Monday, February 28, 2022

Maine’s “Senator Soundbite” styles himself a crusader against child abuse. He also was “Director of Government Relations” and “Superintendent of Schools” for one of the most notorious “troubled teen industry” institutions in America.

State Sen. Bill Diamond says he thought any problems at the Elan School were resolved before he got there. Some survivors disagree.  

Maine State Sen. Bill Diamond

Every state legislature has one: the lawmaker who rushes to “blast” the state or local “child welfare” agency after a child “known to the system” dies.  Either overtly or by implication the attacks demand that the state move more quickly to take away children and move more slowly, if at all, to reunite foster children with their families. 

Local media love it.  Soon no story is complete without the obligatory quote from Senator Soundbite.  But while they’re making themselves media stars, their statements fan the flames of foster-care panic, encouraging more needless removal, doing enormous harm to the children needlessly removed, and overloading the system – making it even more likely that the next child in real danger will be missed.  

That’s not their intent.  Senator Soundbite typically believes what s/he says will “save” children. But these crusades have a way of backfiring.  Nevertheless, if you’re good enough at it, you can become a national media star – as happened in Oregon. 

But I’ve never seen anything quite like what’s happening now in Maine. 

In part, this is, once again, a function of the loss of institutional memory in Maine.  It is likely that most of the reporters who now rush to quote Maine’s Senator Soundbite – Bill Diamond – don’t know that he once worked for a notorious institution known as Elan School.  More important, they may never have heard of the Elan School – it closed in 2011.  If they knew, would they be as eager to anoint him their “Godsource”? (That’s the term I use for that one public official or “child advocate” who is quoted in almost every news story and whose words are treated as holy writ.) 

So let’s talk about what many Maine journalists may not know. 

A brief recap 

For most of the past 25 years, Maine embraced a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare. That changed for a few years after a little girl named Logan Marr was taken from her mother because the family’s poverty was confused with neglect and killed by her foster mother, who also was a caseworker for the state “child welfare” agency. A new governor, John Baldacci, demanded a new approach. Maine embraced family preservation and became a national leader in keeping children together safely. 

But it was all undermined by another governor - the state’s Trump-before-Trump governor, Paul LePage.  He demanded a return to the take-the-child-and-run approach.  And when two children died in rapid succession at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, he doubled down.  Removals of children into foster care skyrocketed.  Of course, that didn’t stop the deaths.  On the contrary, there were more, again in rapid succession, in 2021. 

But instead of thinking: OK, maybe rushing to tear apart families doesn’t work, the state’s “Child Advocate” Christine Alberi and others are demanding even more steps to tear apart families and keep them apart.  They’re getting their way – Maine is taking away children at the highest rate since 1999 – a rate even higher than before Logan Marr died. 

Senator Soundbite steps up 

But that’s not enough for Alberi - or for Maine’s Senator Soundbite, Bill Diamond. 

For example, while proposing to give the take-the-child-and-run crowd everything it wanted – more money and power for Alberi’s office and still another caseworker hiring binge, the state’s current governor, Janet Mills, also proposed spending a few million dollars on programs to help families stay together.  Diamond responded by invoking the false claim that family preservation and child safety are at odds.  He said the state Office of Children and Family Services – which, again, already is tearing apart families in record numbers 

“should be placing the child in the safest place, not necessarily pushing the envelope so it ends up being a reunification.  The first priority, it’s been proven time and time again, needs to be where the child will at least be safe.” 

This is the mentality that contributed to the death of Logan Marr.  It’s been “proven time and time again” to make all children less safe. 

Diamond says he’s been in the fight to change Maine’s child welfare system for decades.  Maine media have accepted this without question.  Story after story has some version of “Sen. Bill Diamond has pushed for reforms to the child welfare agency for the past 20 years.” Or “Diamond has worked on child welfare problems for years, under four different governors.” 

But when I checked NCCPR’s comprehensive archive of child welfare system news coverage since 1997, I could find no story mentioning Bill Diamond – until child abuse deaths made headlines in 2018.  Of course, it’s possible that during all those previous years, Diamond was working quietly behind the scenes – but that doesn’t seem like his style. 

Diamond did write what is apparently a lurid self-published book about child sexual abuse, in which he courageously took a stand firmly against adults raping two-year-olds.  The blurb for the book repeatedly emphasizes that he’s going to tell you all the details: 

The book may startle and sicken you because of the cold, hard, facts that until now have been hidden from you. Why? to protect you. Real life suffering must be brought to the light of day so the collective "you" demands that it stop - no matter the cost. 

But that does not qualify one as an expert in a system in which, in Maine, 96% of children thrown into foster care are placed there in cases where there is no allegation of sexual abuse of any kind. 

But perhaps Diamond’s absence from the larger debate all these years is because, for much of the time, he had two other jobs – jobs which you won’t find mentioned in his official biography: Director of Government Relations and Superintendent of Schools for the Elan School. 

One might think that someone claiming expertise in child welfare would brag about holding jobs like that.  Unless, that is, you know about the Elan School. 

Not your average hellhole 

There have been a lot of news stories lately about the “troubled teen industry,” the collection of barely-regulated private institutions for children who are supposedly too difficult to handle any other way.  Sometimes desperate parents send their children voluntarily, other times they may be sent by state or local juvenile justice or child welfare agencies. 

Most of the stories deal with undertrained underprepared overwhelmed staff using excessive force on residents – sometimes with fatal results.  Occasionally, there are stories about “fight clubs” in which staff force residents to beat each other up. 

But Elan went beyond any of this.  At Elan the abuse was not a byproduct of overcrowding or cost-cutting.  At Elan abuse was intentional.  The torment wasn’t a byproduct of the therapy the torment was the therapy. 

Elan started out as a drug treatment facility – modeled on the notorious Synanon (Google it.)  Elan adapted the program to the troubled teen market. 

Former residents – a better term would be inmates, since there was no escape - repeatedly describe a “Lord of the Flies culture” in which bullying students of lower “rank” was part of the program. Young people would be surrounded by peers and screamed at for hours at a time.  Or, as a New York Times story explained: “At Elan, smiling without permission can lead to a session of cleaning urinals with a toothbrush that can last for hours.” 

What is mind-boggling is the lengths to which Elan would go to custom-tailor the humiliation to the “offense” – whether or not there really was an offense.  Tears stream down the face of a girl wearing a dunce cap as an adult tells her: “99 and nine/tenths percent of the people in this room told you they think you suck as a person, and if they had their way, they’d cut your throat, put you out of your misery, and relieve the human race of having to deal with an ingrate like you!”  

When inmates acted "like babies" they were made to wear a diaper and bonnet and carry around a rattle.  One girl was forced to wear a ring of tampons around her head.  Other inmates were forced to live in a dumpster for two weeks. 

Or consider what happened to the youth who simply said it would be a good idea if the unit where he lived could have a dog.  For some reason, this was an offense. The punishment: He would be the dog. For days he was forced to wear a dog costume, walk on all fours, eat from a dog dish and speak only by barking - one bark for yes, two for no. 

But you have to see Elan to believe it.  And you can.  Because over the years its co-founder, the late Joe Ricci, welcomed documentary crews. Some of their film is interwoven into a 2017 documentary, The Last Stop, in which survivors tell their stories.  It’s available on Amazon Prime, including a free version.  Here’s the trailer:

 


What Elan called “treatment” looks more like emotional waterboarding. 

The torment wasn’t only emotional.  Ricci admitted that therapy included requiring inmates to beat rule violators with paddles.  Ricci called it spanking.  The documentary suggests that was an understatement.  One survivor says that, over and over, she was spanked until she was black and blue and couldn’t sit down. 

Oh, and yes, Elan had its own version of a fight club – but only in the name of therapy. It may have contributed to one resident’s death, though authorities ultimately decided not to press charges. 

The fight club, known at Elan as “the ring,” reportedly ended in 2000.  But survivors of the program say the emotional torments and punishments continued right up until Elan closed in 2011. 

If you’re wondering why parents didn’t simply pull children out – they didn’t know.  All mail and all phone calls were censored.  Inmates even were forced to write letters telling their parents they were having a wonderful time. 

Diamond’s employment at Elan 

Maura Curley once worked for Ricci and went on to write a scathing biography of the man – and a scathing expose of Elan.  Curley writes that from 1997 until the school closed in 2011 its “Director of Governmental Relations” was Bill Diamond.  Its “Superintendent of Schools” also was Bill Diamond.  The Lewiston Sun Journal also reports that he held those jobs at Elan. A website that apparently hasn’t been updated for a while still lists Elan and still  lists Diamond as its “superintendent of schools.” 

Just before taking these jobs, Diamond had been Maine’s Secretary of State.  Then, in 2004, he was elected to the State Senate.  He’s been there ever since, except for 2012-2014 when term limits prevented him from seeking re-election. 

For at least six years while he served in the State Senate, from 2006 through 2011,
Diamond’s financial disclosure forms list the Elan School as one of his employers. (The forms don’t require legislators to disclose much, they don’t state his job titles or his salary.) 
 

As far as I can tell, the only journalist who’s ever asked Diamond about this is Curley. 

In that interview Diamond said he knew nothing about abuses at Elan while he was there – and he was barely even there!

 From Curley’s book: 

[A]ccording to Diamond, he “never had an office at Elan” and was “never on campus.” 

 Diamond characterized his decade and a half working for Elan as being a liaison with the Department of Education regarding Elan’s licensing. 

As to how one can be Superintendent of Schools and never be on campus, Diamond told Curley it was 

…primarily a title. “They needed a superintendent and I was certified as a superintendent.” Diamond said he dealt with [Ricci’s widow and successor] Sharon Terry and Elan’s lawyer, Robert MacColl via the phone.  He said they’d ask for his help with the Department of Education and he would “put them in touch with the right officials so they could talk with them.” 

Curley also asked Diamond about a passage in his book in which Diamond says that book 

“is about courage and determination, how kids learned to survive, even under the most terrible of conditions.  Facts need to be known, so there will be outrage. If not nothing will change.” 

Curley then writes: 

I observed … that the same … could be written about the residents of Elan and the school’s abusive practices.  I asked if he had any misgivings about promoting Elan…Diamond said he believed Elan’s problems were in the past, before he became involved in 1997.  He cited how Maine’s Department of Education actually produced some favorable reports about Elan… 

The Last Stop explained how that came about: According to author and journalist Maia Szalavitz, Maine officials always gave advance warning about their inspections.  In contrast,  in 2007, even as Diamond was getting paychecks from Elan, New York authorities, who had been sending youth to Elan, took a different approach. They had read a disturbing op-ed column by Szalavitz in The New York Times that included a discussion of Elan.  So they didn’t tell Elan they were coming.  Their inspection was a surprise. They were appalled. Their report was damning – and they stopped sending young people to Elan. 

A page from Maine State Sen. Bill Diamond's financial disclosure statement for 2007, the year New York decided to stop sending youth to Elan.
Curley asked Diamond about that: 

Diamond told me he heard from Sharon Terry and attorney Ed MacColl that ‘there was another whole side other than what was reported’ concerning New York’s allegations.  He recalled that Ed MacColl talked with the Elan Staff and seemed comfortable because Elan was meeting the guidelines from the state Department of Education. 

When I noted that New York’s Department of Education didn’t agree it was meeting its guidelines, Diamond again commented that he was not on site, had no knowledge of Elan’s daily operations. 

In the end, it wasn’t the state of Maine that shut down Elan – it was the internet.  Accounts of survivors went viral and that made it harder to get parents to voluntarily fork over the $54,000 in tuition to send their children to Elan. 

Again from Curley’s book: 

When I asked Diamond what he thought, reading negative comments by former Elan inmates on the Internet, he said: “I haven’t read any of them. Ed MacColl told me about them, Sharon as well, but they indicated it was about problems primarily in the past." 

Diamond made that comment in December, 2012.  Should Diamond watch The Last Stop he will hear at least three survivors recount the torment they endured during the years Diamond was employed by Elan. 

UPDATE: After reading this post, Maia Szalavitz shared her thoughts on Twitter:

A matter of judgment 

As I said at the outset, though I believe Bill Diamond’s approach to fixing child welfare is wrong  - dangerously wrong, in fact - I believe he sincerely wants to help abused children. 

But all of this begs the question: Has Bill Diamond shown the judgment necessary to be considered an expert on child abuse?  Should Maine media treat him as their “Godsource” when he was unaware of what former inmates say they endured at the Elan School even as he was on the school’s payroll? 

At a minimum, instead of preceding every quote with some version of “Diamond has worked on child welfare problems for years, under four different governors” how about “Diamond was the former governmental relations manager and superintendent of schools for the notorious Elan School, but he maintains he was unaware of the abuses former residents say they endured there.” 

I used to say that any reporter covering child welfare in Maine has a moral obligation to watch one documentary: The PBS Frontline documentary, “The Taking of Logan Marr.”  Now I would add that anyone who wants to quote Bill Diamond should watch two.  

Because, as Bill Diamond might say: 

Facts need to be known, so there will be outrage. If not, nothing will change.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

NCCPR News and commentary round-up, week ending February 22, 2022

The previous round-up began by comparing a real-life case to the depiction of a dystopian child welfare surveillance state portrayed in Jessamine Chan’s novel The School for Good Mothers  Now, Let Grow has a comprehensive comparison between the novel and the real world of family policing.  It is not reassuring. 

● One of the cases Let Grow cites is among the two discussed in this NCCPR Blog Post: Two almost identical “child welfare” cases. Same state. One mother’s treatment is “respectful and understanding” the other is arrested, hogtied and jailed. You’ll never guess the difference. (OK, you probably will.) 

● Often families are harassed when they have to go to work or to an urgent appointment, don’t have child care and so leave the children alone or with a sibling deemed by the family police to be insufficiently old to watch them. That’s what happened to Keyna Franklin, who wrote about it in Rise. 

● In North Carolina, an eight-year-old boy is taken, probably needlessly, from his mother.  He is institutionalized in a “group home” and sexually assaulted.  He discloses the assault to his mother during a visit, but then no one will even have the decency to tell her anything – until she reached out to Charlotte television station WBTV. They reported on the endless buck-passing in January and followed up last week. 

● Speaking of problematic institutions: There is no concept so good that the family policing system can’t mess it up.  Case in point, requiring that providers of services be “trauma-informed.”  It’s quickly turned into nothing but a hyphenated buzzword that allows “providers” to avoid real accountability.  

Case in point: A New Hampshire institution that holds children as young as seven – yes, even younger than the one in North Carolina. The New Hampshire institution was the subject of a “cascade of complaints.”  Their punishment: A brand new three-year $9.8 million contract – that’s $71,050 per child per year.  But the new contract says “trauma-informed” a lot.  I have a blog post about it. 

● To get a sense of what “trauma-informed” should mean, check out Vivek Sankaran’s latest column for The Imprint. 

● The abuses aren’t limited to group homes.  The York Daily Record has a timely reminder. 

● The abuses aren’t limited to the United States either.  For decades governments in the United Kingdom, both Labor and Conservative, imported some of America’s wost ideas and practices.  In this BBC interview, Taliah Drayak of the Parents, Families and Allies Network describes what it’s done to children and families – including her own.  The report she discusses is available here: 

The Way Forward from Andy Bilson on Vimeo.

● Speaking of really awful laws and policies, The Imprint has an overview of efforts to repeal, or at least amend, one of the worst: the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act.  Of course, the story includes some of the myths used by proponents to justify the horrors ASFA has inflicted on children and families – including the claim that ASFA reduced the time children typically spend in foster care.  In fact, as I wrote for The Imprint last year, it probably did nothing of the kind, and may actually have impeded any such decrease. 

● Canada’s CTV Network newsmagazine, W5, examined the harm done by some so-called “child abuse pediatricians.”  The good news: W5 found that a Texas law passed last year that requires second opinions in disputed cases already may be deterring such doctors from jumping to conclusions that destroy families.  The bad news: 49 other states (and Canada) still need such laws. 


● Among the many failings of the vastly overhyped Family First Act: A law meant to help counter the racial bias that causes so much needless destruction of families has racial bias built into it – in the way programs are evaluated to determine if they qualify for funding under the law.  The Imprint explains the impact on Native Americans. 

ProPublica summarizes its series on the failings of TANF – the program that ended welfare as we knew it, including what happens in Arizona, which diverts a large portion of its TANF funds to child abuse investigations and foster care. 

● And New Mexico may take a small step toward improving legal representation for families.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Two almost identical “child welfare” cases. Same state. One mother’s treatment is “respectful and understanding” the other is arrested, hogtied and jailed. You’ll never guess the difference. (OK, you probably will.)

Geographically, Castle Rock and Aurora are less than 30 miles away.
But when it comes to what happens to those investigated for "child neglect"
they can be worlds apart.

All over the country, there are efforts to pass what should be called “right to childhood laws” – that is, very good laws specifying that, no, it is not “neglect” if you use your common sense to decide when your child is old enough play by himself in a playground, or walk to or from school by herself, or watch younger siblings while you work late on evening, etc. – in other words, all the things children did routinely before the days of fearmongering, helicopter parenting and endless messages to call child protective services about anything and everything. 

In Colorado, news accounts have focused on the story of Brinley Sheffield, who took a solo run around her neighborhood in the affluent community of Castle Rock when she was seven years old.  She’d previously run the same route with her mother, Christa. Brinley did have a scary experience -- she thought she was being followed.  And she was.  But not by a kidnapper.  She was being tailed by a local busybody who was apparently horrified by the sight of a child getting some exercise in the neighborhood, and then walking into her own home – by herself!!! 

But that was only the first scare for Brinley.  The busybody, no doubt proud to be performing her civic duty, called the police.  That, of course, was even scarier.  The prospect of being under police investigation is enough to scare any seven-year-old – and to make any parent second-guess her or his every move.   Both are inherently harmful to children.  As Brinley said: “I started to cry because I was scared. I thought I was going to get in big trouble.” 

But that is as bad as it got. 

Christa Sheffield said the police officer was “respectful and understanding.”  So the case was closed – in fact, no case was ever even opened. 

Meanwhile, in Aurora… 

Now, let's go less than 30 miles north of Castle Rock, to Aurora.  Vanessa Peoples was at a family gathering in a park when her two-year-old son wandered away.  He was gone for all of a minute, but by then another woman and found him – and called the police. 

One month later, police entered Peoples’ home – guns drawn – along with child protective services caseworkers.  As family defense attorney Diane Redleaf writes in Reason magazine, (I’ll link to it below) by the time they were done 

police had hauled Peoples out of her home and hog-tied her: wrists handcuffed behind her back and tied to her legs, which were in shackles.  “You know how you tie a pig upside down and his feet are hanging from the stick?” Peoples tells Reason. “That’s how they carried me.” 

But you don’t have to take Ms. Peoples’ word for it.  Watch the bodycam footage – but don’t watch it quite yet, since it might prompt you to jump to a conclusion that some of America’s leading child welfare “scholars” want you to know couldn’t possibly correct. 

It concerns what could possibly account for why these two families, living in towns less than 30 miles apart in the same state facing remarkably similar allegations, were treated so differently. 

Because, you see, if you do look at the photo of Brinley Sheffield and her mother in one of the news stories, and then if you watch the bodycam footage in the Reason story about Ms. Peoples, (OK, you can look now) you might be tempted to conclude that there is racial bias in child welfare. 

But of course, that can’t possibly be.  Notwithstanding cases such as these, and notwithstanding a wealth of data, we have been assured by everyone from Emily Putnam-Hornstein, America’s foremost evangelist for using “predictive analytics” – or, as it should be called, computerized racial profiling -- in child welfare, to Dean Richard Barth of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, that child welfare practitioners are so vastly superior to their counterparts in every other walk of life that they have eradicated racial bias in their field. 

So I guess we’ll never know why Christa Sheffield and Vanessa Peoples were treated so differently.

Monday, February 21, 2022

What do you do when you’ve institutionalized children as young as age 7 in a place that was the subject of a “cascade of complaints” alleging abuse? If you’re New Hampshire, you give ‘em a $9.8 million contract, of course!

This excerpt from a report by the New Hampshire "Office of Child Advocate" describes, and illustrates,
the "quiet room" at the Nashua Children's Home.


On the surface, this story from New Hampshire may seem like just another example of children institutionalized in a place that has been the subject of multiple allegations of abuse.  In fact, it’s much more. 

● It’s a story about the willingness of regulators to bend over backwards to dismiss complaints against such places. 

● It’s a story of how a state “child advocate,” even as she wrote a report that offered tepid criticism of serious alleged abuses at the place, suggested changes that are almost meaningless. 

● It’s a story about how the same “child advocate” unintentionally pushed the state to rely on such institutions. 

● It’s a story about how institutional providers dismiss the overwhelming evidence that, even when there is no abuse, institutionalization harms children

● It’s a story about how the limits on such places supposedly imposed by the Family First Prevention Services Act are as toothless as some of us predicted. 

● It’s a story about an institution that says it’s going to change its practices to conform to a new contract but denies that there is anything wrong with the way it did things under the old contract.  As a report from the “Office of Child Advocate” (OCA) puts it: 

[T]he [institution] expressed skepticism of the provision of evidence-based care now included in contract expectations. They questioned the value of evidence-based practices and noted conversations … in which they suggest [their] “practice-based evidence” informed their own development of a practice model 

Yet the Office of Child Advocate seems to believe the new contract will be enough. 

● Most of all, it’s a story about foster-care panic – about what happens when a state family policing agency, in this case, the Division for Children, Youth and Families, responds to a high-profile tragedy with a sharp sudden increase in removals of children from their homes.  New Hampshire now tears away children at a rate double the national average - in part because of the “Child Advocate” herself.  DCYF created an artificial “shortage” of foster homes.  So DCYF  institutionalizes children as young as seven, responds to allegations of abuse with bureaucratic gobbledygook and agrees to pay the institution $71,050 per year per child! 


All of this (except the part about the foster-care panic) is made clear in the report noted above from New Hampshire’s “child advocate,” Moira O’Neill, and a subsequent news story from WMUR-TV

So let’s take a close look at the case of the Nashua Children’s Home 

The first thing to know about the Nashua Children’s Home is it’s not a home.  It has 37 residents and is licensed for 55. That makes it an institution.  Children as young as seven have been stuck there.  So let’s be clear: The state of New Hampshire is willing to institutionalize seven-year-olds. 

The second thing to know about the Nashua Children’s Home is that even had there never been an allegation of abuse, the place would be bad for children of any age.  That’s because institutions are inherently the most harmful form of care – and they are unnecessary.  As is discussed below, there is nothing an institution can do that can’t be done better with Wraparound programs.  Institutions are especially bad for young children, which is what makes New Hampshire’s willingness to institutionalize seven-year-olds particularly horrifying.  

The third thing to know is that between March, 2019 and October, 2020 this one institution, the Nashua Children’s Home, was the subject of what O’Neill describes as “a cascade of complaints” to her office, 17 in all. Below I discuss two of them.  (I only hope that readers who probably have read many accounts of institutional brutality that are even worse than anything alleged concerning the Nashua Children’s Home have not become jaded to the trauma allegedly inflicted by this institution’s staff.) 

● Dennis was subjected to 27 “restraints” and removal to what the institution calls its “quiet room” – which looks more like a cell.  Under state law, restraints are only supposed to be used when there is a “substantial and imminent risk of serious bodily harm” to the child or to others.   But Dennis was restrained and/or hauled off to the quiet room for things like hiding in a closet or under his bed.  Dennis was eight years old. 

● Anthony was older, he was all of 16.  When he tried to leave the “quiet room” he wound up restrained, prone, on the floor, by three adult male staff – for an hour and 20 minutes.  A complaint to the division of DCYF that investigates alleged abuse in foster homes and institutions said that these actions “inhibited [anthony’s] breathing.” 

But DCYF concluded there was no abuse because Anthony suffered no actual injury (after all, it’s not like he actually stopped breathing) and the restraint was being used for “behavior management purposes.”  They did refer the matter to a separate unit that handles licensing of institutions.  

The licensing unit initially thought there was a problem.  But then the institution explained how the whole thing was just a result of their deep concern for Anthony’s safety.  You see it was very cold outside that night, and if Anthony had left not only the quiet room but also the entire institution, he’d be really, really cold. 

Although the OCA reports no evidence of anyone at the institution making any such claim at the time, the licensing unit accepted the institution’s explanation. 

I’m sure all readers would agree that all of these various authorities would have reached exactly the same conclusion had birth parents “restrained” their own children that way. 

Are they “creaming”? 

You would think that the institution wouldn’t be having so much trouble since it also appears to engage in a common industry practice known as “creaming” – as in skimming the cream.  They get to pick and choose who they’ll accept – and they get to kick them out when things get tough. 


Consider the case of 16-year-old Jake, also the subject of an allegation of excessive use of restraint.  Jake apparently was a juvenile justice placement.  (We should pause here to note that the OCA report expresses no concern – indeed, does not even mention, that 16-year-olds placed through the juvenile justice system are in the same institution as seven and eight-year-olds placed through the “child welfare system.”) Jake was restrained in a prone position for a mere 15 minutes – because he’d been sitting in the doorway of his room and yelling after his DVD player was confiscated.  That happened because his mother had given him R-rated videos.  Yes, really. 

The day after the incident, the director of the institution made clear he’d had it up to here with Jake.  He sent a slew of emails to Jake’s juvenile probation and parole officer, one of which said: 

"...I want this kid OUT on Monday...send him back to SYSC...convince a judge to make it happen. You know our reluctance in taking him. Especially during this time, can't have this kid endangering my staff like this.” 

Oh, and in case you’re wondering what SYSC is – it’s the Sununu Youth Services Center, which as one news account last year put it, has seen 

recent abuse allegations made by more than 300 men and women who say they were physically or sexually abused as children by 150 staffers at the state’s facility from 1960 to 2018. Eleven former workers have been arrested since April …   

Family First won’t fix this 

Back when the Family First Prevention Services Act first was introduced in Congress in 2016 we wrote that no one should believe the hype about how it would curb institutionalization.  On the contrary, we said, it institutionalizes institutions.  As we said at the time: 

If the bill becomes law, the federal government would stop reimbursing states for part of the cost of group home and institutional placement after two weeks. But it creates a giant loophole: funding would continue for something called a “Qualified Residential Treatment Program.” 

What does it take to become a QRTP?  Very little: 

● Write lots and lots of plans filled with appropriate buzzwords. (Drop the word “trauma-informed” into every third paragraph and you should be fine.)

● Hire nurses during working hours and have them on call the rest of the time.

● Get a rubber-stamp seal-of-approval from an accrediting agency.

Now flash forward to 2022, and the case of the Nashua Children’s Home. 

The Office of Child Advocate recommendations all boil down to: blah blah blah trauma-informed, blah, blah, blah, trauma-informed.  So basically, everything should be fine if the institution follows through on a new contract with the state that is filled with all the buzzwords needed for the state to keep collecting federal aid for institutionalizing children at the Nashua Children’s Home.  The contract is for $9.8 million over three years for 46 beds – or $71,050 per child per year. 

I suppose we’ll never know if children would be better off if the state just gave the $71,050 to the children’s families so they could buy whatever help they or their children need – but I think we can guess. 

As for accreditation, accrediting agencies are generally dominated by providers and make their money by accrediting fellow providers.  That’s not exactly an incentive to get tough.  The institution gets to choose its accreditor from a list of several. 

And sure enough, in its response to the Child Advocate, the Nashua Children’s Home reprinted nearly two single-spaced pages of gushing praise from the accreditor they chose. 

This behavior by the institution is crucial for another reason.  The Child Advocate is counting on the institution to obey all the terms, and all the blah-blah-blah trauma-informed in the new contract from the state.  But the institution has made abundantly clear it doesn’t really believe in all that blah-blah-blah.  Again, as the Office of Child Advocate report notes: 

[T]he [institution] expressed skepticism of the provision of evidence-based care now included in contract expectations. They questioned the value of evidence-based practices and noted conversations … in which they suggest [their] “practice-based evidence” informed their own development of a practice model. 

The institution’s rebuttal to OCA makes clear they think there is absolutely nothing wrong with the way they did things before the new contract – and they know better than a bunch of ivory-tower regulators anyway!  Indeed, the institution’s director, David Villiotti, told WMUR: 

“We think our staff should get a lot more kudos and recognition and congratulations than they do, rather than be criticized by somebody sitting up on Pleasant Street in an office or sitting at home.” 

Perhaps all this explains why, even though staff at the institution began getting “trauma-informed care training” in September, 2020, the OCA report concluded the training has had “no demonstrated effect yet.”

As for the quiet room, Villiotti said: 

“Our response is most of the people critical of it have never been in the position of having to deal with an out-of-control child.” 

But the gentleman in the video below has. His name is Karl Dennis.  He’s a pioneer in replacing not just “quiet rooms” but entire institutions with Wraparound programs that bring whatever help a child needs into the child’s own home or foster home.  Listen as Dennis describes how Wraparound deals with youth who are far more out-of-control than an eight-year-old hiding under a bed. 


Once again, the price of panic 

The other problem with the new contract is that, as a practical matter, it’s unenforceable.  DCYF wasn’t exactly aggressive about problems under the old contract.  Why should anyone think that would change? 

In fact, it can’t change.  That’s thanks to DCYF -- and the “Child Advocate” herself. 

Because right now in New Hampshire, it’s a sellers’ market for residential treatment “providers.” 

The video version of WMUR’s story ends with the statement that the state has 662 family foster homes but says it “needs” 1,000 such homes.  The implication is that this is why DCYF has no choice but to institutionalize young children. 

But the “shortage” is only because New Hampshire tears apart families at one of the highest rates in America, double the national average even when rates of family poverty are factored in. 

It wasn’t always so.  Entries into care in New Hampshire began to skyrocket in 2015.  And though, of course, DCYF and other foster care apologists will blame opioids, plenty of states with serious opioid abuse problems don’t tear apart families at such an obscene rate.  More important, as has been documented over and over, the problem isn’t opioids as much as it is child welfare’s knee-jerk take-the-child-and-run response to opioids. 

No, what happened in New Hampshire was a classic foster-care panic – a rush to tear apart more families in the wake of high-profile child abuse tragedies, such as one that occurred in New Hampshire at the end of 2014.  Such tragedies often lead to bad “solutions” including creating “child advocate” offices which almost always throw gasoline on the fire.  Maine is a recent case in point, there have been many others

That includes New Hampshire, where the panicky response to tragedy included creation of O’Neill’s office.  O’Neill’s very first report annual report, in 2018, in the midst of skyrocketing removals, embraced the Big Lie of American child welfare – that children are endangered because lawmakers and courts supposedly are making the “best interests of the child” subordinate to “parents rights.” The data, of course, tell a different story. 

So O’Neill herself helped create an artificial “shortage” of foster parents which, in turn, means the state will keep on relying on institutionalizing children as young as age seven.  (It doesn’t help that, according to O’Neill’s report, on at least two occasions, the Nashua Children’s Home allegedly behaved in ways that helped undermine the transition of children into family foster homes – charges the institution denies.) 

All this is why all O’Neill’s blah-blah-blah about “trauma-informed” this and “trauma-informed,” that has such a hollow ring.  The problem isn’t that it’s wrong to be “trauma-informed” the problem is that people like O’Neill effectively stip the concept of all meaning.  Because, like so many others who invoke the phrase, O’Neill seems to be startlingly ill-informed about one of the worst traumas one can inflict on a child: Taking that child needlessly from her or his parents.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up update, week ending February 13, 2022

I may not be posting later this week, so here are some quick additions to the news round-up: 

● A couple of weeks ago, I linked to a review of Jessamine Chan’s novel The School for Good Mothers  The reviewer noted the novel’s “closeness to reality.” In fact, current reality isn’t always as bad as what is depicted in the novel – sometimes it’s worse.  If you doubt it, please read this story from Mother Jones.

● Speaking of the present-day normal in family policing, attorney Diane Redleaf, author of They Took the Kids Last Night will be talking to Lenore Skenazy, founder of Let Grow at this webinar on February 17.  The topic: “Someone Called 911 Because My Kids Were Outside!” 

● Family policing systems have a way of co-opting and perverting good ideas.  That’s what they’ve done with the concept of “primary prevention” – turning it into another excuse to load families down with meaningless “counseling” and “parenting education.”  But in this webinar, from the University of Baltimore School of Law, you can see what primary prevention should be all about. 


● When families tried to tell their stories to a committee of the Tennessee Legislature, the Tennessee Tribune reports, the Speaker of the state House of Representatives shut them down.  So when the state family policing agency claimed that 80 percent of foster children are reunified with their parents, there was no one to set the record straight: The real figure is more like 47%. 

● And finally, this isn’t new, but the format is new – and improved: The inaugural issue of Family Integrity and Justice Quarterly, devoted to assessing the harm done to children and families by the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act, can now be downloaded and printed.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending February 8, 2022

● One might hope that those various “problem-solving courts” that have sprung up across the country – to knee-jerk acclaim in hundreds of gushy news stories – would actually know how to solve problems.  But, particularly when it comes to substance use, some of these courts exist where so much of the child welfare establishment does, at the intersection of ignorance and arrogance.  Because so many child welfare professionals, and judges, view drug use as a moral failing, they often reject the safest and most effective approach for many parents struggling with opioid abuse – medication-assisted treatment. 

Now the Department of Justice has stepped in.  DOJ has issued a letter ruling that when judges ban such treatment they are violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.  Though the cases that prompted DOJ to investigate arose in Pennsylvania, the DOJ position applies everywhere.  Here’s the full letter and a story from the Legal Intelligencer. 

And one thing more: The letter singled out one judge in particular.  Turns out he’s the same judge who tried to separate a father from his children forever because the father is overweight. 

The Imprint’s weekly podcast features a fascinating interview with Andrea Elliott, author of Invisible Child. 

● Last week’s round-up included The Imprint’s careful, nuanced analysis of the use of predictive analytics in child welfare, with ample room for all sides of the debate, along with some startling revelations about the work of the nation’s foremost predictive analytics evangelist, Emily Putnam-Hornstein. 

I explore those revelations, and what they mean for California, for Pittsburgh and for anyplace else that may be tempted to embrace what amounts to computerized racial profiling in a two-part post to this blog. 

● Putnam-Hornstein is part of child welfare’s “caucus of denial” – the group that thinks child welfare is magically immune from the racial bias that afflicts every other part of American life.  So she probably hasn’t seen this great video primer on the topic.  It was organized by the Los Angeles chapter of Court-Appointed Special Advocates – the one run by a child welfare abolitionist.  Unfortunately, odds are all those other CASA chapters weren’t listening either. 


● There’s more about the failure of the current system, the racial and class bias that are built into it, and the case for abolition in this Youth Today interview with University of Pennsylvania Prof. Dorothy Roberts, author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare and the forthcoming Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families--and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. Prof. Roberts also is a member of the NCCPR Board of Directors.

● The headline from Rewire News sums up the case: “Eating Poppy Seed Cake Got This Pregnant Woman Reported to Child Services.” The report was only the beginning of the family’s ordeal.  It’s another consequence of the widespread practice of hospitals testing mothers and newborns for drugs without consent – well, not all mothers, of course. 

● The Houston Chronicle has still another story on the harm sometimes done by “child abuse pediatricians.” 

● And at last: A group involved in oversight of Maine child welfare that shows a real understanding of the problems.  I have a blog post on the report of the Maine Child Welfare Advisory Panel Citizen Review Panel.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Cutting through the spin about predictive analytics in child welfare

The Scarlet Number: Allegheny County (metropolitan Pittsburgh) has been
trying to slap a "risk score" on every child at birth. The score could haunt
them their entire lives.

In Allegheny County, Pa., even the county’s hand-picked ethics reviewers had reservations about the county’s Orwellian “Hello Baby” algorithm.  A key feature of the program flunked one reviewer’s ethics test. 

Second of two parts.  Read part one here.

Yesterday’s post to this blog discussed the amazing good fortune of Emily Putnam-Hornstein, America’s foremost evangelist for using “predictive analytics” to advise family policing agencies concerning everything from who should get “preventive services” to which children should be torn from their parents’ arms. (Another term for this is “predictive risk modeling” (PRM), but a better term than either is computerized racial profiling.) 

It seems that whenever Putnam-Hornstein co-authors an algorithm, the people chosen to do an “independent” ethics review are predisposed to favor it.  At a minimum, they seem to be ideological soulmates.  Sometimes they’ve co-authored papers with Putnam-Hornstein herself or with someone who wrote an algorithm with her. 

But even with the deck so stacked, in one case the ethics reviews offered some strong cautions–including suggesting that a key part of the program for which the algorithm would be used is unethical.  Though generally the reviews were favorable, the reviewers’ concerns were so serious that the agency that commissioned the reviews, the Allegheny County, Pa., Department of Human Services, went to great lengths to spin the results and direct readers toward the spin instead of the reviews themselves.  

The algorithm in question is the second of two in use in Allegheny County. 

The first, the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST) stamps an invisible “scarlet number” risk score on every child who is the subject of a neglect allegation screened by the county’s child abuse hotline.  The higher the score, the greater the supposed risk.  Even though the ethics review for that one was co-authored by a faculty colleague of one of the creators of the algorithm, it cautioned that one reason AFST is ethical is that it does not attempt to stamp the scarlet number on every child at birth – something known as “universal-level risk stratification.” 


This is so Orwellian that even other family policing agencies can’t stomach it.  As noted in yesterday’s post, about Putnam-Hornstein’s work in California, the California Department of Social Services declared that 

The Department believes that “universal-level risk stratification” is unethical and has no intention to use it now or in the future. Identifying and proactively targeting services to families with no [child welfare services] involvement is a violation of families’ privacy and their rights to parent as they see fit. This would be an overreach in the roles and responsibilities of a government agency. 

So when Allegheny County decided that, ethics-be-damned, it wanted an algorithm to do exactly what appalled their counterparts in California, and exactly what their own prior ethics review implied would be unethical, the solution was obvious: Commission another ethics review! 

In fact, they commissioned two (or maybe three) – one of them from an ideological soulmate of the co-author of both Allegheny County algorithms -- Putnam-Hornstein.  

Sure enough, the county got much of what it wanted.  But the reviews displayed far more nuance than the county apparently expected, going into detail about serious problems with this approach, even as they claimed these obstacles could be overcome. 

So the county went into full spin mode.  In 2019, its first publication about the new algorithm, part of a program called “Hello Baby” merely declared that the ethics reviews existed, implying that Hello Baby got a seal of approval – but with no link to the documents themselves. 

A year later, the county put out its own summary of the ethics reviews. Although at last the actual reviews were posted online, there were no links from the county’s summary – and the reviews remain harder to find.  As we noted in our previous post, it’s sort of like the way Donald Trump’s attorney general, Willam Barr, handled the Mueller report.  In the case of the Allegheny County algorithm, the gap between the actual documents and the spin isn’t as wide – but it still tells an interesting story. 

So let’s look closely at the parts of those reviews that Allegheny County, and Putnam-Hornstein, probably least want you to notice. 

● The first thing to notice is that one of the two published reviews may never have been completed. It’s labeled a draft. 

● The second thing to notice is that the draft refers to itself as “one out of three perspectives from cross-disciplinary researchers looking different aspects of the risk-scoring system that Allegheny County plans to deploy.” [Emphasis added.]  But the county has only published two, and only ever refers to two.  What happened to the third? UPDATE, FEB. 22: Responding to an email query from NCCPR, Erin Dalton, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, says there were only two ethics reviews. She said the draft may have been referring to a separate review of methodology and data science.

The other published ethics review strongly suggests a key feature of  Hello Baby – the fact that you’re in it unless you remember to opt-out – is unethical.  The review sets criteria for such a feature to be ethical. Hello Baby doesn’t meet the criteria. 

Selling Hello Baby 

There are two key selling points for Hello Baby: One, it’s supposedly a purely voluntary program, two, the vast troves of data will be used only for targeting prevention.  We’ll start with the second. 


Child abuse investigations are run by another division of the same agency that oversees Hello Baby.  Both divisions of this same agency are ultimately overseen by Erin Dalton, who is as nonchalant about the harm of foster care as she is fanatical in her desire to vacuum up data about poor people.  Nevertheless, Dalton’s agency publicly promises that child abuse investigators won’t see the Hello Baby risk scores or other data from that program.
 

One of the ethics reviewers, Prof. Michael Veale of University College, London, saw the problem. It turns out, there’s even a name for it: Function Creep.  He writes: 

One underlying anxiety concerning predictive systems in the public sector is that by virtue of being created for one task, they establish an infrastructure consisting of many aspects—including data, technology, expertise and culture—which might expand beyond its original scope into areas its original democratic and societal mandate did not permit. …

Some will be concerned that while [using the Hello Baby risk score only for prevention] might be the policy today, it might not be robust to change in the future. Similarly, those who might have lost trust in a public service more generally might not trust assurances that this inferred data is deleted or not passed onto other actors in the system. 

Veale suggests that the county come up with 

some legally binding declaration … delimiting the purposes of this system in advance to a sufficiently narrow scope and set of actors. This agreement would then serve as a mechanism that could be used to hold future uses of this model to account—at least insofar as it would have to be actively and ideally publicly removed before the purposes of a score or a model could change. 

This appears based on the na├»ve assumption that, were Allegheny County to want to use Hello Baby for child abuse investigations, the shame of having to go public might be a deterrent. 

On the contrary, when – not if, because it’s going to happen – the data are used to decide who to investigate as a potential child abuser and when to take their children it will be done with pride and fanfare.  Because here’s how it will happen: 

A three-year-old boy, call him Jason, is killed by his father.  Jason was “known to the system,” a previous allegation had been deemed unfounded.  Somebody leaks the fact that Jason’s father had a high risk score using Hello Baby.  The caseworker who investigated the father gives a tearful television interview in which she says: “If only I’d known that Hello Baby thought he was high risk, I never would have left the child in that home.” 

At that point three things happen: 

● A member of the Pennsylvania Legislature introduces “Jason’s Law,” a bill requiring that information from Hello Baby and anything else in the state like it be fully shared with child protective services.  He calls it “Jason’s Law” of course. 

● Erin Dalton or her successor calls a news conference and declares that the Allegheny County Department of Human Services isn’t about to wait for the legislature – they’re ordering full information sharing right now!  

● There are warnings that algorithms that predict terrible harm will come to a child, including AFST, have a record of being wrong more than 95% of the time  - potentially flooding the system with “false positives” that do enormous harm to innocent families and make it harder to find the few children in real danger.  The warnings are ignored. 

A pinky swear is not enough. 

Having raised an urgent concern, Veale comes up with a solution that has all the enforceability of a pinky swear – or maybe something more like this: 

 


There’s still another danger.  Anyone Hello Baby labels high-risk will be offered a series of services not offered to anyone else.  At the highest alleged level of risk, the program calls it “relentless engagement.”  Therefore, the service provider, who will be regularly coming into the home to engage relentlessly will know from day one that a high-tech algorithm has branded these parents high risk for abusing their children.  That service provider almost always will be a mandated reporter, required to report any suspicion of child abuse and neglect (and in Pennsylvania, the training curriculum is fanatical about urging reporters to report! Report! Report!) 

So even the other ethics reviewer, Deborah Daro, a Senior Research Fellow at Chapin Hall, and an ideological soulmate of Putnam-Hornstein expressed concern about this.  She writes: 

All home visitors report a proportion of their participants to child protective services. … The [Predictive Risk Model] gives service providers additional information on a family’s history that may alter the way workers interpret the conditions they do observe. Even if the exact details regarding a family’s history is [sic] not provided to program staff or other providers, the fact parents have been identified through the PRM as being at high-risk will convey a general profile of concerns. As such, key  implementation questions for the county to address include: 

• How might knowledge of a family’s prior history with the child welfare and justice systems impact a provider’s judgment regarding current relationships in the home and the ability of other caretakers (particularly the father) to appropriately care for the infant? 

• How does this knowledge impact how providers might interpret a mother’s actions – will they be less forgiving of minor concerns they observe? 

• Will knowledge of a family’s history increase the likelihood a provider will report the family to child welfare as a potential risk for maltreatment if the family drops out or refuses additional program services? … 

Heightened awareness of a family’s circumstances may create surveillance bias, resulting in a higher probability of a family being reported. Providers will know more about a family and will need to weigh this knowledge against a family’s willingness or reluctance to remain in the program. 

Notice Daro’s own bias here.  Allegheny County brags that all services provided under
Hello Baby are purely voluntary and families are free to drop out at any time.  But Daro seems to think exercising that right is still another reason for heightened suspicion.
 

Having raised the surveillance bias issue, Daro then cops out, suggesting the same failed solution that proponents of the child welfare surveillance state fall back on whenever the harm they do comes to light: We’ll fix it with more “training.” 

Defining “voluntary” 

Another key element of the selling of Hello Baby is the claim that it’s purely voluntary.  Technically yes, but you’d better be very sharp and wide awake during the first days and hours of your baby’s life to avoid being forced into the program – and isn’t everyone wide awake and able to absorb everything during that time? 

Because Hello Baby forces you in, unless you affirmatively opt out.  And you get only two chances to opt out.  The first chance is while you and your newborn are still in the hospital.  Amidst everyone else coming and going and handing you forms and discharge papers and God-knows-what else, you are given an information packet selling Hello Baby that also tells you how to opt out.  The second, and last, chance comes in the form of a postcard sent to your home – it’s not clear when, but presumably very soon after coming home with your baby.  You have to mail it back.  Miss those chances and Allegheny County has free reign to dig up all the electronic dirt on you that is called for in the algorithm and slap a risk score on you and your baby.  The score can follow you, and your child, forever. 


Oh, you can drop out of any services offered under the program at any time – though, as noted above that might prompt the service “provider” to call the child abuse hotline on you – but you never again get a chance to opt out of data collection or make them delete the data they’ve already gathered.
 

Here’s what Daro writes about when this approach, called “passive consent,” is ethical and when it is not: 

This approach is considered appropriate only if the intervention or strategy involves minimal risk to the participant and if obtaining written approval for the procedure is not practical or feasible. [Emphasis added.] It is not clear if this approach has already been approved by the county’s Institutional Review Board. If it has, then the approach has been judged appropriate in this instance. If it has not, the county will need to make the case as to why it is not asking parents to “opt in” for the screen. 

It is just as “practical and feasible” to presume someone is not in the program until they check a box saying they’re in, as it is to presume they’re in until they check a box that says they’re out.  So by Daro’s own criteria, this key aspect of Hello Baby is unethical. 

And the county’s response illustrates perfectly why putting all this data power in their hands is so dangerous. They respond that: 

The “passive consent” is only for running the PRM, which commits clients to nothing. 

After all, the county continues, families still don’t have to accept the “services.”  But, of course, allowing the county to run the PRM commits the family to surrendering vast amounts of personal data that can then be turned against them at any time. That’s hardly nothing. 

As for Daro’s stipulation that this aspect of Hello Baby should be approved by the county’s Institutional Review Board, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services replied: 

Allegheny County does not have an institutional review board.