Thursday, September 22, 2022

An ugly video illustrates that in “child welfare” health terrorism is still the go-to tactic

The seeds of Q-Anon and Pizzagate were planted at the McMartin preschool,
then unintentionally grown and nurtured by a lot of “professionals” in "child welfare"
 who should have known better.
Earlier this year, I did a series of posts about reputation laundering in family policing – the process by which mainstream “child welfare” organizations seek to co-opt the rhetoric of change while refusing to support any measures that would actually change anything.  (And see also this excellent analysis from Lexie Gruber-Perez in Family Integrity and Justice Quarterly.) The reputation laundering also is an effort to try to make us forget these organizations’ past behavior. 

Wait, did I say past?  

Actually, for the group that calls itself Prevent Child Abuse America (PCAA), the behavior has never stopped. 

I discussed their ugly history in a presentation at the Kempe Center international conference last year.  I noted how PCAA itself described its past behavior as “health terrorism.” And in a post about their reputation laundering, I noted examples of how the health terrorism continues.  But it turns out I missed one of the most flagrant examples. 

PCAA was among the sponsors of a video, complete with lurid horror stories and a celebrity narrator, promoting the whole discredited myth about child abuse and COVID-19.  You know the one:  The myth suggesting that as soon as overwhelmingly middle-class disproportionately white “mandated reporters” didn’t have their “eyes” constantly on children who are neither, their parents would unleash upon them horrific child abuse on a massive scale. 


The video would have been bad enough at the start of the pandemic.  But it was released in March, 2022, long after what’s been called the “pandemic of child abuse” myth was discredited.  Nevertheless, the video predicted that as COVID restrictions ended and children returned to school, there would be “a surge in the number of abused children reaching out for help.” 

It didn’t happen – because there was no pandemic of child abuse. 

The people behind the video, including PCAA, undoubtedly meant well.  There really are cases of horrific child abuse.  But they also are extremely rare. That makes them no less important to address – but it requires a change in how we address them.  

The horror story cases are needles in a haystack.  Health terrorism makes the haystack bigger, so it’s even harder to find the needles.  So in addition to all the other harm done by messaging like that in the video, it also is likely to backfire. 

“It wasn’t like there was a reckoning.” 

I was led to this present-day example of health terrorism because of an excellent story about the health terrorism of the past. 

NBC News took an in-depth look at the recent rise in conspiracy theories about satanic ritual child abuse. The story cites a survey that found that 

One-third of respondents agreed with the statement, “members of Satanic cults secretly abuse thousands of children every year.” One quarter agreed that “Satanic ritual sex abuse is widespread in this country,” and 21% agreed that “numerous preschools and public schools secretly engage in Satanic practices.” 

But what sets this story apart is this: It draws a direct line from Q-Anon and Pizzagate back to the
“satanic panic” of the 1980s.  And in the 1980s the mainstream child welfare establishment
actively promoted satanic panic.  If you’re not familiar with what happened then, just Google “McMartin Preschool” – or read this summary.  One group, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC) was formed by some of those promoting the McMartin myths. But they didn’t think they were myths, they really believed it, and they really thought they were helping children.  (APSAC was another sponsor, indeed it appears to be one of the driving forces, behind the video.) 

Prevent Child Abuse America also stoked the fear.  As I noted in the Kempe Conference presentation: 

In a 1986 “fact sheet” PCAA wrote about the McMartin defendants as if they’d been convicted.  The fact sheet went on to say that “one ongoing federally-funded study is investigating over 30 cases of sexual abuse with multiple perpetrators and multiple victims in daycare settings.” 

The fact sheet goes on to cite an authority who had dealt with over 200 cases of adults allegedly abused as children.  “Their descriptions of abuse run from fondling to extreme sexual abuse which included ritualistic murder.”  The authority cited is Dr. Bennett Braun.  I have only two words to say about Dr. Braun: Google him. 

Among the allegations made by young children in these cases, after repeated interrogations: Cannibalism, being flown all over the country to be abused but returned in time to be picked up by their parents, having their eyes removed – and put back. 

But at the time PCAA’s New York affiliate said that should not encourage skepticism. They quoted an expert who explained that: “the more bizarre the story, the more reality there may be to it.” 

Imagine what Q-Anon would make of a statement like that today. 

Yes, they meant well.  But that’s not enough.  Somehow APSAC, PCAA and others never have been held accountable for the harm health terrorism did at the time – and the harm it still does today. Quoting  Prof. Joseph Uscinski, the expert who conducted the survey, the NBC story explains that satanic panic 

“… was a widespread belief back in the ΚΌ80s. And when the satanic panic disappeared, it just disappeared. It wasn’t like there was a reckoning.” 

Isn’t it time for that reckoning?  Isn’t it time every reporter who speaks to someone from APSAC and PCAA asks them about their role?  Isn’t it time someone asked why they haven’t apologized? And isn’t it time someone asked why they are engaging in similar behavior now? 

The seeds of Q-Anon and Pizzagate were planted at the McMartin preschool, then unintentionally grown and nurtured by a lot of “professionals” who should have known better.  If they refuse to apologize and refuse to stop engaging in health terrorism, then, at a minimum, the rest of us should consign these professionals and their organizations to well-deserved obscurity, instead of continuing to take their pronouncements about “child welfare” seriously.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending September 19, 2022

● We begin with more evidence that the solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism. About two weeks ago, I wrote about how KCUR public radio had done a story about a shortage of family police caseworkers in Missouri – and got the story wrong.  This week the Missouri Independent did the same story – and got it right

● "They said my child would be safer in foster care than with me," said the mother of Ja'Ceon Terry, "but see the outcome of what happened."  The outcome is that Ja’Ceon was institutionalized in a residential treatment center in Kentucky.  The outcome is that he died.  And the outcome is that a coroner has ruled that death a homicide.  Ja’Ceon was seven years old.  I wrote about Ja’Ceon and the death of another young child Kentucky had institutionalized for the Lexington Herald-Leader. 

● Mandatory reporting makes everything worse.  That’s clear from the research.  And now we have the perfect real-world example.  I have a blog post about it based on this excellent story from City Limits. And check out this detailed testimony from several New York City family defense and family advocacy organizations.

● Mandatory reporting often starts an unwarranted investigation.  When it concludes, a family may be blacklisted, sometimes for life, on a state “central registry” of alleged child abusers – with no hearing beforehand.  Jamie Gullen of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia has a column for WHYY Public Radio on a lawsuit they’ve brought to try to end this practice in Pennsylvania. 

● In a story that should come as a shock to absolutely no one, MedPage Today reports on a study which found that “Punitive Policies for Substance Use in Pregnancy Tied to Worse Obstetric Care.  Those policies are, in part, one more outgrowth of another of those odious federal laws, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. 

● There is an update to that story from Oregon I wrote about on September 1, about white foster parents of an Asian-American girl trying to play the bonding card to prevent the girl’s Asian-American relatives from adopting her: So far, a court is refusing to buy it. The court ordered the child placed with her relatives, at least for now.  But here’s the most remarkable part: In spite of everything the foster parents have done, the relatives say they still want the foster parents to be “a part of our family and to heal the relationship.”  So by all means, tell us again: Who really is looking out for the “best interests of the child”? 

● What does it mean to know you’re a Native American but be cut off from your family, your tribe, and your culture?  Three Native children adopted by white families – two of them before Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act -- answer that, in this story from the Lawrence (Kan.) Times. 

● For decades, the medical profession told us that “child abuse” was a medical problem – something wrong with a parent, and certainly nothing to do with poverty.  Now, this Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story suggests, medicine finally may be figuring out that it’s the other way around.  Poverty is at the root of all sorts of medical problems, and the “cure” involves easing the poverty, not forcing families to jump through all sorts of hoops. 

And finally: 

● NBC News takes an in-depth look at the recent rise in conspiracy theories about satanic cult child abusers. But what sets this story apart is this: It draws a direct line from Q-Anon and Pizzagate to the satanic panic of the 1980s.  That panic was promoted not by fringe groups but by mainstream “child welfare” groups – who’ve never been held accountable.  I’ll have more about this in a blog post tomorrow.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Proposed New York City Law shows how mandatory child abuse reporting makes everything worse

New York City Council chamber 

(And why are members of the Left-leaning City Council buying into a right-wing narrative about homelessness?) 

UPDATE: Check out the detailed testimony from several family defense and family advocacy organizations opposing the legislation discussed in this post.

I have written before about how mandatory child abuse reporting laws backfire.  They overload child welfare systems – or as they should be called, “family policing systems” -- with false reports and cases in which poverty is confused with neglect, stealing time from finding the few children in real danger.  And they drive people away from seeking help – because almost all helpers are mandatory reporters. 

There is abundant research confirming the harm.  And now there has emerged a sadly perfect real-world example. 

City Limits reports that the New York City Council is considering legislation that would require the city to provide “on-site mental health services” at all homeless shelters that serve families. 

What could possibly be wrong with that?  In a sane, logical world, nothing.  For reasons discussed below, the providers of these “on-site mental health services” probably wouldn’t do a lot of good, but at least they wouldn’t make things worse. 

But when it comes to how we treat impoverished families, especially impoverished families of color, that’s not the world we live in.  We live in a world in which every one of those providing the “on-site mental health services” is a mandated reporter of “child abuse” and “child neglect” – which, again, is often confused with poverty.  Very few rich people live in homeless shelters. 


If a homeless mother confides to one of these providers that she sometimes feels, say, deeply depressed or worse, once lashed out and slapped her teenage son, the provider might help her find ways to cope with the stress.  Then again, s/he might well call a child abuse hotline, turn the mother in to the family police. That would make everything ten times worse for the children by subjecting them to traumatic investigations and stripsearches and possibly consigning them to the chaos of foster care.  Even if the provider doesn’t really think setting all this in motion is a good idea – s/he’s a mandated reporter who could get in big trouble for not making the call. 

So this is how mandated reporting makes everything worse:  Advocates had to come to a City Council hearing to explain how mandatory reporting has turned adding a little extra “help” for homeless families into a really a bad idea.  As City Limits reported: 

Life in shelter already subjects families to an extra level of behavioral rules and scrutiny, putting them at additional risk of involvement with a child protective services system critics say is often biased against low-income families. That system “conflates poverty with neglect,” Alexandra Dougherty, a senior staff Attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, testified to councilmembers Tuesday. 

“We’re concerned that introducing mental health professionals who are mandated reporters directly into family shelters, which are people’s homes, will inadvertently increase surveillance of families,” Dougherty said. … 

“This raises real privacy concerns and is likely to increase the shelter-to-ACS pipeline that harms families,” Nora McCarthy, director and co-founder of the New York City Family Policy Project, testified to councilmembers of the “unintended effects” the legislation could bring. 

In response, supporters spoke of adding language to make clear services would be voluntary and would include “strict privacy perimeters.”  But that’s irrelevant.  Mandatory reporting laws supersede all other rules about privacy.  Whatever the “privacy perimeters” may be, mandatory reporters are required to breach them – and call the family police. 

Buying in to a right-wing narrative 

There is a second problem with the proposal.  As McCarthy put it: 

“It also conflates involvement in shelter with mental health issues in a way that’s troubling.” 

In fact, backers of this measure on the left-leading New York City Council are embracing a right-wing
narrative: that homelessness supposedly is the fault of the homeless – they’re all mentally ill, you know!  It was how the Reagan Administration explained away the explosion in homelessness that followed draconian cuts to social programs. 

In fact, a comprehensive study at the time showed only 15% of homeless people had any sign of mental illness. And that’s pretty remarkable since, as Ann Braden Johnson wrote at the time in her book Out of Bedlam, being homeless can cause mental illness. 

As Helen Strom of the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project told the City Council: 

“We’ve seen with many providers a tendency to pathologize and say that the cause of families’ issues is mental illness, when we know that the primary drivers of family homelessness are eviction, unsafe housing conditions, overcrowding, domestic violence—not mental health.” 

This too is backed up by research.  A major study found that one can reduce the number of children taken from homeless families by half just by providing housing vouchers.  But if you combine the vouchers with social work, the success rate actually is lower. 

Still, if the members of the New York City Council really have their hearts set on this, there is one thing they could do: Ask the New York State Legislature to amend state law to exempt any mental health providers in homeless shelters from mandatory reporting requirements.  This could turn something that would have done harm into an opportunity to demonstrate how much better helping works when the helpers are not forced to turn anyone in to the family police.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending Sept. 14, 2022

● The family police are always finding new ways to dress up their crusade to tear apart more families in pseudo-science.  As soon as one fad – predictive analytics – is debunked, they come up with another: taking “health terrorism” – extrapolating from horror stories to justify more removal of children – and slapping a more acceptable name on it: “safety science.”  In The Imprint I explain why Safety Science is Good for Aviation, but in Child Welfare it Won’t Fly

● We don’t know what will happen to the remarkably progressive bills to modestly curb family policing now on California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.  But we do know this: Just a few years ago such good legislation probably wouldn’t have even gotten a sponsor, much lass passed the California legislature.  The Imprint has a rundown. 

● Amid all the speculation about what the overturning of Roe v. Wade will mean for family policing The Marshall Project has a report on the enormous harm done to pregnant women and their surviving children when they are prosecuted for miscarriages and stillbirths.  That’s only going to get worse.  (For a full understanding of how reproductive rights and family policing really intersect be sure to read the profile of Dorothy Roberts in New York Magazine.

The Marshall Project also partnered with the Oklahoma nonprofit news site The Frontier for this story: Oklahoma is prosecuting pregnant women for using medical marijuana.  The charge is felony child neglect. 

● In 2014, the Mercury News in Northern California investigated the misuse and overuse of potent psychiatric medication on foster youth.  This excellent journalism led to legislation and, more important, the legislation got results.  The Imprint reports that the use of the worst such meds has declined significantly.  It’s a big victory.  But the overall use of such medication has barely changed – and it’s way too high.  So no, New York Times, this does not mean it’s OK for reporters to write off foster youth and focus instead of kids more likely to remind newspaper editors of their own children. 

● Once again WFLA-TV zeroes-in on the real problem at the root of all the others in Tampa Bay “child welfare” – the obscene rate at which children are needlessly torn from their families.  We’re proud to have NCCPR’s perspective included in the story.  

● The news is not so good in Kansas City.  The public radio station there talked to the right people for a "child welfare" story – but still missed the point.  I have a blog post about the story, which showed deep compassion for the trauma caused by removing children – the trauma it causes for those doing the removing, that is. 

The Bethlehem Press begins a three-part look at the trauma inflicted on children and families when so-called “child abuse physicians” rush to accuse parents of “medical child abuse.”  As one young person, needlessly taken away, explained: 

“Because [my younger sibling] is still underage, we’re still afraid …Anything that anyone might say could lead to her getting reported again and taken away. Once they’re in your life in the first place, it’s much easier for them to get back in.” 

And here’s part two. 

And The Imprint has a story about the report of the United Nations Committee that has called on the United States to change or repeal racist family policing laws.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

NCCPR in The Imprint: Safety Science is Good for Aviation, But in Child Welfare, it Won’t Fly

A column in The Imprint last month begins by quoting an odd claim made by David Sanders, in the preface to the report of a commission he chaired. He wrote: “Child protection is perhaps the only field where some child deaths are assumed to be inevitable, no matter how hard we work to stop them.” 

Really? I know of no fire chief who has claimed it’s possible to prevent any child from ever dying in a fire. I know of no police chief who says we can ensure that no child ever will be shot to death on the street. I know of no doctor who promises that no child ever will die of cancer. 

It is always the goal. But it is one where every other field recognizes our reach will exceed our grasp. Suggesting otherwise is a sign not of nobility but of hubris. 

The column in question touts the value of applying what its authors call “safety science” to child welfare. …

Read the full column in The Imprint

Thursday, September 8, 2022

The good news: A public radio station in Kansas City talked to the right people for a "child welfare" story. The bad news: They still missed the point

A billboard from JMac For Families
 

 The story shows deep compassion for the trauma caused by removing children – the trauma it causes for those doing the removing, that is. 

Often, when I single out for criticism particular stories about “child welfare” – or as it should be called family policing, it’s because the reporter never bothered to even speak to parents who have had their children taken, or to lawyers for such parents.  

So perhaps I should just be grateful that a reporter for KCUR public radio didn’t make that mistake. She conscientiously reached out to both and included their perspectives.  Perhaps I should settle for being pleased this story is better than so many others.  

But I’m not going to do that.  Because in spite of its strengths, this story still missed the point in so many ways.  It is the work of a reporter who previously did a very good story on these issues.  But this time, it seems, she found it easier to identify with the police force than with those who are policed.  Perhaps because, unlike poor people of color who understand what really happens, most journalists still have trouble thinking of child protective services caseworkers as police. 

But that’s what they are.  Sometimes caseworkers are good cops.  Sometimes they are nice cops.  Sometimes they are cops who do their best to help families.  But they are always cops. 


The story concerns the harm being done to children and families because of what is said to be an acute shortage of caseworkers and constant turnover as caseworkers quit due to burnout.  The premise is that because of the “shortage,” children can’t see their parents while in foster care, and families don’t get the guidance they need to jump through all the hoops they must surmount to prove themselves worthy of getting their children back.
 

Let’s start with the most basic failure: the false premise underlying the entire story.  Missouri does not have too few caseworkers.  Missouri has too many foster children.  Missouri tears apart families at a rate more than 50% above the national average, even when rates of family poverty are factored in.  If Missouri did no more than become no worse than average about tearing apart families, there would be enough caseworkers.  Those workers would have low enough caseloads that they would be less prone to burnout and quit. 

But nowhere in the story is there any mention of Missouri’s high rate of removal.  And while there is a brief suggestion, way at the bottom, that some removals of children aren’t necessary, nowhere is a connection made between this and the so-called shortage of caseworkers. 

Getting down to cases 

The story begins this way: 

Shayla Curts, 22, had been living at Newhouse KC, a domestic violence shelter in Kansas City, Missouri, for several months after the birth of her second child. She said it gave her a safe place to breast feed her infant and care for her 4-year-old while trying to get back on her feet. 

But she was asked to leave Newhouse after what she claims were false allegations of misconduct. Because Curts didn't have a stable housing alternative, on June 15, 2022, investigators from the Jackson County Children’s Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services and two policemen came to take her children into protective custody. 

Anybody see the problem here yet?  If not, consider how the reporter circles back to Ms. Curts at the end: 

She has a new caseworker who has been responding and appears committed to helping Curts get her kids back as soon as possible. And she’s started a job at McDonald's. 

“It should be 60 days, four checks or so and I’ll have at least enough to get accepted into an apartment,’" she said. “I need housing before I can get my kids back. My plan is to have a place, and move in, within 60 days.” 

OK, now do we see the problem?  At no point is anyone -- caseworker, supervisor or administrator – asked one simple question: “Why in God’s name are you tearing apart families just because they don’t have 60-days worth of McDonald’s-level pay to move into an apartment?”  

It’s not like the state can’t afford to step in and provide this money.  Even with the federal government  picking up a large share of the tab for foster care, Missouri still will pay more for foster care than it would cost to help Ms. Curts get an apartment.  There is at least one Kansas City Missouri police officer KCUR could have spoken to who understands this perfectly. 

Using visits as a “reward” 

In another case, KCUR tells us, a father 

continues to adhere to the requirements of his court order: going to therapy, getting psychological evaluations, taking anger management and parenting classes. He has been rewarded by progressively more time with his four-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. 

But the court’s not holding up its end of the deal, he said. There have been three-month periods when he's gone without seeing his children. 

By focusing on the caseworker “shortage” impeding visits, the story misses the larger point: It is an act of state-sanctioned child abuse to use visits with children as a reward or punishment for parents – if for no other reason than the fact that the victims of that punishment are the children.  Visits are the most important way, sometimes the only way, to ease the enormous emotional trauma that removal inflicts on children.  Depriving children of visits in order to use visits as carrots or sticks against parents is barbaric.  But this barbarity goes unremarked upon. 

“Secondary trauma” as primary problem 

The story shows far more concern about the emotional toll on – yes, the caseworkers. It cites a regional director for the state family policing agency, known in Missouri as the Children’s Division, who says caseworkers 

often suffer what’s known as secondary trauma, the experience of absorbing the grief, anxiety and anger that comes with routinely seeing the impact on families when parents and children are separated. 

Hmmm. How might we fix this? The story suggests counseling and pay raises for the workers.  I don’t object to either.  But there might just be a better way: How about sparing caseworkers the secondary trauma they experience when they remove kids by having them not inflict the primary trauma of separation on all those kids in the first place? 


I would ask readers to stop and consider for a moment how they might react to a story about law enforcement that suggested the biggest problem with stop-and-frisk policing is the secondary trauma inflicted on the cops who do the stopping and the frisking – and that the solution to the failings of law enforcement is to pay the police more and give them counseling.
 

In fairness, the KCUR story doesn’t ignore needless removal entirely.  It quotes one former caseworker who said 

the hardest part of her job were the bureaucratic obstacles she faced in trying to reunite families after relatively minor infractions.  "There was often nothing there, no reason for a kid to be in foster care," she said. “I remember one of the these cases took an entire year. It was like the court pushed for them to remain separated." 

Courts have exceptional power to do that in Missouri, since they actually run what amounts to a second, parallel (and probably unconstitutional) family policing agency known as the “juvenile office” – which often can be even worse than the Children’s Division. 

This was certainly a better story than many, perhaps most day-to-day reporting on “child welfare.”

But the fact that even an excellent reporter producing an in-depth public radio story can use a case in which the only thing separating a family is housing, another case in which visits with children are being used as a “reward” for a parent, have a caseworker admit that children are in foster care needlessly, all in a state that tears apart families at a rate 50% above the national average – and still think the primary problem is a “shortage” of caseworkers, suggests that the journalism of child welfare has a long way to go.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending Sept. 6, 2022

● The drop-everything-and-read-it item this week is from Irin Carmon in New York Magazine: A profile of legal scholar, activist (oh, and NCCPR Board Member) Dorothy Roberts. 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 understood before anyone, that family policing – a more accurate term than “child welfare” – is a reproductive justice issue. 

My favorite quote from the article: 

It’s not unusual for an academic to say they want to inspire movements, but to an extent more sweeping and durable than most, Roberts has accomplished that. 

Second favorite: 

“Dorothy is like a Harriet Tubman of law,” says her friend and fellow law professor Michele Goodwin. “She opened the gates for so many others, including myself.” 

● One of those quoted in the New York Magazine story is Joyce McMillan, founder of JMac For Families.  Gothamist has a story about how she raised $40,000 for an ad campaign to tell families their rights when the city’s family police agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, is at the door.  In the story the current head of that agency Jess Dannhauser, says: "It is very important that parents understand their rights when ACS comes to their homes.” Does that mean he’s ready to support the Miranda rights bill ACS previously opposed?  I hope somebody asks him.  And here’s one of the ads:


● In June, a Vice News story raised serious concerns about the accuracy of drug tests performed by a company called Averhealth. That story focused on Michigan, but Averhealth performs drug tests for the family police in many states, including Utah.  KSL-TV in Salt Lake City reports that on Aug. 11 a spokesman for that state’s family policing agency told them they were not “aware of any concerns regarding reliability” of Averhealth test results.  But six days later, a family police agency official confirmed they did know – but they are continuing to rely on Averhealth test results anyway.  As one mother who says she was a victim of false positive test results – and has a lot of evidence to back her up – put it:  “My kids are riding on these tests.” 

But don’t think for a minute that kind of fanaticism about alleged parental drug use is limited to states like Utah … 

­● Eleven years ago, The New York Times published a story about the persecution of families by the agency mentioned earlier, the Administration for Children’s Services, if a parent smoked marijuana.  Since then, marijuana has been legalized in New York and the law specifically instructs family police agencies not to do this.  Problem solved, right? Not according to this excellent story from Gothamist. 

● Joyce McMillan (see above) is among the authors in the new issue of Family Integrity and Justice Quarterly, co-authoring with Angela Burton: Liberate the Black Family from the Family Policing System: A Reparations Perspective on Ending Anti-Black Racism in ‘Child Welfare.’  NCCPR’s contribution takes readers deep into the weeds of “child welfare” finance – and how all the financial incentives work against families.  And don’t skip the Foreword: Lexie Gruber writes about how "[E]nthusiasm for inclusion wanes when newly included voices speak truth to power.” She diagrams the “cycle of co-optation.” Here’s the diagram:

 

There’s much more.  (And if you hate flipbooks as much as I do, look for the icon that let’s you download the issue as a .pdf) 

The Imprint reports on how, probably in response to excellent reporting from NPR, Washington State will stop forcing parents to pay ransom to get their kids back from foster care.  (Well, no they don’t call it that, but if someone takes your children and makes you pay money to get the children back, no other word is appropriate.)  Unfortunately, the change applies only to new cases.  An agency spokesperson told NCCPR they’re not sure if they can legally wipe out the debts of families already paying.  In fact, they almost certainly can. 

● The news is not so good in Oregon.  I have a blog post on how white middle-class foster parents try to play the bonding card to prevent relatives from taking custody of their Asian-American niece while, as usual, Oregon’s Senator Soundbite has a plan that would make everything worse. 

Also on the NCCPR blog: A lawsuit in Pennsylvania seeks modest changes in the process under which a caseworker can check what amounts to Pandora’s Box on a form, and blacklist someone as an alleged child abuser for life – increasing the chances that the family will be driven further into poverty, among other harms to children.  But even modest changes are mighty upsetting to the state’s take-the-child-and-run extremists find this mighty upsetting. 

● Wyoming is the latest state to consider legislation to bolster protection for Native American children – in the wake of the threat to the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.  Wyoming certainly needs it.  The state tears apart families at the third highest rate in the nation. 

The Imprint reports on that American Bar Association Resolution that comes within an inch of calling for repeal of the Adoption and Safe Families Act and other awful family policing laws.  Our own take is here. 

● And the Indiana Capital Chronicle reports that Advocates say overmedication of children in foster care still a problem.  That’s obvious, you say?  Not to The New York Times.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

“Child welfare” in Pennsylvania: checking Pandora’s Box

Photo by Tara Winstead

Pennsylvania take-the-child-and-run extremists are upset about the very idea that families should get an administrative hearing before they’re blacklisted forever in the state’s central registry of alleged child abusers 

Suppose you were reading a news story about a community that had decided to end the racist practice of stop-and-frisk policing.  You read that not only does it brutalize and humiliate those stopped and frisked – overwhelmingly Black teenagers and young adults – but also, the cops almost never find anything.  It does nothing but harm those stopped and frisked, violate basic American principles of justice, and leave in its wake increased hostility toward law enforcement. 

But then you hear from a politician who voted to keep stop and frisk – or maybe a high-ranking police officer.  And he says: “Even though we didn’t find anything, they’re all still guilty!  Too much time passed, and they just got rid of the evidence before we could stop them! 

What might you think of such a comment?  If you were, say, Newt Gingrich, Tucker Carlson or Donald Trump I’m sure you’d agree 100%.  But would progressives fall for a line like that?  Or would they wonder if the speaker had a racial bias problem? 

I ask because, in the inside-out upside-down world of family policing (a more accurate term than child welfare), this can happen: 

An organization can slap one of those boilerplate “black lives matter”- type statements on its website acknowledging that “Today, we understand that the child welfare system is inherently racist.” Then, the same group’s director can turn around and take the inherently racist position that, in his city, where the target population is overwhelmingly nonwhite, everyone who a caseworker even guesses is a child abuser must be guilty!  If an arbiter says otherwise, he explains, it’s just because “the case deteriorated on its own by the passage of time.” 

And he’s not alone.  A whole coterie of take-the-child-and-run extremists have done enormous harm to the very children they want to help in his city, Philadelphia, and the state of Pennsylvania as a whole.  They went into the field to do good. Their efforts have backfired. 

The appalling comment in question can be found in a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week concerning a lawsuit brought by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.  No, the subject isn’t stop-and-frisk, it’s an even worse infringement on civil liberties that does even more harm to children: placing families on Pennsylvania’s blacklist of alleged child abusers based on little more than a caseworker’s guess, with no hearing beforehand – only a cumbersome process to fight your way out afterward that’s often impossible for poor people to navigate. 

In this report CLS explains how the process works: 

All too often, indicated reports are based on faulty or incomplete investigations, or on the caseworkers’ misapplication of evidence or misunderstood statutory definitions. In many cases, racial, cultural, or economic differences create an additional bias that factors into a caseworker’s determination of whether child abuse or neglect occurred. Furthermore, there is no hearing or opportunity to present evidence to a neutral party. The “investigator” is also the “judge and jury.” A caseworker checks off a box, and an individual is placed on the child abuse registry, effectively for life unless the individual successfully appeals within a short deadline. While a 2014 amendment requires that agency solicitors review a worker's child abuse determination, this has not measurably reduced erroneous child abuse determinations. 

That listing has huge consequences.  It will get you fired from a vast range of jobs that involve working with or even having “routine interaction” with children, and make it impossible for you to get another job like it, sometimes forever.  

Many of these jobs are entry-level, low-paying jobs, the first rung on the ladder out of poverty.  So families are driven deeper into poverty.  That makes them targets when the poverty is confused with “neglect.”  That neglect allegation is even more likely than usual to lead to removal of the children – because, after all, there was that other “substantiated” allegation.  But remember, substantiation in Pennsylvania, and most other states, can mean only that a caseworker guesses it’s slightly more likely than not that what you did fits expansive definitions of child maltreatment.  

And if you happen to live in metropolitan Pittsburgh it’s even worse.  The registry listing will raise the “risk score” stamped on your child – in some cases at birth - by one of Pittsburgh’s racially biased “predictive analytics” algorithms – again, increasing the risk of child removal and coming back to haunt the child in later life – because having a high risk score as a child counts against you as an adult. 

In effect, when the caseworker checks the box on the form that says “substantiated” she can be checking Pandora’s Box.  That one bad guess by a caseworker can set off a cascade of compounding errors that needlessly destroys overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite families.  

A truly modest proposal 

CLS and the others who are suing are not asking for the moon.  All they seek is protection that anyone not familiar with family policing probably would assume already exists: an administrative hearing – not even a full-scale trial – before a neutral arbiter before a family is blacklisted.  Twelve other states already do this, and there is no sign that child abuse has run rampant in those states as a result.  

Even if the lawsuit is successful, the family still might shave to navigate the system alone, unless the Legislature also were to mandate that most basic protection: A lawyer for people who can’t afford one. 

But this minimal request to curb the vast power of caseworkers was enough to infuriate some of the take-the-child-and-run extremists who have, for decades, done enormous harm to the Pennsylvania children they want to save.  

The comment I cited above comes from Frank Cervone, who, for decades, has run something called the Support Center for Child Advocates.  A check via the Wayback Machine confirms that, over the years, the Center’s website has showcased a litany of horror story cases that bear no resemblance to the typical cases seen by workers.  They toned it down a little in the most recent version, but I have never seen them showcase an instance in which they intervened because a child never should have been taken away in the first place.  Apparently, they don’t believe such cases exist. 

Yet all the while, Cervone remained the “Godsource” for Philadelphia media – the one person who reporters rushed to for every story, and whose assertions were treated as Holy Writ.  

His influence is among the main reasons why, for many years, Philadelphia tore apart families at the highest rate among America’s big cities.  A willingness to stand up to him and treat his pronouncements with more skepticism is one reason why Philadelphia’s record is starting to improve

It is Cervone’s group that recently slapped that lovely statement onto its website. The statement reads in full: 

The Support Center for Child Advocates (Child Advocates) began representing children in the child welfare system in 1977 and since then, the agency has witnessed the disproportionate impact that the system has on families of color. Today, we understand that the child welfare system is inherently racist, and we must use our power and privilege to counteract this systemic racism and its impact on the communities we serve. 

But last week, Cervone used his power and privilege to do the opposite.  

The CLS lawsuit includes the fact that while, at the first level of appeal, within the state family policing agency, caseworker decisions are never – yes never – overturned, when families make it through the labyrinth and manage to be heard by a neutral arbiter – often long after they’ve been blacklisted – they usually win.  The caseworker’s guess is overturned. 

But apparently, that means nothing to Frank Cervone.  He told the Inquirer: 

“They’re not [overturned] because the person was wrongly accused. The case deteriorated on its own by the passage of time." 

Behold the Cervone Doctrine of Caseworker Infallibility!  If the worker says they did it, they did it!  Sort of makes you wonder why we bother with hearings at all, much less courts of law.  And keep in mind, as you read that pious pronouncement about racial justice from Cervone’s group, about 65% percent of the accused Cervone stigmatizes are Black and another 18% percent are Latinx. 

One more thing: If there really is a problem with the “passage of time,” nothing will fix that faster than requiring a prompt, fair hearing before anyone can be blacklisted in the first place. 

Apparently, Cervone isn’t the only adherent to the infallibility doctrine in Pennsylvania.  

Consider Penn State Prof. Sarah Font, whose notable contributions to the field include joining the right wing’s rhetorical assault against America’s most progressive child welfare legislation, the Indian Child Welfare Act, and calling for laws requiring every parent in America whose child is not otherwise seen by “mandated reporters” to produce their children for a child abuse inspection whenever they reapply for “public benefits” (so we know exactly who the target population is) -- even when no one has accused them of anything.  

I have seen no comment from Font about the CLS lawsuit.  But I don’t think she’ll like it much. Font co-authored a paper suggesting that Pennsylvania families should receive even less due process.  It includes this graphic, which suggests that there is no such thing as a mistaken allegation.  No matter how many tribunals find you innocent, according to this graphic, you are always the "perpetrator.”

And then there’s Cathleen Palm, who somehow managed to achieve Cervone’s Godsource status all over Pennsylvania.  She has been among the biggest cheerleaders for the slew of laws that vastly increased Pennsylvania’s child welfare surveillance state in the wake of the scandal surrounding former Penn State coach, foster parent and group home owner Jerry Sandusky. Palm repeatedly took both data and definitions out of context to advance her crusade.   

The laws caused a spike in the number of children torn from their homes, especially in Philadelphia, and they continue to overload systems so workers are less likely to find the relatively few children in real danger.  She helped fuel the false narrative about COVID-19 supposedly setting off a pandemic of child abuse.  And she is a champion of those Allegheny County algorithms – the ones that have been found to bake-in racial bias. 

Embracing the Big Lie 

But most of all, Palm is a true believer in the Big Lie of American child welfare – the false claim that “family preservation” and “child safety” are opposites that need to be balanced.  

Whoever wrote the subhead for the Inquirer story accepted this false framing, declaring as fact that “Any fixes to the ChildLine registry need to strike a difficult balance between helping wrongfully accused adults and protecting children from harm.”  (The reporter who wrote the actual story, to his credit, was more careful.) 

But framing that accepts the Big Lie ignores the enormous emotional trauma of foster care placement - as bad for a child taken by a Pennsylvania caseworker as it is for one taken at the Mexican border.  It ignores the high rate of abuse in foster care itself.  It ignores the dismal outcomes for many foster youth.  It ignores the mass of research showing that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes do better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care. The Big Lie encourages massive needless removal of children – which overloads systems and leaves them less time to find the few children in real danger.  In short, it makes all vulnerable children less safe. 

Real defenders of children’s rights support family preservation because it is almost always the safer option for children. 

And yet, Palm tells the Inquirer that merely because of a call to require a hearing before someone is blacklisted for life based on a caseworker’s guess 

“There’s alarm from some of us that the pendulum is swinging a little too far or is a little too adult-driven and losing sight of the fact that for a lot of people who are put on the registry they have, in fact, done something harmful to a child.” 

Actually, we don’t know that.  That’s the whole point.  It’s reasonable to believe that some people on the registry did “something harmful” [emphasis added] and among those are some who did something so harmful they need to be on the registry.  But a lot?  In the absence of a hearing before a neutral arbiter, we have no idea. 

Some people in jail are criminals.  That doesn’t mean we abandon the process of an actual trial in order to find out if they are criminals or not.  Yet Palm uses scare rhetoric in response to a proposal for even less due process than that – a mere administrative hearing. 

To understand what really upsets the take-the-child-and-run extremists so much, one need only recall the words of still another defender of untrammeled power for the family police, longtime Philadelphia “child welfare” apparatchik Paul DiLorenzo.  He’s the one who declared that people like himself “have remained the arbiters of child safety … It would never be wise for us to let go of our grip.” 

I haven’t seen DiLorenzo take a stand on CLS’ lawsuit.  But it clearly upsets the take-the-child-and-run crowd to see a lawsuit that calls for a change that would even ever-so-slightly loosen their grip. 

Once again, Orwell would understand 

Any regular reader of this Blog knows that I invoke Orwell a lot.  Here’s why:  

In the world of Cervone, Font and Palm and their counterparts across the country: 

● The easier you make it for strangers to bang on the doors of poor people's homes in the middle of the night to demand entry,

● the easier you make it for those strangers to demand you awaken your children and force them to be interrogated by those strangers,

● the easier you make it for those strangers to stripsearch your children,

● the easier you make it to leave those children terrified that the strangers may come back to take them away,

● the easier you make it to create situations that give those children nightmares, and prompt some of them to hide under their beds when they hear a loud knock at the door, sometimes for years, because they fear another interrogation – or worse,

● the easier you make it to do all this in a system that already subjects more than half of all Black children to a child abuse investigation before they turn 18,

● the easier you make it to actually take those children and consign them to the chaos of foster care – and the high risk of abuse in foster care,

● the easier you make it to brand someone a child abuser for life, put them on a blacklist and make it almost impossible to support their family financially,

● the easier you make it to confuse poverty with neglect when they can’t support their families and

● the easier you make it to brand what amounts to a scarlet number risk score on children for life – 

The easier you want to make it for the family police to do all these things - the more you’re for “children’s rights.” 

If, on the other hand, you want to spare children this trauma, and also free up overloaded caseworkers to find those few cases where children really are in danger, the more you’re one of those awful “parents' rights” people who’s “too adult driven.” 

What really scares the take-the-child-and-run extremists is that, as America’s racial justice reckoning finally reaches “child welfare,” people are becoming less likely to fall for it.