Friday, January 28, 2022

NCCPR in the Albuquerque Journal: To fix NM child welfare: listen to the gut, then do the opposite

It’s easy to fix a failing child welfare system like the one in New Mexico: just listen to your gut instinct – and do the opposite.  

Gut instinct says: Children have been dying, as a Journal editorial put it, “seemingly … under the noses” of workers for the Children, Youth and Families Department – so we should rush to tear more children from their parents at the slightest sign of abuse or neglect.  

That is always the knee-jerk response to child abuse tragedies, whether because lawmakers explicitly demand it or because workers are terrified about what will happen to them if the next high-profile tragedy is on their caseload. The result is a foster-care panic, a sudden spike in removals of children from their homes. 

But that never works. … 

Read the full column here.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Federal report says child abuse deaths DECREASED during the pandemic – but an Associated Press reporter doesn’t seem to want you to notice.

There's some big news in this report.
Unfortunately, the Associated Press buried the lead.

UPDATE: APRIL 29, 2022: Because of the reporting discussed below, I had very low expectations when I learned that the same reporter was examining the use of "predictive analytics" in family policing.  I was wrong.  That story is excellent.

For a far more nuanced take than was offered by AP, check out this story from The Imprint. Their bottom line: 

It all points to the notion that in the early months of the pandemic, as lockdowns began and schools were closed, there was not the kind of unseen surge in abuse and neglect that some feared.

Remember all those scare stories about how, because COVID-19 prevented overwhelmingly white disproportionately middle-class “mandated reporters” from constantly having their “eyes” on children who are neither, their parents would unleash upon their own children a “pandemic of child abuse”?

As with so much bad child welfare journalism, this false narrative only hurt the children it was intended to help.  It risked deterring families from seeking help when they needed it most, encouraged putting even more families under constant, oppressive surveillance, increased the likelihood of needless placement in foster care, reinforced stereotypes about nonwhite families – and, particularly before vaccines, risked spreading COVID-19 among families and caseworkers alike. 

Given that, you’d think it would have been big news when the federal government released its annual estimate of child abuse fatalities and found that, in the year ending Sept. 30, 2020 – including the first six months of the pandemic – child abuse deaths actually decreased. 

The decline in child abuse deaths may add a little bit to a wealth of data and studies, most recently from JAMA Pediatrics, but also much more, showing that there was no “pandemic of child abuse” – and journalists should think about how quickly they bought into stereotypes about nonwhite families when they rushed to write those stories. 

But what if you're as deeply committed to the “pandemic of child abuse” myth as Associated Press reporter Sally Ho seems to be?  She wrote one of the big fearmongering stories last year, a story quoting, unrebutted, an official with an association of school social workers suggesting it’s a good idea to call a child abuse hotline “if a child seems dirty." (No, I won't link to it, but it's still pinned it to the top of her Twitter feed.)  Well, then apparently you don't let data, or studies, or JAMA Pediatrics spoil a good “master narrative.” 

Instead, Ho’s latest story on the topic is headlined: 

Child abuse report: Deaths of Black children up in pandemic 

Then this subhead: 

The latest national child welfare report shows an increase in the number of Black children who died, even though fewer abuse-related fatalities were investigated in the yearlong period that included the first several months of the pandemic 

There is nothing in the story to support that subhead.  There were fewer reports alleging child abuse and therefore fewer investigations, but that does not mean fewer “abuse-related fatalities” were investigated.  The subhead seems to be based on the assumption that, thanks to the pandemic, Black parents were more successfully killing their children without anyone knowing about it.  (Reporters don’t generally write the headlines and subheads, that may well have been some copy editor making an inference – understandable, since that is what the story implies.) 

In the story itself, the decline in total child abuse deaths not only isn’t the lead, it is barely mentioned in the 8th paragraph of a 12-paragraph story. 

Similarly, when family policing agencies were forced to pull back, one of the first stories debunking the "pandemic of child abuse" myth noted that, in poor communities of color, parents say it feels like "the pollution lifting." Note that the comment is attributed, not an editorial position by the reporter.  In contrast, the AP story simply declares that the decline in investigations is "a troubling trend." That's fine (albeit wrong) in an editorial. It has no place in a news story.

But what about that increase in child abuse deaths of Black children? 

Ho cites an estimate of 504 such fatalities in 2020, an increase of 73 compared with 2019.
She neglects to mention that the 2019 figure was a significant decrease from 2018, when there were 470 such deaths. The increase between 2018 and 2020 was 34; less than half the increase than if you choose 2019 as the base year. (On the other hand, the 2018 figure was a significant increase from 2017 – even though there was no pandemic. This very volatility further indicates something discussed in detail below, that fatalities are an unreliable way to draw conclusions of any kind about child welfare systems.)

But since that’s what AP has chosen to use without context, here’s the context: 

We’re looking at an increase of 73 (or 34) in a universe of more than 8.5 million Black children.  That means, relative to the total number of Black children in America, between 2019 and 2020 the number said to have died of child abuse increased by 0.0009%. 

And, for reasons discussed below, some of the supposed increase might be an artifact of subjective decision-making – and bias – in determining cause-of-death. 

All this illustrates the primary reason one can draw no sweeping conclusions of any kind from child abuse death numbers.  It is a reason I’ve repeated often on this blog, a reason for which we all should be grateful: Though each is the worst imaginable tragedy, the number is too low to draw sweeping conclusions.  The number can fluctuate easily due to random chance -- or simply errors in reporting statistics as they are passed from police departments (in some cases) to county child welfare offices to state child welfare agencies to the federal government.  

Another key factor is the potential for bias.  One might think that nothing would be more straightforward than determining if a fatality is due to abuse or neglect.  

But what about a case in which, say, a three-year-old wakes up early one Sunday morning.  Mom and Dad are asleep.  They didn’t know how adept their child had become at opening the back door.  He wanders away, falls into a body of water and drowns.  Accident or neglect?  If the body of water is the pool behind the McMansion it will probably be labeled an accident.  If it’s a pond behind a trailer park: Neglect.

So, what do you think?  Which racial or ethnic groups are more likely to be involved when a death is mislabeled neglect?  

Selective about “experts” 

The Associated Press story ignores all that. It leaves the impression that the increase is because as soon as mandated reporters turned away, Black parents unleashed savagery on their children.  The story includes the same boilerplate that became standard in stories pushing the pandemic of child abuse myth: 

The federal data confirm a drop by hundreds of thousands in documented cases of child abuse reports, investigations, substantiated allegations and support for at-risk families. But experts say that’s not necessarily good news — children were out of the public eye during the pandemic, and some cases likely weren’t reported until they became more severe, if at all. 

Experts say?  There are plenty of experts who say that is b.s.  But those experts are ignored. 
They don’t even get the usual “to be sure graf” (as in “To be sure, not everyone agrees with the thesis of our story, [insert token quote or statistic here] but, [return to the reporters’ thesis]…”

Two government officials are quoted, but they do nothing to challenge the story’s thesis – in fact, they say pretty much nothing at all. And even then, one of the officials JooYeun Chang, was taken out of context.  The Imprint has what the AP story left out. 

Instead, the story cites just one alleged “expert,” who, in the long, ugly tradition of “health terrorism” offers up the fill-in-the-blanks quote the reporter seemed to want: 

The numbers on fatalities in particular are concerning, because such cases are notoriously underreported, said Amy Harfeld, of the Children’s Advocacy Institute. Social workers often investigate a child’s death only if the family had already been involved with a child welfare agency. 

Even if one assumes that such cases are underreported and, in fairness, given all the failures I’ve just described, it’s reasonable to believe that, this is not a new phenomenon.  There is nothing to indicate that the number of missed cases increased in 2020, so this does nothing to support the “pandemic of child abuse” theory.  In fact, it is no less possible that, without as many false allegations and poverty-confused-with-neglect cases clogging the system, workers found more cases when children were in real danger, and that’s why total child abuse deaths went down.  

But the weirdest part of the quote is the implication that a child abuse death doesn’t make it into federal data unless it’s investigated by social workers.  A death determined to be child abuse is reported and counted whether it’s investigated by social workers or by law enforcement. And I’m sure even Amy Harfeld doesn’t believe that, upon discovering a suspicious death of a child, the cops say “Nah, don’t bother to investigate; they were never reported to child protective services.” 

Yes, this should cut both ways 

But wait: Does that mean we also can’t draw sweeping conclusions from the overall decline in child abuse deaths?  

Yes, it does.  I’ve suggested before that I would be glad to negotiate a mutual moratorium on the use of horror stories to make a point, I also would be glad to negotiate a mutual moratorium on drawing sweeping conclusions from child abuse death statistics.  So far, reporters don’t seem to be interested. 

More important, none of the evidence debunking the pandemic of child abuse myth depends exclusively on fatality numbers.  But none of that evidence, and none of the experts who disagree with the story’s premise got even a word in edgewise.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending January 25, 2022

● We begin this week not just with one story but with an entire magazine.  Family Integrity and Justice Works, the group started by two former top federal child welfare officials, is publishing a quarterly magazine. The first issue is devoted to the enormous harm done by the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act

● One way to reduce the harm of ASFA is, of course, to provide real help to families.  The term “primary prevention” sometimes has been just a euphemism for expanding surveillance.   But given the great panel at this upcoming webinar, I don’t think this event will be one of those times. 

● At long last, it appears America’s racial justice reckoning might be starting to reach child welfare.  That seems to be making a certain former Los Angeles Times reporter, and current contributor, very upset.  So he’s back, scapegoating family preservation – and pushing computerized racial profiling, AKA “predictive analytics.”  I have a two-part blog post about how his work is harming the most vulnerable children in Los Angeles. 

● There’s more about the problems with predictive analytics in this op-ed column for the Connecticut online news site, CT Mirror. 

● The company that makes and sells the particular predictive analytics software that, as the column above documents, failed disastrously, also used to be in charge of foster care in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas County, Florida.  That failed disastrously, too.  Now a mother whose child was taken only to be sexually abused in Pinellas County foster care is suing the agency, Eckerd Connects. But let’s also remember who took the child from his own home in the first place

● If you think you know every way in which so-called “child abuse pediatricians” run amok can make children and their parents suffer, think again, and read this story from Wisconsin Watch and the Anchorage Daily News. 

● In New Mexico an Albuquerque Journal editorial declared, children are dying “seemingly … under the noses” of the state family policing agency.  NCCPR has an op-ed in the Journal about what to do about it. 

● When the Supreme Court let religious adoption and foster care agencies discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, the debate was focused almost entirely on the harm to LGBTQ parents.  In Family Court Review, New York University Law Professor (and NCCPR President) Martin Guggenheim argues that everyone, including the City of Philadelphia, which argued before the Court opposing such discrimination, missed the point.  The real issue is the harm to LGBTQ children.

● Remember when children could walk home from school by themselves or even play in a playground without parents hovering over them?  Let Grow is supporting bills in three states to give children back that freedom – without their parents having to fear being charged with “neglect.” 

● Remember when “brain science” was the big fad when it came to justifying tearing apart families?  Looks like the brain scientists are getting smarter. 

● Of course, families enmeshed in the net of family policing agencies such as New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services have always known what the brain scientists are discovering.  As members of the Parent Legislative Action Network write in NYN Media: 

Low-income communities are saturated with mandated reporters who are obligated to report any inkling of child maltreatment. That means that if a parent is thinking of asking for help, such as HeadStart child care, emergency housing, domestic violence support, substance abuse counseling, or Applied Behavior Analysis therapy funded by the state, they should be prepared to deal with ACS. … Families need real support from trustworthy service providers within their communities. But even more, families need cash.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Garrett Therolf and the Magic Algorithm!

He co-authors a “news analysis” for the Los Angeles Times that sounds like a pitch by a company selling “predictive analytics” software for child welfare.  There’s also another cheap shot at family preservation and something that sure sounds like a dog-whistle.

Second of two parts. Read part one here.

Yesterday’s post to this blog reviewed the bad journalism practiced by former Los Angeles Times reporter, and current contributor, Garrett Therolf.  I noted that other journalists have accused him of repeated misrepresentations and, on one occasion, making up a quote.  The post talked about Therolf’s profound discomfort with any suggestion that there is systemic racial bias in child welfare. 

I said I believe this poor journalism contributes to the fact that Los Angeles County tears apart families at the second-highest rate among America’s biggest cities and their surrounding counties.  And I noted how he stacked the deck in a story about racial bias in child welfare. As Therolf portrayed it in a 2017 story, white people “marshal data,” Black people want to rely on anecdote and “folkways.” 

That post discussed what Therolf said during a January 20 “Ask the Reporters” video event presented by the Times.  But Therolf and a current Times reporter, Matt Hamilton, also wrote a “news analysis” for the Times headlined Anthony, Noah, Gabriel and beyond: How to fix L.A. County DCFS. 

Though called a news analysis, it was actually a sales pitch for a child welfare fad that is much beloved by those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare: predictive analytics.  This is an approach in which a computer algorithm mines vast amounts of data – especially data about poor people – and tells the family policing agency whether a case is high-risk.  It amounts to computerized racial profiling.  

It was tried first in criminal justice – and proven to be racially biased.  Yet Therolf and Hamilton present it not just as a solution to the problems plaguing the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services but the only viable solution.  They regurgitate favorite talking points of Emily Putnam-Hornstein, America’s foremost evangelist for predictive analytics in child welfare; someone whose own extremism and penchant for deriding the work of Black people is documented here. 

Analyzing the “analysis” 

The story is a great illustration of Therolf’s general approach. So in this post, I will go through parts of the story paragraph-by-paragraph, (excerpts are in italics) starting with that headline, which references the three horror story cases Therolf focuses on, to the near exclusion of all else: 

News Analysis: Anthony, Noah, Gabriel and beyond: How to fix L.A. County DCFS 

One could as easily have done a story headlined: “Los Angeles tears apart families at one of the highest rates in America’s largest urban areas – but children keep dying: How to fix L.A. County DCFS.”  But Therolf has shown no interest in L.A.’s outlier status.  While he has pointed out that Los Angeles has failed to prevent horror story cases for decades, he has not seen fit to remind readers that the rush to remove more children has done nothing to make them safer. 

In the long, troubled history of L.A. County child abuse cases, certain names stand out as avatars of how the system can go terribly awry. Anthony Avalos. Gabriel Fernandez. Noah Cuatro. 

Viola Vanclief, Joseph Chacón and Andreas F. could just as easily have become such avatars
– but Viola and Joseph died in foster care.  Andreas was allegedly tortured and beaten into a coma by his foster mother.  They didn’t become “avatars” because the way they were hurt doesn’t support Therolf’s “master narrative.” The Love family  (whose story does not appear to have been covered in the Times even once) and the mother who is the subject of this commentary in WitnessLA also would make excellent avatars of system failure. 

In fact, all of these children deserve to “stand out as avatars of how the system can go terribly awry.”  Therolf and his colleagues have chosen to emphasize some and pay far less attention to others. 

Is the racial justice movement really too influential? 

But since the spring of 2020, another name has wielded outsize influence over national perspectives and policies related to child welfare, and energized activists to push for sweeping reforms: George Floyd. 

Notice the use of “outsize” influence as opposed to “strong influence” or just “influence.”  Outsize can simply mean large, but it also can mean “exaggerated or extravagant in size or degree.” – as in: Beware! People are now way too concerned about not taking away Black children and that is putting them in danger.  

If anything, the impact of America’s racial justice reckoning on child welfare has been undersized, consisting largely of foster care agencies slapping Black Lives Matter statements on their websites while continuing business as usual. 

Indeed, it is a testament to the double standards that so many journalists apply when the issue is child welfare that in the midst of a racial justice reckoning, so many reporters bought into a racially biased, and now widely-debunked myth: the one that claimed that, due to COVID-19, in the absence of all those overwhelmingly middle-class disproportionately white “mandated reporters” keeping their “eyes” constantly on children who are neither, their parents would unleash on their own children a “pandemic of child abuse.”  Garrett Therolf, who in his current job writes for outlets besides the Times, jumped right onto that bandwagon.

Similarly, while the Los Angeles Times did a superb job confronting its own racism in many other fields, it neglected to scrutinize its child welfare coverage.  Perhaps the Times’ new editor, Kevin Merida, will remedy that. 

The murder of the Black Minneapolis resident by a police officer in May 2020 set off a national soul-searching over the country’s racist past and the prejudices that still haunt its institutions. In L.A. County, that process has focused intense scrutiny on what a number of racial justice advocates and elected officials say is an implicit bias that may make some Department of Children and Family Services workers more prone to regard poor families and parents of color as unfit to raise their children. 

Watch out for those bad apples 

Notice the “few bad apples”-type framing here.  Some workers may be biased.  As opposed to the idea that systemic racism poisons the entire system.  Therolf isn’t required to agree with that, but he has an ethical obligation to note the existence of that critique and explore it.  But as we’ve seen, Therolf has a record of dismissing that idea. 

In 2020, three-quarters of children removed from their homes in L.A. County were Latino or Black, according to a motion — authored by Supervisor Holly Mitchell and passed in July by the Board of Supervisors — to begin implementing a controversial pilot project called “blind removal.” 

The program, first adopted in Nassau County on Long Island in New York, redacts all race and race-related factors from the dossiers used by social workers and supervisors in determining child welfare cases. And it is gaining popularity, despite critics who say that it has shown insufficient evidence of its efficacy and that it adds one more task to an overtaxed workforce. 

Let’s take the last point first. What overtaxes the workforce is a flood of false reports, trivial cases, cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect and needless removals of children by workers terrified of being the Los Angeles Times’ next target if they leave a child in a home and something goes wrong.  So the notion that one small step to try to curb racial bias should be abandoned because the workforce is overtaxed is one more indication of Therolf’s own bias. 

Therolf is partly right about criticism of the program’s efficacy – criticism from his pal Putnam-Hornstein.  (He does not mention other criticism, that the change doesn’t go far enough in uprooting institutional racism.)  But that hardly makes the whole program “controversial.”  Even the revisionist critique shows an overall decline in removals of Black children.  In fact, the data may indicate that the process contributes to a decline in removals of all children – perhaps because the process also eliminates data suggesting whether or not a family is poor. 

But the best way to find answers is to create a pilot project to test the practice.  That is exactly what the Board of Supervisors has ordered. 

But while officials scramble to address these race-related concerns, other child welfare experts assert that another, relatively new methodology using machine learning and algorithms is more likely to yield race-neutral and reliable results that, among other benefits, will enable social workers to accurately identify incidents of child abuse at an early stage and move swiftly to intervene.  

Notice that this method gets a much friendlier introduction. A method widely criticized as magnifying racial bias is presented as the magic cure. 

Rather than relying on caseworkers’ limited ability to weigh a family’s full recorded case history — due to limited time and cumbersome technology — experts had urged the county to partially automate risk analysis with a new generation of predictive analytics tools to scan and evaluate hundreds of known variables regarding families, including prior hotline calls and the child’s age when the first hotline call was received. 

Stop and ask yourself: If you were writing promotional copy for a company selling predictive analytics software, would it have been any different from that?  

Better solutions 

One could, in fact, solve the limited time problem by curbing the deluge of false reports, trivial cases and poverty cases.  This could be done by things like eliminating mandatory reporting  -which has been found, in studies Therolf is unlikely to tell you about, to overload the system and drive families away from seeking help.  

The deluge of false reports is due in part to CYA referrals by mandated reporters terrified of what will happen to them - including what the Times will do to them – if they don’t report and something goes wrong.  As for cumbersome technology, how about fixing it, instead of building a whole new technology on top of it? 

The use of such tools to predict which children are at greatest risk has attracted controversy because of the chance that they might exacerbate racial disparities in child welfare. That’s because Black and Latino families tend to interact more frequently with entities such as public hospitals and mandated reporters who generate the data that are used to train the algorithm on how to detect risk. 

Actually, there’s far more reason than that. The algorithm in Pittsburgh, for example, which was co-authored by Putnam-Hornstein and for which Therolf has shown particular fondness, relies heavily on databases that sweep up data only on poor people. It also relies heavily on past involvement in the family regulation system itself. (By the way, Putnam-Hornstein hates the phrase “family regulation system.”) That makes the computer-generated risk score more like a self-fulfilling prophecy than an actual prediction.  Then there’s the fact that, as noted earlier, the same approach has been proven to be biased when applied in criminal justice. 

Those pesky civil libertarians! 

Pushback from the American Civil Liberties Union and others had stalled the development of the program for years, contributing to the decision by Cagle’s predecessor, Philip Browning, to retire in frustration. 

Darn those pesky civil libertarians!  But, wait, what did the ACLU actually say?   You don’t suppose they have an in-depth critique that they presented at a recent virtual conference, do they? Isn’t this where real journalists quote the ACLU in order to explain why there might be a problem?  But no; a hallmark of Therolf’s “reporting” is to minimize dissent from his own point of view, confining it to a brief paraphrase or not mentioning it at all. 

Oh, one other thing Therolf neglects to mention: Los Angeles County tried a predictive analytics algorithm during Browning’s tenure – and it failed spectacularly. The “false positive” rate was more than 95%. Much the same happened in Illinois.  What L.A. is trying now is supposedly a new, improved algorithm.  But it’s co-authored by Putnam-Hornstein – and her Pittsburgh algorithm has much the same problem. 

But [Browning’s successor, Bobby] Cagle gained the majority support of L.A. County’s supervisors that had eluded Browning, and the tool was piloted last summer to help flag children like Noah who may be at the highest risk. (Cagle resigned in November, as DCFS faced mounting criticism over a series of fatalities and abuse of children under the agency’s care.) 

A lead designer of predictive analytics, Emily Putnam-Hornstein at the University of North Carolina, emphasizes that the tool is designed to be advisory and can be easily set aside by caseworkers if their investigation verifies that no significant safety threats exist. 

Easily set aside? You’re kidding, right?  Again, imagine what would happen to the caseworker who overrides the algorithm and something goes wrong.  Here’s what would happen: A Los Angeles Times  headline that would say something like: “Caseworker ignored ‘high risk’ warning about [name of child] weeks before he died." 

Also, as Therolf describes it, the override would come only after the incredibly intrusive, traumatic investigation called for by the algorithm – and algorithm which, when it comes to predicting the kind of horror stories on which Therolf’s reporting thrives, will almost always be wrong.

Unfortunately, it seems that the chair of the Board of Supervisors, Holly Mitchell, buys this.  During a Times-sponsored video presentation, she actually said she knows there is an inherent potential bias in the algorithm but she was counting on caseworkers to both overcome their own biases and counter any bias in the algorithm. 

In a slide show presentation explaining the need for tools like L.A. County’s, Putnam-Hornstein wrote that her work stems from a “growing appreciation that current tools are inadequate, clinicians are poor at weighting factors (and time is scarce!).” An independent evaluation team will ultimately decide whether the tool helps. 

I’ve already addressed the “time is scarce” argument.  The “current tools are inadequate” argument is a Putnam-Hornstein favorite.  The problem isn’t that she’s wrong, it’s that she’s setting up a false choice: Either use the cruddy system you have now or the cruddy alternative I’m proposing. That’s something I’ve addressed before in the context of Los Angeles.  

There are other ways to go: Abolish mandatory reporting, allowing mandatory reporters to become mandatory supporters (Putnam-Hornstein hates that phrase, too), narrow neglect laws to reduce the confusion of poverty with neglect, and provide high-quality defense for families, just for starters.  All that would allow human caseworkers plenty of time to learn how to do the job better and with less bias. 

As for the claim about an independent evaluation, that needs to be checked closely, in light of the way a so-called independent ethics review was handled for Putnam-Hornstein’s Pittsburgh algorithm. 

Scapegoating family preservation 

And now, behold how, once again as he has so many times before, Therolf attempts to scapegoat any effort to keep families together: 

One near-universal assumption among social workers is that children belong with their own families in the absence of serious safety threats. 

That is near-universal rhetoric – but the data show that caseworkers in Los Angeles are far more prone to tear apart families than their counterparts in other large metropolitan areas.  

But critics contend that this can lead caseworkers to reflexively declare success whenever a child remains with their parents, without taking full account of whether the child could be at risk. 

Which critics – besides you, Garrett?  That sounds a lot like Donald Trump, who was fond of saying “many people are saying” or “a lot of people are saying” when he meant himself.  Also: 

● As is so common with Therolf’s stories, this implies that holding children in foster care is safe and only returning a child home can place a child “at risk.”  That is at odds with study after study showing high rates of abuse in foster care. 

● And where are the data to support the claim about placing children at risk?  Oh, wait, there’s one line by one lawyer in one report - from 2012: 

“DCFS should change its messaging from Do Not Detain/Keep The Numbers Down,” wrote the Board of Supervisors’ special counsel in a secret internal 2012 report. 

But then, as now, the numbers weren’t down. Los Angeles was, and remains, an outlier in child removal.  Therolf provides no link to the “secret internal 2012 report” and no documentation that any such messaging existed.  If there has ever been such messaging, the data show that the rank-and-file sure didn’t get the message. 

Yet workers in the cases of Noah Cuatro, Gabriel Fernandez and others went on to finalize decisions to leave children in dangerous homes without even reading their own agency’s case file. 

Note the leap here: The logical assumption when workers make decisions without reading the file is that they didn’t have time to read the file – as Therolf himself suggests earlier in this same story.  But if you’re pushing a particular point-of-view, you simply leap to the conclusion that they didn’t read the file because of some fanatical devotion to keeping families together. 

Research has shown that people who are not trained to assess and investigate child abuse are more successful than DCFS workers at predicting the most serious harms to children. Researchers have found that the number of calls made by the public to child protection hotlines was a better indicator of deadly risk than the conclusions of caseworker investigations. 

Inference peddling 

Here, as throughout the story, Therolf wants us to take his word for whatever inferences he chooses to make.  There are no links to actual documents, much less to research.  No way to see the context or to fact-check his claims. 

In fact, it appears that Therolf may be making a leap from a study – by Putnam-Hornstein, of course, showing that children reported to child abuse hotlines are more likely to die than children not reported to hotlines.  

But, as noted in yesterday’s post, of all children who are, in fact, the subject of hotline calls in the course of a year 99.998% do not die.  That makes the horror stories no less horrible and no less a cause for action.  But they are needles in a huge haystack.  

So Putnam-Hornstein’s findings tell us only that while the risk of child abuse death among children who are subjects of hotline calls is infinitesimal, the risk to children who are not subjects of such calls is even smaller.  If you then make the number of hotline calls a huge red flag in an algorithm, you will traumatize vast numbers of children in innocent families, encourage malicious false reports, and further inundate caseworkers, leaving them even less time to find children in real danger and less time to “read their own agency’s case file” – because, remember, “time is scarce!” 

Indeed, it is precisely because the horror stories we think of when we hear the words “child abuse” are so rare that predictive analytics experiments crashed and burned in Illinois – and Los Angeles. 

Over the last decade of relative paralysis by the Board of Supervisors to implement effective reforms, hundreds of children whose cases cried out for help have died at the hands of their caregivers. 

Actually, it wasn’t paralysis.  The constant outcry from the Board of Supervisors – and Therolf’s stories -- led Los Angeles County to take far too many children and overload the system – so of course child abuse deaths did not stop. 

Can’t you hear the whistle blowing? 

Therolf goes on to list a series of factors he says explain why child abuse deaths occur disproportionately in one part of the county, the Antelope Valley.  Then comes something that sure sounds like a dog-whistle: 

Complicating matters further is that the region has one of the highest shares of Black residents, so any misstep exacerbates concerns about racial justice. 

That sounds like a more genteel version of what you’d hear on Fox News: They won’t take Black kids in danger because the politically correct woke mob will get them! 

Now, as the county prepares to select its next DCFS director, that person will have to confront a central problem that has undermined … so many …  initiatives of the past: trust. 

At a recent forum held by Fordham’s School of Law to discuss Los Angeles County’s use of machine learning, Ron Richter, the former director of New York City’s child welfare system, said that even “when we talk about a tool that may help reduce disproportionality and family regulation, sincere issues of trust surface, especially for those of us who have witnessed firsthand what child welfare looks like on the ground.” 

That’s also true, Richter added, for “those who have been historically judged by this system and feel strongly that many children and families have been misjudged.” 

But Richter, who now runs a large private foster care agency, wasn’t the only speaker at the forum.  One of the others was Aaron Horowitz, chief data scientist for the American Civil Liberties Union.  So you see, Therolf knows full well why the ACLU disagrees with Richter and does not see this as “a tool that may help reduce disproportionality and family regulation” – but he doesn’t seem to want L.A. Times readers to know it.  He allows no one to actually make the case that predictive analytics can magnify racial bias.  Though Therolf won’t tell you, you can watch Horowitz’s presentation, and the entire Fordham event here. 

Note also the condescension.  What Richter is really saying is much like what Therolf himself suggested in that 2017 article: That we white people are using science, and those Black people are just scared because they rely on anecdote and “folkways.” 

As long as this is how the Los Angeles Times continues to cover child welfare, the commendable reckoning it undertook last September, when it looked at its own track record covering race, is incomplete.

Monday, January 24, 2022

The Los Angeles Times is getting child welfare wrong again – and that’s bad news for Los Angeles children

Garrett Therolf was among those speaking at a Los Angeles Times
"Ask a Reporter" event on January 20. Questions were screened in advance.

As usual it's because of Garrett Therolf. The former Times reporter and still their go-to guy for child welfare stories continues to soft-peddle racial bias.  Now he’s campaigning for the use of computerized racial profiling – a.k.a. predictive analytics.  He’s even effectively blaming readers for his own failings as a journalist. 

First of two parts Read part two here.

Remember Garrett Therolf?  He’s a former Los Angeles Times reporter and current Times contributor via his current job with the University of California, Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program.  While writing story after story attacking efforts to keep families together he was accused – by other journalists - of repeated misrepresentations and, on one occasion, accused of making up a quote

 ●LA Weekly noted how the Times quietly backed off claims in a Therolf story about child abuse deaths. 

● The respected online news site WitnessLA reported: 

[A]ccording to a number of sources and experts, many of Therolf’s supporting facts range from very fuzzy to downright inaccurate—and seem to be immune to correction … 

Much is at stake when the state’s largest newspaper starts using some high profile tragedies to push—without adequate factual basis and no visible thoughtful consideration—for a change in policy that would result in more kids snatched unnecessarily from non-abusive families into the trauma that is foster care. 

● The founder of the child welfare trade journal The Imprint, Daniel Heimpel was more blunt, blasting “The Times’ myopic, misleading and reckless reporting …” 

Therolf’s specialty is taking child abuse deaths, tragedies that are as rare as they are horrific, and doing two things: Covering them almost to the exclusion of everything else, leaving the impression that the only error the system makes is leaving children in dangerous homes, and drawing broad, sweeping conclusions from these tragedies.  That contributes to foster-care panics, sharp, sudden increases in children needlessly torn from their homes. 

That not only hurts the children needlessly removed, it also overloads the system, making the next tragedy that much more likely.  Of course this doesn't mean Therolf wants his reporting to do harm; I'm sure he wants his reporting to save lives.  But to do this reporting he must immerse himself in the details of some of the most horrific tragedies imaginable.  As he has acknowledged, that can take a personal toll.  And, as with other reporters who have done the same kinds of stories, it seems to have blinded Therolf to the real-world consequences of an approach that omits crucial context.

When Therolf’s reporting came under increasing criticism, the Times issued a response that boiled down to: If you challenge our coverage in any way you want children left in dangerous homes! (See also WitnessLA’s response to that here and here.

Garrett Therolf’s journalism certainly isn’t the only reason Los Angeles tears apart families at the second-highest rate among America’s largest cities and their surrounding counties, I think it plays an important part. 

Therolf has a particular problem with the idea that there is systemic racial bias in child welfare – boosting the most extreme white scholars who lead child welfare’s de facto “caucus of denial” while ignoring the credentials and demeaning the work of Black scholars.  As we noted in this earlier post about one such story, in Garrett Therolf’s world white people “marshal data.”  Black people just want to rely on anecdote and “folkways.” 

Hyping “predictive analytics” 

So it should be no surprise that Therolf is pushing that dangerous fad in child welfare predictive analytics, in which an algorithm dredges up data on families who were the subjects of child abuse reports and tells the family policing agency if the case is “high risk.”  Therolf regurgitates all the favorite talking points of Emily Putnam-Hornstein, America’s foremost evangelist for what is actually computerized racial profiling – and someone whose own extremism and penchant for deriding the work of Black people is documented here. 

Perhaps Therolf fears that people are finally taking seriously the existence of systemic racial bias in child welfare.  That would explain two odd events at the Times on January 20: A so-called “news analysis” story that pushes predictive analytics as the silver bullet for child welfare – the only idea greeted with approval in a story headlined “How to fix L.A. County DCFS” -- and an “Ask the Reporters” video presentation in which almost no one outside the Times itself got to ask anything of Therolf, his current reporting partner, Matt Hamilton, and Holly Mitchell, who chairs the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. 

Normally, there is a news peg for stuff like this – some big event in the news prompting a newspaper to offer this kind of additional “context.”  But the only thing new in Los Angeles child welfare is the departure of the head of the County’s family policing agency, the Department of Children and Family Services – a thoroughly routine event that happens on average roughly once every two or three years – and the emergence of a powerful new force for change, the Reimagine Child Safety Coalition.  They’ve issued a series of demands, directed at the Board of Supervisors, which would, at long last, bring a measure of racial justice to Los Angeles child welfare.  In this, they march alongside DCFS-Give Us Back Our Children, which has been active for well over a decade.  I am proud to work with both groups. 

In part two of this post, tomorrow, I’ll go paragraph-by-paragraph through the “news analysis” story, since it is a splendid example of Therolf in full spin mode.  But for now, let’s go to the videotape.  

During the carefully stage-managed event, almost all the questions came from Times columnist  Anita Chabria. Audience questions had to be submitted well in advance for screening.  One of those questioners asked: 

Are you concerned that reforms are driven by the worst failures of child protective services, and in focusing on children who died, officials and the public largely forget the trauma and harm experienced by a huge number of children removed from their homes and then removed from repeated subsequent placements? 

Hamilton replied: 

 I don’t think it’s an if/or proposition. You can focus on these complex cases that have a lot of very serious allegations but still also look at the broad number of cases that come in, I don’t think reform is being only driven by these type of cases. 

The problem with that is two-fold: First, for decades what passes for “reform” has been
driven by the horror story cases and almost nothing else – that’s why it’s failed. The one reform that tried to curb needless removal, a waiver to allow more flexible child welfare funding, was a prime subject of misleading attacks by Therolf. 

And second, while one can look at cases that illustrate needless removal, with only token exceptions the Los Angeles Times hasn’t actually done that, something discussed in more detail below. 

The most misleading statistic in child welfare 

Then it was Therolf’s turn.  The first thing he did was remind us of the horror stories – in a common, but misleading way. In fact, he used what may be the most misleading statistic in child welfare.  He said that four to eight children die of abuse in America every day and half are in some way known-to-the-system. 

That is not wrong, but it lacks crucial context.  First, “known” can mean anything from one call to a hotline years before, to a casefile with more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade; which are, of course, the ones on which Therolf focuses. 

But more important, the phrasing – half of children who die were known-to-the-system leaves a visceral impression of something very different: That half of children known-to-the-system die  -- and therefore agencies must be bending over backwards to leave children in dangerous homes. 

To really understand the meaning of half of child abuse deaths involve children known-to-the system, you have to understand how many children are “known to the system.”  Any story that uses the statistic should also include the context. (Shall we take bets on whether someone at the L.A. Times or some other journalist-on-the-defensive will misrepresent the above and say: “Oh, you don’t want us to report how many deaths were known to the system”?)  So here’s the context: 

Nationwide, more than seven million children become “known to the system” every year.  Using Therolf’s high-end estimate, 1,460 of them die.  That means every year 99.998% of children “known to the system” do not die of child abuse and neglect. 

It looks a bit like this:


As soon as you point that out, however, it plays into the hands of those, like Therolf and others at the Times, who say this means we must be minimizing the problem and don’t really care if children are hurt. 

And sure enough, that’s what Therolf did, declaring: 

Sometimes reporters are criticized for covering child abuse fatalities: Oh, you’re covering an unusual event.  And while these events are rare, they are happening every day with regularity, and it’s a place where our democracy has an opportunity to make an improvement in an area everybody agrees has not fulfilled its promise. 

No one says journalists shouldn’t cover child abuse fatalities – it’s just Therolf’s way of evading responsibility for the failings in his journalism.  Rather, we’ve said Therolf, and others, should do it better – so their coverage might bring us closer to the only acceptable goal for child abuse fatalities: zero, rather than simply repeating the very cycle of failure Therolf acknowledges. And we’ve said they should cover all the other system failings, not instead of the horror stories, but in addition. 

Therolf’s critics are simply doing his job for him.  We’re explaining the problem – and why foster-care panics make it worse -- and suggesting real solutions.  Child abuse deaths are needles in a haystack, and the foster-care panic typically engendered by journalism, Therolf-style, only makes the haystack bigger. 

And then, incredibly, Therolf claims he already covers wrongful removal – and suggests that if readers haven’t noticed it must be their fault.  He gives a lovely little speech that bears no resemblance to his actual reporting. It begins like this: 

On the other end of the spectrum, we also know that far too many families are caught up in child welfare systems that don’t belong there.  

He goes on to label as “horrifying” the fact that “half of all Black children are investigated over the course of their childhood as possible victims of abuse and neglect.” (By the way, in Los Angeles it’s probably 58%.

He talks about the documentary King Richard, in which, he says, Venus and Serena Williams describe the trauma of a false allegation of child abuse against their father, and how that was “one of the most searing experiences of their lives.”   And he adds: “It happens with extraordinary regularity to families that have done nothing at all to warrant that type of intervention.” 

But then he has the gall to suggest, without quite saying it, that such stories are prominent in the Times and a regular part of his reporting. 

We’ve certainly covered it at the Los Angeles Times at various periods of my career. …  I did a story about a Black mother named Monique Baker who struggled for over a year to regain her children on the basis of allegations that proved to be false.  We have done those stories. 

Yeah, once.  Oh, wait, that’s unfair.  There was also that great story he did covering the issue when it came up at a Board of Supervisors meeting – in 2002.  Odds are, over the course of more than two decades, there have been one or two more. 

But, on those extremely rare occasions when the cries of children wrongfully removed make
it into the Los Angeles Times, those cries are drowned out by the tsunami of coverage of the horror stories – coverage that almost always implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, blames efforts to keep families together.  Times subscribers can easily confirm this with a check of the newspaper’s online archive. 

Or consider the promotion for the online event itself.  The headline reads “Children keep dying. Why can’t L.A. County protect them?” If Therolf’s words on the video were reflected in his work at the Times the headline would have been more like “Families torn apart but children still die. Why can’t L.A. County stop the tragedies?”  The promotional material includes a link to that one story Therolf cited about wrongful removal – and at least 27 stories about the deaths of children “known to the system.” 

Flunking the Bagdikian test 

Therolf’s claims in the video are, in fact, the classic approach news organizations take when criticized for ignoring perspectives they don’t like.  Former Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian explained it decades ago in his seminal work of media criticism The Media Monopoly.   

One of Bagdikian's important observations is how newspaper editors who have strong feelings about an issue deal with the side of that story they don't like: 

They cover it. Prominently. Once. 

That's just enough for the editors to say to critics "Oh, we covered that. We even put it on the front page" – when they know full well that anything covered only once has almost no impact. It's what's repeated over and over again that leaves an impression. 

Columbia Journalism Review made much the same point last week, in a column about coverage of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.  What makes the difference, CJR argued is 

[W]hich stories are not just worthy of an article, but of real focus and consistent amplification. [Emphasis in original.] 

Even that one prominent story Therolf points to with pride stumbled when dealing with the issue of racial bias.  In fact, that part of the story made Therolf so uncomfortable that he accompanied the story with a sidebar  – the story mentioned at the beginning of this post, in which he stacks the deck to support the claim that any disparity in entries into foster care is due to “past” discrimination making Black people bad parents. 

And then comes the coup de grace: Therolf says to readers, in effect: If you haven’t noticed the side of the story I almost never cover, it must be your fault!  Or as Therolf puts it: 

Unfortunately, [stories about wrongful removal] don’t stick in folks’ memory quite as much as the fatalities do, but they are there for the folks who are interested in looking at them. 

Good luck finding them. 

Read part two: Garrett Therolf and The Magic Algorithm!