Monday, December 26, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary year in review, 2022

Among the year's highlights: This ad campaign from JMACforFamilies

Instead of the usual highlights of the week, we look back at some of the best family preservation journalism and scholarship of 2022 – and a little from late 2021. 

We start with three important books: 

● First, Prof. Dorothy Roberts’ definitive dissection of racism in family policing: Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families--and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. There’s an excerpt from the book in Mother Jones. 

Prof. Roberts, who is a member of NCCPR’s Board of Directors, was also the subject of this profile in New York Magazine. It’s called Dorothy Roberts Tried to Warn Us: The legal scholar and sociologist wrote about the criminalization of pregnancy 25 years ago. Why didn’t more listen?  Prof. Roberts wrote this Five Myths column for The Washington Post. And on public radio’s The Takeaway, she made host Melissa Harris-Perry gasp.  

● The other vital book about family policing published this year is a novel. But Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers is no ordinary novel. Barack Obama included it on his list of favorite books of 2022.  Some might say the novel depicts a dystopian future child welfare surveillance state.  Dystopian yes – but it’s only 20 minutes into the future (10 if you live in Pittsburgh). As Kate Knibbs puts it in her review for Wired:  

“This closeness to reality is what turns the book’s emotional gut punch into a full knockout wallop. A mother reading it doesn’t close the book, sigh, and think, Thank god the world’s not really like this. No, she closes it and knows she must be very careful.”
Read it and you’ll find yourself thinking about it almost every time you read about how the system functions right now. 

● The third book was published in late 2021.  But in 2022, Andrea Elliott’s Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.


ProPublica and NBC News teamed up to examine every stage in the family policing process, from the initial call by a “mandated reporter” through termination of parental rights (or, as it should be called, termination of children’s rights to their parents.)  They found a system that, every step of the way, does enormous harm to the children it was intended to help.  Unfortunately, there is no “grand unifying link,”  No, wait, yes there is!

And, from ProPublica late in 2021: TANF as a child welfare slush fund.

● There also is a grand unifying link to this series of stories in Honolulu Civil Beat exposing everything from “grab-and-go” removals to the sham of court hearings in family policing cases.

USA Today continued its outstanding series of stories on the harm of family policing, with a particular focus on Florida.  This year’s story is more evidence that the solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism. Bad journalism by the Miami Herald set off a foster-care panic in Florida.  Now great journalism from USA Today Network Florida reporters is exposing how much that has hurt children.  Combining heartbreaking personal stories with rigorous data analysis, this year’s story is the definitive story about the havoc caused when poverty is confused with “neglect.” 

An earlier USA Today Network Florida story dealt with the trauma inflicted on children when they are taken from mothers whose only crime is to have, themselves, been beaten.  This year, that was the topic of one of two excellent stories from WPEC-TV in West Palm Beach.  In a second story, an overwhelmed grandmother seeks help from Florida’s family police agency. The granddaughter, now a young adult, talks about what that did to her family.

● The Western New England Law Review has a superb summary of the research showing the enormous harm to children caused when they are taken from domestic violence survivors. The article interweaves compelling case examples and a mass of research.  It also includes an excellent discussion of the dynamics of domestic violence, what makes it hard for a survivor to leave such a relationship (including the enormous role of poverty) and what courts – and the rest of us – should be asking concerning whether family policing agencies are genuinely making reasonable efforts to help them, as federal law requires.  Although it is specific to Massachusetts, it applies everywhere.  And it is only about one-fifth the length of a typical law review article. For more on this topic see NCCPR’s summary of expert testimony. 

● An entire journal devoted to the harm of family policing made its debut in 2022.  Check out the Family Integrity and Justice Quarterly with issues on the harm of the so-called “Adoption and Safe Families Act,” the confusion of poverty with neglect, the need to invest in community and families and, most recently, the most dangerous phrase in the family policing lexicon.

● The Columbia Journal of Race and Law published a second set of papers from the Strengthened Bonds symposium including this groundbreaking paper by Ashley Albert and Amy Mulzer.  But read it only if you are ready to reconsider everything you think you know about adoption. 

● In North Carolina, WBTV produced a series of reports documenting the harm done to children and families by hidden foster care in that state. This isone of them:

● Though not a formal series, there was a surge in news coverage and commentary about the enormous harm done to children by ASFA. Here’s our grand unifying link.

● In The Imprint, Nora McCarthy, co-founder of the New York City Family Policy Project and the former director of Rise has a series of columns on alternatives to family policing.

● Though it was released in 2021, Season 2 of the This Land podcast remains the gold standard of journalism for understanding the gold standard of child welfare legislation – the Indian Child Welfare Act.  And, of course, what the podcast exposed took on new urgency in 2022, as the Supreme Court heard a challenge to ICWA.  See also this excellent take from The Washington Post.

● Also related to ICWA: Every local newspaper in America that had a so-called “boarding school” into which Native American children were forced should do what the Everett Herald in Washington State has done and done well: Tell the story. 

From the Herald’s three-part series: 

There was no use running away, Harriette Shelton Dover recalled, when the Tulalip Indian School matron thrashed her with a horse whip from her neck to her ankles, swinging “as hard as she could.” 

“Years later,” she said, “I found out that kind was also used in penitentiaries and outlawed. But it was used on us. And what were we doing? We were 9 years old and we were speaking our language.” … 

From 1857 to 1932, thousands of Pacific Northwest children passed through a federally mandated school at Tulalip, about 30 miles north of Seattle, where students lived under a strict military regimen. Abuse was by design, to eradicate Native culture, at hundreds of similar schools across the nation. 

Other news and commentary:

● In 12 minutes this superb story from CBS News Sunday Morning tells you everything about how “child welfare” really works.  And notice the "age restriction" warning placed on the video by YouTube.  In other words: what the family police agencies that are supposed to "protect" children really do is so traumatic, children shouldn't see it!

● In all the time I’ve followed child welfare – more than 45 years now – I’ve probably read hundreds of stories about foster children trapped in all sorts of hideous makeshift placements.  But here’s what sets this year’s stories in The Philadelphia Inquirer apart.  They got the solutions right.  One of the stories summed it up this way: 

Advocates say what’s needed now is to address the short-term glitches while pursuing the long-term vision of supporting more families at home — not backsliding into the era when congregate beds were ample and eagerly filled by a system that saw removing and institutionalizing kids as an easy fix. [Emphasis added]. 

That summary is in what reporter Samantha Melamed herself called the “TL;DR version.”  But I hope you’ll resist the temptation and read the full story.

● At last, a big, mainstream news organization wasn’t suckered by the hype spewing forth from the evangelists for using “predictive analytics” in family policing: Much of that dangerous hype has come from Pittsburgh, where proponents hand-picked the people who would review their plans.  But look what the Associated Press found when, at last, there was a truly independent evaluation: 

According to new research from a Carnegie Mellon University team obtained exclusively by AP, Allegheny’s algorithm in its first years of operation showed a pattern of flagging a disproportionate number of Black children for a “mandatory” neglect investigation, when compared with white children. The independent researchers, who received data from the county, also found that social workers disagreed with the risk scores the algorithm produced about one-third of the time. 

The story reveals something else; the character of Erin Dalton, who led the push for using this kind of computerized racial profiling in Pittsburgh and now runs the family policing agency there.  Her response to the potential for error boils down to: So what? Or as she told AP: 

“If it goes into court, then there’s attorneys on both sides and a judge,” Dalton said. “They have evidence, right?” 

(If anyone still doesn’t know the answer to that, see the Honolulu Civil Beat stories mentioned above.)

● Does anyone still believe the lie that at least after taking the child (without so much as asking a judge first) there at least has to be a hearing right after?  Sure, that’s what most state laws say.  But, as Mother Jones illustrates in this story, the reality is that the free shot the family police have at any child can last for weeks, sometimes months. 

● The 74 reported that in New York City alone “…between August 2019 and January 2022, city school employees made over 13,750 false alarm reports to the state child abuse hotline.” The story goes on to explain why that actually understates the problem.  As for the notion that the problem can be fixed with “more training” here’s what one school social worker said her training was like: 

[T]he training sessions she has attended have begun by projecting the names and pictures of young people who have died by parental abuse, the social worker said, a tactic she considers “fear-mongering.” 

● BuzzFeed News examined the enormous harm to families when parents are wrongly placed on “central registries” of alleged child abusers. A listing can shut parents out from the very jobs most often open to low-income workers, driving their families further into the poverty that often is confused with “neglect” in the first place.  And, because of who is disproportionately likely to be included in these registries, the story is aptly titled “The Black List.” 

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia has filed a landmark lawsuit challenging the process by which people are placed on the registry in Pennsylvania.  There’s a story in The Imprint.  And here’s the CLS press release.  

● Although broadcast at the very end of 2021, this NPR story, on governments forcing parents to pay ransom to get their children back from foster care got results throughout the year as several cities and states moved to curb the practice, and the federal government issued guidance recommending against it. (No, of course, they don’t call it ransom, but when someone takes your child from you and forces you to pay money to get the child back, any other term for the payment is a euphemism.)  But, as a follow-up story late this year makes clear, not everyone is getting the message.  In North Carolina, for example, children can lose their parents forever for not paying ransom - even when the state forgets to send the ransom note.

● NPR and The Marshall Project also published a follow-up to their groundbreaking stories about another odious practice of family policing agencies: swiping foster youth’s Social Security benefits.  

● The Associated Press published an amazing story that, at least for now, doesn’t touch on family policing directly.  But you can bet it will, as soon as one couple tries to play the bonding card.  NCCPR has a blog post on key lessons from the case 

In October, I was asked to list the most important contributions to the field of family advocacy and family defense made by Prof. Martin Guggenheim. The fact that he is a founder and president of NCCPR didn’t even make my top five.  As Kathleen Creamer put it in this story from The Imprint “No one has done more than Marty to move this field towards justice — even when no one seemed to care about justice.” 

Other reports and scholarship:

● The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch released this outstanding, comprehensive report on the racial and class biases that permeate family policing.  The report includes this video:

● A bastion of the establishment, the American Bar Association passed a resolution that comes within an inch of calling for repeal of ASFA and other awful family policing laws.  The Imprint has a story.  Our own take is here.  

● Another bastion of the child welfare establishment JAMA Pediatrics has called b.s.  on the whole COVID-19 “pandemic of child abuse” myth.  Their somewhat more formal title: “Child Physical Abuse Did Not Increase During the Pandemic.” Unfortunately, it’s a typical, overpriced journal article – but NCCPR’s comprehensive round-up debunking the myth is free.  

● I was proud to serve on a special committee of the Philadelphia City Council examining the child welfare system in that city.  Here’s our report.  There’s a story about the report in Billy Penn.  And, because many of the recommendations apply statewide, in the York Daily Record. My statement about the report is on this blog here.

NCCPR commentary:

In addition to posts on this blog, NCCPR has been published all over the country on local and national issues involving family policing.

● Thanks to Greg Abbott, affluent white people are discovering that even “CPS-lite” is enormously traumatic for children and families.  As NCCPR explains in this column for The Imprint, for Black, Brown, Native and poor white families it’s a whole lot worse.  And in Youth Today we wrote about Texas caseworkers who have given us a lesson in whose lives matter.

● Following up on the excellent reporting by the Philadelphia Inquirer noted above, we wrote for the Inquirer about how Philadelphia could stop warehousing children in makeshift placements.

● We also wrote about makeshift placements for Bridge Michigan – in particular, how Michigan judges are passing the buck for their own failures.

● CalMatters published NCCPR’s commentary on a massive science-be-damned, ethically-questionable albeit well-meaning experiment on overwhelmingly poor, nonwhite Californians.

Several columns dealt with the harm of “residential treatment.”

● Colorado plans to spend two years and nearly $100,000 on a task force charged with trying to find out why children run away from residential treatment.  In Youth Today, we save the state a little money and a lot of time.

In the CT Mirror we wrote about how, when an 11-year-old girl was sexually assaulted at a “residential treatment center” the RTC said it was the child’s fault!  

● In the Lexington Herald-Leader we wrote about how, amid all the handwringing over the deaths of two young children the state had chosen to institutionalize, no one was asking the most important question.

● Who gave a damn about Harmony Montgomery? She’s a seven-year-old New Hampshire girl who and was feared dead (fears since confirmed)  NCCPR’s commentary on the case for CommonWealth Magazine is about how the one person who cared about Harmony is the person no one would listen to: her mother. 

● In Youth Today we came up with a simple formula to determine if a “child neglect” problem is really a poverty problem.

● In The Imprint we explained why Safety Science is Good for Aviation, But in Child Welfare, it Won’t Fly

● In Honolulu Civil Beat, we wrote about the need to curb the state’s “grab-and-go” mentality when it comes to tearing apart children.

● That mentality is even worse in Missouri, where, as we noted in the Missouri Independent, the head of the state’s family policing agency effectively admitted to routinely violating federal law requiring “reasonable efforts” to keep families together.

● It is worst of all in Montana. In the Daily Montanan, we wrote about how much children are hurt by that state’s status (tied with West Virginia) as the child removal capital of America.

● And on our website: As the racial justice reckoning finally reaches family policing, one big mainstream “child welfare” group after another has been trying to launder its reputation – hoping we’ll forget all the harm they’ve done, as they co-opt the rhetoric of reform in service to the status quo. NCCPR’s new publication, “Child Welfare” heads to the reputation laundry, includes a guide to how to recognize reputation laundering, and what real change is all about.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending December 20, 2022

● There’s Another outstanding installment in the series from ProPublica and NBC News, documenting the enormous harm family policing does to children.  This time, the story looks at child welfare’s “death penalty” – termination of children’s rights to their parents.  There’s a special focus on West Virginia, which is both the child removal capital of America and the termination capital of America.  The story is notable for many things, including its clear understanding of the stakes.  The story notes that  

According to a recent study, the risk that a child will experience the loss of their legal relationship with their parents roughly doubled from 2000 to 2016. [Emphasis added.] 

This is a story West Virginia media have not touched.  But it’s not only media in that state that have blind spots: 

● When you’ve spent decades lionizing foster parents (especially white, middle-class foster parents) and demonizing birth parents, and then a white middle-class foster mother allegedly kidnaps a nonwhite foster child, that can really louse up your “master narrative.”  So now, even after the Washington State foster child was found – in Vietnam! – and returned safely to his real mother, the Seattle Times has written not a word. 

Fortunately, Mother Jones has provided the coverage the Times would not.  Check out their story, to which we were proud to contribute.  And KING5 continued to cover the story diligently.  On the day media found out the child was safely home, they broadcast and published this story and this one, to which we were proud to contribute. 

● As Dean of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, Alan Detlaff devoted his career to fighting the racism that permeates family policing.  That’s why he’s no longer the dean. (He continues as a professor.)  The Imprint has a story, and so does The Houston Chronicle

● What happened to Detlaff is just one example of “child welfare” and the moral bankruptcy of social work.  I have a blog post about it.  I also have a post about another one-time social work dean who devotes himself to denying that family policing has a racism problem.  He, too, is no longer a dean – but he left voluntarily and has another prestigious position. 

● There’s a new issue of Family Integrity and Justice Quarterly. This one takes on what may be the most dangerous phrase in the family policing lexicon: “best interests of the child.”  The phrase is an invitation to inflict the whims and prejudices of a white middle-class “child welfare” establishment on families that are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite.  The theme of this issue is summed up in the first article: “Securing and Restoring the Family Is in the Child’s Best Interests.”  In that article, Alexandra Travis writes about her own experience with family destruction and then asks: 

Tell me, if you knew our story, would you still advocate so fiercely for adoption and termination? Would you permanently separate us as a family and prevent five siblings from having a life and future together? Would you allow these traumatic actions that caused a seven-year-old to consider suicide and a young boy to pluck out his own eyelashes, eyebrows, and hair? 

Honolulu Civil Beat has another good story on the failings of Hawaii’s family policing system – this time it’s about the lengths the system will go to cover it all up

● There are so many ways in which family policing systems reveal that their hatred for families is far greater than any “love” they profess for children.  One of those ways is using visits between children in foster care and their parents as a weapon.  So, for example, in Michigan, children could be denied visits with their parents if a parent didn’t pass three consecutive drug tests – even if the failure involved marijuana.  Now a state appeals court has ruled that Michigan family police can’t do that anymore.  As an attorney for the mother told Michigan radio

“So, imagine being that child, having parenting time, having it for some time and then, unbeknownst to you, not seeing Mom for a while because Mom tested positive for marijuana. It certainly had a negative effect on the children.” 

Added Prof. Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the  Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School added: 

“For kids in foster care, seeing their parents is their lifeline, and we have to be very, very diligent in making sure that happens unless it is absolutely necessary to cut it off because of harm to a child.” 

● The Anchorage Daily News reports that the U.S. Department of Justice has found the state regularly violates the Americans with Disabilities Act by needlessly institutionalizing children with mental health problems. From the story: 

A girl from Bethel had first gone to North Star [hospital] at 12, when she was “feeling sad and irritable, and exhibiting some aggression toward her younger siblings.”  An expert found that she could just as well have stayed home with her family and gotten treatment like intensive case management. Instead, she’d been almost continuously institutionalized at North Star for four years. 

“She appears to be more accustomed to life in an institution than at home,” the report said. 

And before anyone claims it’s because of a “shortage” of family placements, remember: Alaska tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation, two-and-a-half-times the national average. 

● Police in Texas put a 14-year-old and her parents through a terrifying ordeal in a case so absurd even the family police agency couldn’t stomach it.  Now, after a long legal battle, the family has won the right to sue.

Wisconsin Watch reports on that state’s draconian law concerning substance use during pregnancy, a law passed “in 1997 amid a national ‘crack baby’ hysteria.”  The law drives women away from seeking prenatal care.  From the story: 

Some women told [the Pew Charitable Trusts] the fear of losing their newborns or other children caused them to hide their pregnancies while seeking treatment, or to avoid treatment altogether. In all, Pew concluded: "This barrier potentially puts pregnant women and their child at greater risk of harm than they would be if this policy did not exist." 

● New York City’s family police agency loves to brag about how far they’ve come since the days when the city warehoused 50,000 children in foster care.  They do not mention that the commendable decline has come with a concomitant, appalling surge in family surveillance.  They also don’t mention that they’ve done nothing to ease the ongoing trauma that kind of massive policing inflicts on impoverished communities. 

In a call for community healing Nora McCarthy writes in The Imprint that 

Nationally, historical trauma is a piece of what drives the extraordinarily high rates of Native American and Black families separated by child welfare. In New York City, a mapping of community loss tracked concentrated stress from “unpredictable and uncontrollable” losses like incarceration and foreclosure, and found that foster care placement “represents the most severe community loss in the high-loss neighborhoods.” Considering that roughly 50,000 children were in New York City foster care every year a generation ago, this cumulative burden alone is severe. 

Much of this loss and pain has been directly fueled by government policy. Yet little public or private funding is devoted to repair. 

● Children are still being taken from their families in New York City, of course.  One such foster child, three-year-old Shalize Carter Clarke, complained during Facetime calls about being abused in her foster home.  At one point, her grandmother says:  “She said, ‘Ya Ya, you got my car seat in your car?’  I said, ‘Yes.’  She said, ‘You and my sister Gigi come get me. I want to go home.’" 

Two days later she was dead. WPIX-TV reports the cause of death was acute amphetamine intoxication. 

● And finally, "child welfare's" version of a Christmas miracle, as described in this tweet thread from Josh Michtom, a Hartford City Councilor and family defender. The thread prompted me to once again pose the question in this 2018 post.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Can we help a leader of the “child welfare” establishment master one of the grand challenges for social work?

Yesterday, in a post about “child welfare” and the moral bankruptcy of social work, I noted that Alan Detlaff of the University of Houston, who has dedicated his career to fighting racism in family policing (a more accurate term than “child welfare”) had been ousted as the Dean of the university’s Graduate College of Social Work. 

I wrote that 

I have no doubt he could have kept that deanship if he’d simply used the playbook perfected by another social work dean, Richard Barth at the University of Maryland: proclaim social work so inherently superior to every other profession that it has eradicated all racism from decision making in child welfare.  Think I’m kidding?  Take a look.  

I didn’t quite get that right.  Barth also is no longer a dean.  But he wasn’t ousted – he went on to another exalted position: Chair of the Executive Committee of something called “Grand Challenges for Social Work.” 

But it hasn’t all been rosy for Barth.  The life’s work of Barth and other well-meaning social workers who have done so much to build, maintain and expand the child welfare surveillance state has come under increasing scrutiny for the enormous harm it’s done to children.  As that has happened, Barth has become increasingly frantic on Twitter, most recently resorting to fearmongering and taking study findings out of context.  Here’s something he tweeted on Dec. 17: 

Schneiderman's 2021 paper found Infants reported for alleged [child maltreatment] had a 2Xs higher risk of death from medical causes, in 1 year! [Foster care] cut risk by 1/2 

As you read on, note that this is a study not of child abuse deaths, but of deaths due to diseases. 

Barth does not link to the study, (which is available in full here) so it would be understandable if people thought “Oh my God!  We have to rush more infants into foster care – it’s the only way to save them from getting fatal diseases!”  But even the authors of the study itself don’t say anything like that.  And the real lessons from the study are very different. 

So let’s look at the things about this study that Barth doesn’t mention: 

● The study compares death rates due to disease in an overwhelmingly poor population – children reported to family police agencies -- to the general population.  So what the study really tells us is that poor infants are more at risk of death due to medical causes than children who are not poor.  No kidding. 

● As for the improvement among children in foster care – they are now in homes with wealthier parents and better access to medical care.  You don’t suppose … ? 

● Barth’s summary uses a common fearmongering tactic: High ratios without mentioning the raw numbers.  

Barth leaves the impression of massive risk of death for infants reported to the family police if they’re not rushed into foster care.  In fact, the study found that among the general population during the study period 99.97% did not die.  Among the infants reported as maltreated 98.97% did not die.  

That makes such deaths no less tragic, but it does change how we should go about trying to stop them.  If anything, the study finding is one more indication that there’s a whole lot of false reporting and needless investigating going on, traumatizing families and overwhelming workers.  If you didn’t do that, workers might actually have a better chance of finding the 0.13% of children at greatest risk in time.  

● Implying that it’s a good idea to throw even more children into foster care puts them at high risk of another harm: abuse in foster care. 

The authors of the study themselves explicitly reject the implication that their findings call for more use of foster care. (If you missed that, Prof. Barth, it’s on page 6, column 3 of the .pdf version.) 

So I would like to thank the study authors for bolstering the case against mandatory reporting, needless foster care and confusing poverty with neglect, and bolstering the case for making sure poor families can get the same high-quality health care as middle-class and wealthy families. 

Oh, and here’s a truly grand challenge for social work: helping Prof. Barth better understand the studies he cites.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

“Child welfare” and the moral bankruptcy of social work

Are the failures of social work really just a matter of degree?
(Image from Depositphotos)

This post was revised and updated in January, 2024

Call it The Perennial Whine of the Licensed Social Worker.  It crops up over and over when there’s any story about what family police agencies (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agencies) do to families.  Most recently I saw it repeatedly in comments on the Washington Post story I discuss here, about a family traumatized by a midnight raid by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.  Multiple commenters offered some version of: Well, they couldn’t have been social workers! Social workers would never do something like that!  As one such commenter put it: 

As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I wish news organizations such as Wapo would be more clear with using terms such as “social worker.” I suspect the person who visited the mother in the child’s hospital room was not truly a Social Worker, but a case manager of some sort with probably only a bachelor’s degree. 

The same sort of comment appears after publication of any story exposing racial bias in family policing.  Because we all know that genuine social workers – especially well-trained social workers could never be biased. 

The main reason the it-would-all-be-fixed-if-they-were-social-workers argument comes up so often is that it is one more way for supremely arrogant all-powerful family policing systems to avoid accountability.  Why have actual due process protections, why have real checks and balances if everything can be solved with a piece of parchment and a licensing exam?  It’s similar to the way family police agencies and their apologists seek to cling to their near-absolute power by claiming the solution to any problem in the system is more “training.” 

So with that in mind, consider three vignettes from the world of social work. 

Vignette #1 

In Kentucky, a boy is found dead in the “residential treatment center” where he had been institutionalized.  The coroner rules it a homicide.  The boy was 7 years old.  NBC News found that the center has an ugly history.   The mother of a second young child is suing, alleging abuse at the same institution. 

Meanwhile, another boy runs away from another residential treatment center in Kentucky and drowns.  He was institutionalized because he had autism, ran away a lot, and his grandparents couldn’t afford therapy and someone to watch him.  But at least he was older.  He was 9. 

All this in a state that routinely tears apart families at a rate 50% above the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in – creating an artificial shortage of placements that is used as an excuse to institutionalize young children. 

Now, let’s see what Stephanie Saulnier has to say about all this.  She’s not just some caseworker.  She’s a bona fide social worker.  She’s an M.S.W. and a C.S.W. She’s a professor of social work.  She even chairs the Department of Social Work and directs the B.S.W. program at Eastern Kentucky University.  So what kind of insights did all those credentials produce?  Saulnier told NBC News: 

“One of the problems that we run into is if we shut down a problematic facility, where do those kids go? That leaves kiddos that are in need of residential treatment with no place to go. There aren’t enough beds for little guys that need this level of care, and the child welfare system has to kind of figure out ‘how can we do the best with what we have?’” 

In fact, no “little guy” or “kiddo” needs a residential treatment facility of any kind, much less one that’s “problematic.”  Prof. Saulnier, M.S.W., C.S.W., seems to have overlooked the research on that one. 

Vignette #2 

Whenever there’s a big news story pointing out that yes, there is racism in child welfare, there’s a good chance that somewhere in the comments will be an objection from someone calling herself “Jane Addams.”  The comments are all pretty much the same: There is enormous accountability in child welfare, she says, we certainly don’t need more!  Courts have to approve everything we do (a stunningly misleading claim I address here, here, here, here, here and here).  And anyway, says “Jane Addams,” if you’re not a bona fide social worker working in a “child welfare” agency, how could you possibly know what you’re talking about?  This is usually followed by a recitation of horror stories that are strikingly similar from comment to comment.  

She did it -- three times -- when The New York Times exposed foster care as “the new ‘Jane Crow’.” She was back in November when the Times wrote about a study in which the New York City family police agency’s own caseworkers condemned racism in the agency.  Among those the Times quoted to add context to the story: Joyce McMillan of JMAC for Families whose own children had been needlessly taken, and family defenders.  (They also quoted a statement from the agency, after the agency refused to comment on the actual report). 

All this made “Jane Addams” very upset.  She wrote: 

I’m a licensed clinical social worker who spent my career in public child welfare, primarily providing foster care services. A peculiarity of child welfare is those given voice as experts are people like Joyce McMillan who have lack [sic] experience in this complicated work, while the knowledge & expertise of those who dedicated careers [sic] is regarded with suspicion. As a result we have a nation of armchair critics, sanctimonious public defenders among them, with no child welfare service experience who believe they know what’s best.  

There followed Adams’ standard litany of horror story cases, which are as rare as they are horrible, all leading up to: 

Understandably nobody wants to get their brain around the gravity of maltreatment.   

Oh, and, of course, she also wrote this: 

We throw around the term "social worker" when in fact few have those credentials. 

Again, this comment was about a report in which the agency’s own caseworkers condemned racism in the agency.  Presumably, Addams believes, if only they all had the appropriate "credentials" they’d know better. 

But here’s why I bring up “Jane Addams”: Her real name is Judith Schagrin, L.C.S.W-C. For decades she was Assistant Director of the Baltimore County family police agency.  And she’s not just any L.C.S.W.-C.  In 2004, the National Association of Social Workers named her “social worker of the year.” 

She's far from alone.  You can find similarly arrogant denials of racial bias in the field from oh-so-distinguished academicians such as Richard Barth, MSW, PhD, former dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work Sarah Font, MSW, PhD, at Penn State, and Emily Putnam-Hornstein, MSW, PhD of the University of North Carolina.

Vignette #3 

A group of social work students developed this excellent guide for colleagues in Illinois concerning alternatives to calling the family police.  But as is explained in this excellent story in In These Times, this is what the social work establishment tried to do to the student who led the development of the guide, Elena Gormley:

Gormley’s group project got an A, and the guide was disseminated far and wide. It’s even being taught in other social work programs. But when Gormley emailed the guide to her school’s listserv, the university initiated disciplinary proceedings, charging that ​“the content of the email encouraged students to commit a crime, which could lead to harm or the death of a child if the suggestion were followed.” The official complaint calls Gormley’s actions unprofessional and unethical and claims Gormley’s​“behavior indicates that she is unsuitable for the profession.”

Gormley spent five weeks defending herself against a litany of conduct violations, the threat of expulsion looming over her. She successfully fought the proceedings and graduated in 2021, but the experience was harrowing.

M.S.W.s in the real world 

Now, let’s see how the “if only they were social workers” argument plays out in real life. 

We are not privy to the resumes of the workers in the Massachusetts case or the workers in New York City who condemned racism in their own agency. We don’t know which workers have the minimum credentials required in these jurisdictions and which have more. 

We do know that qualifications vary from state to state and, in locally-run systems, county to county.  Washington, D.C., for example, requires all of its family police workers to have master’s degrees in social work.  As a matter of fact, the author of the column that prompted this apology from The Imprint for trafficking in what the publication called “a crude and often racist stereotype” was one such D.C. social worker – and she never tired of reminding readers of her M.S.W. degree.  The agency “Jane Addams” helped to lead in Maryland also has an M.S.W. requirement. 

I’m aware of no objective observer who says the best child welfare casework in America is performed by workers for the family police in either of these places.  Nor are they too keen on the largest locally run family policing system in America, the one in Los Angeles County. 

True, you don’t absolutely have to have an M.S.W. there in order to investigate families.  You could get by with a master’s in marriage and family counseling, psychological counseling, psychology, or clinical psychology.  But that still means there probably are a whole lot of M.S.Ws out there tearing apart Los Angeles families at the second-highest rate among America’s biggest cities.  And a lot of M.S.Ws are responsible for the fact that 58% of Black children in Los Angeles will have to endure the trauma of a child abuse investigation, almost always as a result of a false report. 

As for the holy grail of licensure – that often requires passing an exam created by a group called the Association of Social Work Boards.  Turns out there’s quite a problem with that, a problem involving racial bias.  

Yes, we need degrees and credentials 

But there’s a dilemma.  Simply declaring any and all credentials and training meaningless doesn’t work either. We know this because we’ve tried sending untrained overwhelmingly white middle-class amateurs into the homes of families who are overwhelmingly neither to pass judgment upon them – it’s called Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), and it’s vastly worse than anything even the worst social work school has come up with. 

We also know that there are places where social workers do enormous good.  One reason high-quality interdisciplinary family defense is so effective is the work of social workers demonstrating the profession at its best – helping keep families together by helping to craft alternatives to the cookie-cutter “service plans” dished out by family policing agencies.   

There are students like Elena Gormley and her classmates - and  the many social work professionals and students from across the country to rallied to Ms. Gormley's defense.  And yes, there are social workers trying to genuinely change family policing from within. 

In short, the field is full of outstanding individuals who could help social work emerge from moral bankruptcy.  But its leaders are desperate to make sure that doesn’t happen.