff, who is now saying Eckerd could be criminally liable, is the child protective investigator in Pinellas county and has been removing children (at higher than statewide average rates) and handing them to Eckerd for years despite all the known problems. 

But he also explains how the Florida Legislature, the current administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the administration of former Governor Rick Scott skewed financial incentives for the “CBCs” toward holding more children in foster care and against trying to keep families together. 

In other words, in addition to all the other ways Florida government caved-in to the Miami Herald and reporter Carol Marbin Miller’s crusade to tear apart more families, the governors and the Legislature also rewarded agencies like Eckerd for holding children in foster care and penalized them for working to keep them safely at home. 

How the incentives work 


In 2010, back when Charlie Crist was still governor and the Florida Department of Children and Families had a visionary leader in George Sheldon, a small proportion of the complex formula for allocating funds to agencies such as Eckerd rewarded them if they reduced the number of children they trapped in foster care.  But by 2015, the year after Miller’s Innocents Lost series started a foster-care panic, that was gone.  Not only that, the proportion of the formula based on the number of children held in foster care doubled – from 30% of the formula to 60%.  It declined to 55% in 2018 – but it’s still, by far, the largest single driver of how much money Eckerd and its counterparts get.
 

That isn’t even the worst of it.  The formula for how much these agencies get is based in part on what the other CBCs are doing – apparently, it’s a little like grading on a curve.  But in this case, the better you do the worse the grade. 

Writes Latham: 

[I]f an agency holds its numbers steady while every other CBC increases theirs, that agency will lose money in the formula. There is no incentive to be the first agency to lower the numbers … There is, however, an incentive to be the first to raise your numbers in a given category and capture a higher proportion before the other agencies catch up. This could be a good or bad thing depending on the category and the cost of care for that group. [Emphasis in original] 

In other words, if, say, a county sheriff is tearing apart families needlessly, a lead agency has no financial incentive to complain about it.  And they have no incentive to get children home as quickly and safely as possible.  In fact, if they do the right thing before anyone else, it’s great for the kids, but bad for the agency’s bottom line. 

Double standards and bad incentives 

Any discussion of financial incentives is plagued with the same sorts of double standards that afflict any discussion in child welfare: tearing apart families is automatically considered the good, “safe” option, while avoiding the horrific trauma needless removal inflicts on children, and avoiding the high risk of abuse in foster care itself, is somehow deemed risky. 

So you may be sure that were the legislature ever to restore even a slight incentive not to hold children needlessly in foster care, the Herald or the Tampa Bay Times would find the first available horror story and blame it on a supposedly dangerous incentive to return children home. 

Of course, neither newspaper has expressed any concern about the current incentive to
prolong foster care, with all of the well-documented emotional harm this inflicts on children (think Mexican Border because it’s the same kind of harm), the well-documented rotten outcomes this causes in later life,  the well-documented high rate of abuse in foster care – and, of course, the well-documented harm to children who fall into the clutches of outfits such as Eckerd.
 

There are also huge incentives to prolong foster care beyond the financial: No caseworker wants to be on the front page of the Herald or the Tampa Bay Times, accused of “allowing” a child to die.  They need have no fear of being on the front page for tearing apart families needlessly.  The same dynamic applies to judges and agency administrators. 

The bad financial incentives compound all that. Changing them would be a very small step toward redressing the imbalance and allowing the system to handle each case on its merits. 

That this can be done in Florida is illustrated by what happened when Sheldon and before him Bob Butterworth ran DCF.  During their tenure a waiver from federal funding rules allowed more money to be used to keep families together.  Entries into foster care declined and independent monitors found no compromise of child safety. 

Then the Miami Herald came along and blew the whole thing up. 

Everything from the series of outstanding stories from the USA Today Florida Network, and the accounts of youth left to the tender mercies of Eckerd make clear the consequences.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The $20 million boondoggle that perfectly illustrates the banality of child welfare thinking

           


Compared to the billions of dollars wasted on things like harming children by institutionalizing them, the small item discussed in this story in The Imprint is barely a drop in the bucket  - and odds are it won’t actually make things worse.            

            But it’s hard to imagine anything that more perfectly captures the banality of child welfare thinking than this waste of $20 million: 

            Five organizations will spend this federal grant money to create a “Quality Improvement Center on Engaging Youth in Finding Permanency.”  And what will these groups do with the $20 million? 

Over the next five years, the consortium will launch pilot sites that “give youth an active role when decisions are made about their care, including reuniting them with their birth families or placing them in other legally recognized and permanent arrangements,” according to a press release from the University of Washington School of Social Work. 

The sites will work with local youth in the foster care system, ages 12 to 20, to glean their greatest needs and their thoughts on what moves would be most helpful in achieving permanency. 

            Where oh where to begin. 

            OK. For starters, not one of those twenty million dollars will go to a group actually run by current or former foster youth – you know, the very people this project is supposed to “engage and empower.” There are many such groups. They already know their own “greatest needs” – and they’ve been trying to tell the “child welfare” establishment, in some cases for decades. 


But no. This is just another way for the system to scarf up some more federal dollars.  The money goes to two adoption advocacy groups (reinforcing the bias that permanency equals adoption, not reunification, and prioritizing paper permanence over what has aptly been called “relational permanence”) not one, but two schools of social work, and – I kid you not - a consortium of child welfare system administrators. (After all, social work schools and child welfare administrators have created such a wonderful system, who wouldn’t want to throw an extra $20 million their way?) 

            Oh, don’t get me wrong.  After they’ve engorged themselves on the $20 million, I’m sure they’ll make some token efforts to include foster youth in some kind of prolonged planning process with lots of jargon and flipcharts.  They’re bound to set up some kind of “youth advisory committee” and hold token forums to get “input.” 

             After all, according to that press release from one of the social work schools “We want youth to be seen as competent and knowledgeable parties who deserve to have input and decision-making power about their own lives.”  Sure.  Just as long as the social work schools and their partners get to keep all the money, and the professors get to boost their status at their universities because they brought in a fat grant.  

            Oh, and that word “deserve” implies that actually having power over their own lives is some kind of privilege to be bestowed as a gift upon young people whose lives this same system uprooted in the first place – as opposed to a right.  

            It’s depressing to imagine what went into this.  Was there the usual mind-numbing jargon-filled grant proposal?  Did they promise to “leverage a paradigm shift”?   

            But if the thought of genuinely empowering and engaging foster youth is just too much to bear, here’s another way to spend the money: 

On any given day there are in foster care about 127,200 young people between the ages of 12 and 20 – the target group for this grant.  $20 million is enough to give each of them a check for $157.23.  

            Admittedly, that’s not a lot.  But it might buy someone who’s just aged out some new clothes for a job interview, or some college textbooks, or maybe a nice suitcase for a younger child so, the next time she’s forced to change foster homes, at least she doesn’t have to put all her things in a garbage bag. 

            And the government could still achieve the alleged purpose of this grant. Here’s how: With each check, include a note asking that the young person tell you “their greatest needs and their thoughts on what moves would be most helpful in achieving permanency.”

Monday, November 15, 2021

End child welfare’s public celebration of family executions

On this Saturday - “National Adoption Day” - who will stop to remember that for some children and some young adults every mass adoption ceremony, every treacly feature story on the local news is an act of cruelty – ripping the scab off a wound that never fully heals?

 

Termination of parental rights is child welfare's "death penalty."  So why do
some of the very judges who order a family "executed" preside over
public celebrations of the aftermath?   

            There was a time when, as a people, we were so uncivilized that executions were a form of entertainment – a public spectacle to be celebrated. 

In Canada, for example, 

Before they were banned in 1870, executions in public places could draw thousands of spectators, including families and young children. Boisterous behavior and a less-than-solemn attitude marked these macabre gatherings.  “When the day of a public execution arrived, the businessmen closed their factories and their stores and the people put on their holiday dresses,” noted an 1894 article in the Evening Star about hangings in early Toronto.   

The last official state-sanctioned public hanging in the United States drew a crowd of 20,000.  Even then, reporters condemned it as a “carnival.” (I probably don’t even need to mention that the man they hanged was Black.) 

Fortunately, nearly a century later, we have, of course, outgrown such practices. 

Except in child welfare. 

Termination of parental rights (or, as it should be called, termination of children’s rights to their parents) often is described as child welfare’s death penalty.  It is the prerequisite to any adoption of a child from foster care. 

And every year, all over America, we celebrate these family executions with a joyous public spectacle.  It’s called National Adoption Day.  This year it’s happening on Nov. 20. 

You know the drill. Open the court on a Saturday, bring in ice cream, cake and balloons, finalize foster-child adoptions en masse – and reinforce every stereotype about how the system supposedly “rescues” children from horrible birth parents and places them with vastly superior adoptive parents.  The same judges who are supposed to decide impartially on termination cases often lead these celebrations.

            Of course, because of COVID, in many places Adoption Day has gone virtual.  But don’t worry, organizers of the Los Angeles County event have added a particularly macabre 21st Century tough:  “A pool camera will be permitted at a pre-selected adoptive family’s home for coverage as the family’s virtual adoption ceremony takes place.”

  The whole spectacle also gets the courts and the local family policing agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare agency”) a guaranteed puff piece in the local newspaper celebrating what is, in reality, the aftermath of an execution.  And, of course, as with those other public executions, a disproportionate share of the families “executed” are Black. 


I’ve previously written that this day should be called National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day – since while child welfare systems always piously proclaim that their first goal is to reunify a family they’ve torn apart, the outcome that brings them true joy, the one they celebrate, is when that child, overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite, is adopted by someone who often is neither.
 

Unlike some of my friends in the family preservation movement, I am not opposed to all involuntary adoptions of children taken from their parents.  I am not opposed to all terminations of parental rights.  On those very rare occasions where this is appropriate, I am not opposed to an adoptive family having a private, quiet celebration.  But each of these things should take place far less often than they do now.

 So in that sense, my previous column was too kind.  It said adoption was sometimes an appropriate second choice after reunification and sometimes the appropriate first choice.  In fact, adoption should be farther down on the list, after not only reunification but also guardianship and perhaps other options as well, such as tribal customary adoption, a practice used by some Native American tribes that might well be adaptable elsewhere.  And while a private celebration is one thing, it should never be a mass public spectacle – it rubs salt into too many open wounds, and not just for parents. 

Prof. Christopher Church, senior director of strategic consulting at Casey Family Programs, has argued that using the term “civil death penalty” to describe the terminations that come before the cake, ice cream and balloons actually understates the trauma to the child.  Horrible as it is to lose a parent to physical death, losing a parent to termination of parental rights can be worse. 

“When a child knows somebody is out there but they have no way of connecting to them, that is ‘ambiguous loss,’” Church said at a recent conference.  “That is a more complex trauma for children than death loss.  … Death is finality and [children] can comprehend that better.” 

Church also reminds us that before the joyous public spectacle there’s sometimes another ceremony, if you can call it that.  It’s called the “goodbye visit.”  Children are told they will never, ever see their parents again, and now they all must say goodbye.  No cake and balloons here; just tears and anguish. 

The children are not always saying goodbye just to their parents.  If one child is adopted and the others are not, the sibling bond is severed forever.  If a parent later has another child whom s/he is allowed to keep, the child who was adopted amid the ice cream and cake may never know that sibling – unless, when they are adults, they find some way to find each other. 

But hey, don’t let that spoil the party. 

I can imagine some readers thinking: But wait. We have to do this, don’t we?  After all, if a case goes to termination of parental rights, the parents must have been the worst of the worst, right? 

Wrong. The termination phase is as arbitrary, capricious and cruel as every other decision-point in child welfare.  As Prof. Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University of Michigan, has written: 

[C]ourts seem to terminate parental rights out of a sense of convenience. A child has been in foster care for 15 months, so let’s terminate. A foster parent prefers to adopt a child, so let’s terminate. A parent hasn’t fully complied with services, so let’s terminate. 

            Still another indication of what’s really behind termination cases can be seen in how different the outcomes are by age.  Among children torn from their parents during their first year of life, only 36% are reunified; 46% are adopted.  Then, year after year, reunification rates inch up almost every year until age 14. Nearly 54% of children taken at age 14 were reunified. 

            So are parents of infants vastly worse than parents of 14-year-olds?  Or do caseworkers have their own rescue fantasies triggered by a child about whom they can gush, “Awwww, he’s so cute!” 

            No, we don’t need adoption and the attendant spectacle of mass public family execution to give children “permanence.”  In fact, we don’t know how often adoption does that.  Child welfare systems don’t like to ask questions to which they don’t want to know the answers, so we don’t know how often, when, say, that cute baby becomes a teenager, the adoptive parents change their minds.  

            But even when the adoption doesn’t fall apart, and even when a child really can’t live safely with her or his own parents, the obsession with adoption still hurts children.  As Prof. Sankaran explains: 

Families, and the relationships within them, are far more enduring and resilient than we want to acknowledge. In our quest for legal permanence, we forget about a child’s need for relational permanence, often defined as a child’s lifelong connection with caring adults. For example, too often, we ratify adoptions with the hope of providing a child with a legally permanent home. But in doing so, we cut off the child’s ability to have permanent relationships with those who have – and will always – matter to him. A mother. A sibling. A grandparent. Hence the countless number of stories of adopted children searching for their kin.

           Other options, such a guardianship, don’t require a child to sacrifice any relationships. 

So this time, when National Adoption Day rolls around, remember that for some children and some young adults every mass adoption ceremony, every treacly feature story on the local news is an act of cruelty – ripping the scab off awound that never fully heals. 

Again, that doesn’t mean adoption by strangers and termination of parental rights are always wrong.  But it needs to be moved much farther down on the list of options for children.  And while, on rare occasions, we still need to impose child welfare’s death penalty, can’t we at least have the decency to stop celebrating it? 

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

NCCPR News and commentary round-up, week ending November 9, 2021

We start with two big virtual events TODAY (Nov. 10): 

● At 12:45 p.m. ET, Andrea Elliott, author of Invisible Child, discusses her outstanding book and the intersection of law, journalism and social justice at this event sponsored by the New York University School of Law Forum. 

● Attending it will be just what you need to tune up your b.s. detector when the evangelists for predictive analytics (basically computerized racial profiling) in child welfare try to sell it at a virtual event at 5:00 p.m. ET The backstory about who is involved, how they apparently tried to stack the deck and how activists unstacked it (along with a link to the event) are in this NCCPR Blog post. 

● You know how family policing agencies love to say “We don’t take away children on our own, a judge had to approve everything we do”?  Well here’s what an actual judge had to say about that, in the course of explaining why he approved the removal of a child – a decision he apparently came to regret: 

As WDSU-TV in New Orleans reports: 

After a week of being separated from his parents, the judge ordered [the child] back with his mother and father. His written order criticized the procedural process that led to his initial decision to remove the child, which he had to make over the phone. 

“The [Children’s] Code has created a system in which a judge must make a decision about probable cause based on factual and medical evidence without the benefit of a hearing, review of evidence, or any of the fact-finding tools which are obligatory in every other proceeding under the Anglo-American legal system,” [Judge] Doherty wrote. “This is a system which borders on a sham.” 

The judge continued that the system is “nevertheless, (the one) the Legislature has provided.”

● More examples of the harm done by these systems are in this excellent video from the Los Angeles group, DCFS-Give Us Back Our Children:




● At the federal level the law that makes everything worse is the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act.  The Imprint reports on a bill that would make ASFA less awful. 

● A Florida county sheriff says that a private agency warehoused children in conditions so horrible he’s launching a criminal investigation. But guess who took away the kids in the first place.  I have the answer in this blog post. 

Rise interviews Rutgers Prof. Frank Edwards about his landmark study documenting the vastness of family police intrusion into the lives of nonwhite families.  Says Edwards: 

Kelley Fong’s research with moms shows that seeking out services like supportive housing becomes much more dangerous when you’re worried about potentially losing your kids. Parents in crisis may choose not to try to get the resources they need because they’re worried about a CPS investigation. 

Our society’s knee-jerk, default reaction is to involve CPS whenever something’s wrong in a family rather than offering resources or support. People may think an investigation is not a big deal—but the evidence is clear: that’s just not true. It’s a really traumatic experience for kids and parents. 

● We continue highlighting articles from the Columbia Journal of Race and Law Strengthened Bonds Symposium.  Charlotte Baughman, Tehra Coles, Jennifer Feinberg and Hope Newton of New York’s Center for Family Representation examine “The Surveillance Tentacles of the Child Welfare System.”  They use case studies to illustrate how those tentacles attack families and instill fear in whole communities, driving families away from seeking help: 

CFR’s clients regularly express fear of the family regulation system in explaining why they did not seek immediate medical treatment after their child sustained a minor injury. Pregnant women who use  substances  may  fail  to  obtain  prenatal  treatment  due  to concerns of surveillance. 

And once under surveillance, the system works to keep families there almost forever: 

The  young  mothers we represent  at the Center for Family Representation(CFR), who are usually  Black  or  Brown,  are  frequently  denied  favorable settlement  offers  because  family  regulation  system  prosecutors believe  they  will  have  more  children  in  the  future  and  want  to retain   an   easier   pathway   to   more   surveillance   through subsequent court involvement that often involves micromanaging the care of their children.

● And, from Los Angeles, the place that tears apart families at the second highest rate among America’s biggest cities, KTLA-TV and NBC Los Angeles bring us one more reminder that the horror stories go in all directions (but the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than the family policing establishment wants to talk about). 

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

A Florida county sheriff says a private agency warehoused children in conditions so horrible he’s launching a criminal investigation. But guess who took away the kids in the first place.

Hint: It’s the county that tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the state, and yet has one of the worst records in the state on a key measure of child safety.

 


Bob Gualtieri, the sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida (metropolitan St. Petersburg) is really upset.  It seems he’s noticed something we’ve been pointing out on our Florida blog for years:  Eckerd Connects, the longtime “lead agency” responsible for what happens to foster children after they’re torn from their homes in Pinellas and neighboring Pasco and Hillsborough Counties, has been doing a terrible job. (Not for much longer, though.  Either the state Department of Children and Families fired Eckerd or Eckerd quit, depending on who is telling the story.) 

But, back to the sheriff, who says Eckerd did such a lousy job that he's launching a criminal investigation: 

“The conditions in which these children have been living at Eckerd’s offices, frankly, is disgusting and deplorable," Gualtieri said. And he’s not about to accept any excuses either!  “You don’t whine about it,” he says. “You fix it and if you can’t do it you go to the state and you say, ‘hey look, this isn’t working and here’s why,’ … But you still do your job, and you don’t expose kids to danger while you’re trying to fix it. You figure out a way to make it happen." 


You tell ‘em, Sheriff! But there’s just one problem.  Bad as Eckerd is – and yes, they are awful, and yes there’s no excuse for it – the single biggest source of the problem in Pinellas County is – the office of the Pinellas County Sheriff.  Gualtieri runs what may be the most extreme, most fanatical family destruction agency in Florida.

It’s Sheriff Gualtieri and his deputies who are, in effect, dumping all those Pinellas County children onto Eckerd’s doorstep in the first place.  No, it’s not because they want to hurt kids.  On the contrary, I’m sure they sincerely believe they’re helping.  But they can’t break out of the take-the-child-and-run mentality that plagues Florida child welfare, especially in their part of the state. 

When the Sheriff runs child protective services 

In most parts of Florida, the initial decision to tear a child from everyone s/he knows and loves is made by workers for the state Department of Children and Families.  But in a handful of counties, sheriff’s offices have that job.  Those counties tend to be concentrated in the Tampa Bay area, including Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Manatee. 

The people who pushed the change, about 20 years ago were hoping for just this result – they wanted sheriffs to tear apart more families, and the assumption was that hard-nosed cops would be even more fanatical about it than caseworkers. 

It looks like they were at least partly right.   Some counties where DCF still runs initial investigations take away appallingly large numbers of children.  Conversely, in Broward County, the Sheriff’s office has shown commendable restraint, taking proportionately fewer children than most counties where DCF still is in charge.  But in the other counties where sheriffs are in charge, the take-the-child-and-run crowd has gotten what it wanted – especially in Pinellas. 

Compare Pinellas to other large counties where sheriff’s deputies take away children – and note that all of these figures factor in rates of child poverty in each county: 

A child in Pinellas County is 33 percent more likely to be taken from her or his parents than a child in neighboring Pasco County.  That Pinellas County child is 60 percent more likely to be taken than a child in Manatee County, twice as likely to be taken as a child in Hillsborough County, nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to be taken away than the state average – and more than four times more likely to be taken away than a child in Broward County which, again, is another place where the sheriff’s office does the taking. 

In fact, were Pinellas County, Florida, a state, its rate of removal would be the seventh highest in the entire nation.

 

NCCPR calculates rates of removal by comparing Florida DCF data for entries into care for the year ending Sept. 30, 2021 (the most recent time period available) to a Census Bureau estimate of the number of children living in poverty in each county.  We believe this approach is fairer than simply comparing entries to the total child population, But, for the record: If you divide entries by total child population the relative position of these counties remains the same – Pinellas still is the most extreme outlier, and the rate of removal in Broward still is lowest.

Child removal ≠ child safety 

Ah, but if we’re taking away all those kids, we must be making them safer, the sheriff might say,  since the mantra in Florida for decades, with only a brief exception, has been to falsely equate child removal with child safety.  I can imagine Sheriff Gualtieri responding to these figures by taking perverse pride in how his officers supposedly “err on the side of the child” and put child safety ahead of family preservation. 

This, of course, ignores the enormous trauma to children caused by needless removal – even when the placements are good.  Recall what happened at the Mexican border and you get the idea.  How is that “erring on the side of child”?  The trauma is, of course, compounded when, according to the very people taking away the children, the placements are “disgusting and deplorable.”  How is that erring on the side of the child? 

But also, the more you overload systems with false reports trivial cases and needless foster care, the less likely you are to have time to find the relatively few children in real danger.  Instead of erring on the side of the child, the Sheriff’s approach makes all Pinellas County children less safe. 

Check out the data. 

The standard measure of child safety is this: Of all the children caseworkers or sheriff’s deputies deem to have been abused or neglected, what percent are abused or neglected again in the next 12 months? 

Here are the most recent available results for those same counties: 

Broward:                      5.28%

State average:             6.79%

Manatee:                      6.51%

Hillsborough:                7.07%

Pasco:                          7.27%

Pinellas:                   10.37% 

In fact, there are only six counties in the entire state, all much smaller than Pinellas, that do worse.  And note that the county with the lowest rate of removal, Broward, had the best safety record.  Bottom line: Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies are taking away far too many children needlessly and missing more cases of real abuse and neglect than counties that show more restraint.  How is that erring on the side of the child? 

“As bad or worse” 

Still another measure of what happens to children can be found in Sherriff Gualtieri’s own statement.  He said that, under the care and supervision of Eckerd, “The conditions are as bad or worse than the living conditions from which the children were removed.” 

Which begs the question: If you know they’re going to be as bad or worse off, why are you taking them away in the first place? 

The statement about “as bad or worse” is misleading in one way, though: It plays to public stereotypes about families caught in the system.  It conjures up images of horror story cases that are very serious, very real, and very, very rare.  Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. 

Of course, Sheriff Gualtieri might reply: Well sure, a lot of times the problem is housing, but the housing was dangerous so what do you expect us to do about it?  We’re not a housing agency.  Or: We can’t very well provide childcare subsidies so children aren’t taken on “lack of supervision” charges, can we? 

Why not?  As the Sheriff himself put it: 

“You don’t whine about it. … You figure out a way to make it happen."

 So why can’t the Pinellas County Sheriff’s office take some of its budget and use it for emergency cash assistance, and rent subsidies, and housing repairs, and childcare subsidies.  Or at least follow the example of this police officer in Kansas City, Missouri. 

And where the issue is substance use that genuinely endangers children, how about using some of that budget to set up innovative home-based drug treatment programs – again, because it’s better for the children. 

The extent of wrongful removal 

We know how bad the problem of wrongful removal is nationally thanks to the mass of studies showing that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes do better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.  We know how bad it is in Florida thanks to excellent stories like this from USA Today Network Florida reporters. 

And we know how bad it is in the counties where Eckerd has been the lead agency thanks to the report of a “peer review team” DCF itself sent to Hillsborough County (metropolitan Tampa) in 2018. As we wrote at the time: 

The peer review found that workers in Hillsborough County are so terrified of having one of their cases land them on the front page after a tragedy that they were illegally taking large numbers of children needlessly. According to the report: 

Professionals in the system of care are often unnecessarily risk adverse due to the fear of child fatalities and media consequences. … [E]xtreme caution and risk aversion responses do not guarantee that tragic results will be avoided, and can cause unnecessary trauma to children. 

Indeed, as WFLA-TV documented in this tragic case, it can cause a child to die in foster care after being taken from a mother because that mother is poor. 

What “risk averse” really means is that child welfare investigators, supervisors and officials are increasing the risk to children in order to decrease the risk to themselves. 

The report found that investigators in Hillsborough County rush to remove children “without sufficient exploration, consideration, or conversation around reasonable efforts to prevent removal …” 


Yes, but that’s Hillsborough, not Pinellas.  True.  But as noted earlier the rate of removal in Pinellas is double the rate in Hillsborough.  So either Pinellas County Florida is a cesspool of depravity and parents in, say, St. Petersburg really are twice as likely to abuse their children as parents in Tampa and four times as likely to abuse their children as parents in Fort Lauderdale – or Pinellas County is taking away a whole lot of children who could have remained safely in their own homes.
 

It’s reasonable to bet it’s the latter, especially since Pinellas is the home county of the Tampa Bay Times, which has done everything it can to encourage the rush to tear apart families. 

Don’t pass the buck to the courts 

Typically, when confronted with high rates of removal, agencies will pass the buck to the courts.  We don’t take children, they say, the courts have to approve everything we do.  Somehow, they always manage to say this with a straight face. 

In fact, in Florida, as in every state, the child protective services agency, in this case, the sheriff’s office, has the power to remove children on the spot, entirely on their own authority.  The family has to then fight to get them back.  And it’s hardly a fair fight.  Since the families are almost always are poor, they almost always have to rely on an overwhelmed public defender who may have met them for the first time in a hallway five minutes before the hearing.  

Presiding is a judge who knows that if he sends the child home and something goes wrong his career is over (especially in Pinellas County where he’d have to face the wrath of the Tampa Bay Times with its fanatical devotion to tearing apart families).  Leave the children to the tender mercies of Eckerd Connects and the children may suffer terribly, but the judge is safe. 

Over in Louisiana, a judge was commendably honest about this.  In a decision ordering the return home of a child he never should have ordered taken away, the judge wrote: 

“The [Children’s] Code has created a system in which a judge must make a decision about probable cause based on factual and medical evidence without the benefit of a hearing, review of evidence, or any of the fact-finding tools which are obligatory in every other proceeding under the Anglo-American legal system ... This is a system which borders on a sham.” 

And, of course, arguing that judges said it was OK still doesn’t explain why Pinellas deputies believe they need to bring these cases in the first place at a vastly higher rate than their fellow deputies in neighboring counties. 

None of this should let Eckerd off the hook 

The fact that Sheriff Gualtieri and his counterparts in Pasco and Hillsborough Counties kept dumping kids on Eckerd’s doorstep doesn’t mean Eckerd had to tolerate it.  Had they spoken out loudly and clearly about wrongful removal right from the beginning, they could have curbed it.  As the “lead agency” for the region, Eckerd had the most influence in the system. Eckerd could have educated deputies about the harm of needless removal and pressed Gualtieri and his counterparts not to take so many children needlessly. They also could have pressed the courts to return children they thought the sheriff’s deputies had removed needlessly. 

Instead, from all appearances, they welcomed all those removals for years.  

We predicted Eckerd would fail as soon as they brought in as its director of community-based care Chris Card, who has his own demonstrated devotion to the take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare.  And sure enough, he immediately lived down to his reputation.  

What the Sheriff got right 

On two points, Sheriff Gualtieri is right.  It would be wrong to target low-level Eckerd employees and make them scapegoats; to his credit he has pledged not to do this.  And there should be an investigation of Eckerd.  

But, good intentions notwithstanding, Sheriff Gualtieri shouldn’t be the one doing it.