Thursday, March 31, 2022

If it’s April Fools, it must be Child Abuse Hype and Hysteria Month

 I've reprinted this post almost every year since 2010.  But for the past three years it's been especially relevant. You can be sure that this year, like last year and the year before that, the Astroturf fill-in-the-blanks op-eds that various advocacy groups send to their local chapters will be filled with references to an "epidemic" or a "pandemic" of child abuse - as though the moment white middle-class professionals can't have their "eyes" on poor children of color, their parents will rush to torture them.  This myth persists even though several national news organizations -- and multiple studies - have found that it's not true.  NCCPR has details here.

I hope that before pushing the send button on these generic submissions, people will at least have the decency to pause and think long and hard about just how racist that framing is. Precedent suggests, however, that they won’t.

In fact, given that the child welfare establishment has no shame, expect the usual op-eds to have token boilerplate statements about racial justice – even as they propose making a profoundly racist family policing system even bigger and more powerful.


Back in 2003, one of the groups most responsible for fomenting hype and hysteria about child abuse came remarkably close to admitting that they did just that – and that it had backfired. 

Rather like Dr. Frankenstein admitting he’d created a monster, in a 2003 Request for Proposals concerning how to improve their messaging, Prevent Child Abuse America wrote: 

While the establishment of a certain degree of public horror relative to the issue of child abuse and neglect was probably necessary in the early years to create public awareness of the issue, the resulting conceptual model adopted by the public has almost certainly become one of the largest barriers to advancing the issue further in terms of individual behavior change, societal solutions and policy priorities. 

In 2020, PCAA went further. They actually branded what they had done “health terrorism” – but refused to apologize for it. 

This is especially worth remembering as we begin “Child Abuse Awareness Month” – a month, which, appropriately starts on April Fools Day. 

So I’ve reprinted below our 2010 blog post on the topic – with some updates and links to newer data – since, unfortunately, aside from those data, nothing has changed. Because it's a lot easier to create a monster than to bring it under control.


Get ready for a seemingly endless stream of cookie-cutter news stories and Astroturf op-ed columns (the kind written by national groups with blanks to fill in to make them sound home-grown) touting "Child Abuse Awareness Month" – based on the bizarre premise that the American people are blissfully unaware of child abuse. 

There is something appropriate about the fact that "Child Abuse Awareness Month" starts on April Fool’s Day, since it involves fooling the public in order to push an agenda of hype and hysteria that obscures the real nature of the problem, and real solutions, in favor of approaches that only make a serious and real problem worse. Your typical Child Abuse Awareness month news story or op ed column follows a standard formula: 

1.  1. Take the most horrifying case to occur in your community over the past year, the more lurid the better.

2.   2. Jump immediately from that story to a gigantic number which actually is only the number of "reports" alleging any form of child maltreatment. Ignore the fact that the vast majority of those reports are false and most of the rest are nothing like the horror story. Rather, they often involve the confusion of poverty with neglect. Or…

3.   3.  Use only the total number of cases that caseworkers guess might be true, but call them "confirmed" giving the guesses, which are simply the opinion of a worker checking a box on a form, far more credibility than they deserve. A major federal study found that workers are two- to six-times more likely to wrongly label an innocent family guilty than to wrongly label real child abusers innocent.

4.   4. Pile hype onto hype by reasserting the racist, discredited COVID-19 “pandemic of child abuse” myth.

5.    5. Throw in huge lists of "symptoms" or "warning signs" that "might" be "signs" of child abuse – and might as easily be signs of any number of other things.

6.     6. Instruct us all that it is our duty to phone the local child abuse hotline with any suspicion of anything no matter how vague and how dubious – instead of advising us to report when we have "reasonable cause to suspect" maltreatment, the same standard often used in law to guide "mandated reporters."  

      7. Remind us that we are welcome to call the hotline anonymously – thereby encouraging those who want to harass an ex-spouse, a neighbor or anyone else against whom they may have a grudge to go right ahead, secure in the knowledge that they'll never get caught because they can conceal their identity. 

It all comes from the same ends-justify-the-means health terrorism mentality behind, for example an egregiously-misleading report published by the group that calls itself Every Child Matters – the mentality that says: What's a little distortion and exaggeration in the name of a good cause? 

In fact, such distortion and exaggeration can do enormous harm to children.  

Hotlines wind up with more false reports and trivial cases; children are harassed and traumatized by needless child abuse investigations – often including stripsearches as caseworkers look for bruises - and some of those children are forced needlessly into foster care. The caseworkers wind up even more overloaded by these false allegations, so they have even less time to find children in real danger.  And right now it still. risks spreading a deadly virus. 

Reality check 

NCCPR has some resources on our website for any journalists and others interested in putting all this into context, countering the hype and hysteria and pressing for real solutions: 

·        -- Issue papers on Understanding Child Abuse Numbers and False Allegations: What the Data Really Show

·        -- Our Solutions pages, Doing Child Welfare Right and our Due Process Agenda.

·        -- Our presentation on how to really prevent child abuse: take a social justice approach instead of a public health approach.

If the people behind "Child Abuse Awareness Month"  (also known as "Child Abuse Prevention Month") really want to prevent "child abuse" then how about campaigning to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty.  

Poverty increases the stress that can lead to actual abuse and, as noted above, poverty itself often is confused with "neglect."  This can be seen by the fact that study after study shows even small increases in income significantly reduce what child welfare systems call "neglect."

The problem of child abuse is serious and real, but the solutions have been phony. The distortion and exaggeration that typify child abuse "awareness" campaigns only promote phony solutions and make those serious, real problems even worse.

If only there were a Statistics Abuse Prevention Month.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending March 29, 2022

Lots of news this week, but one story stands out above all: 

● This story is more evidence that the solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism. Bad journalism by the Miami Herald set off a foster-care panic in Florida.  Now great journalism from USA Today Network Florida reporters is exposing how much that has hurt children.  Combining heartbreaking personal stories with rigorous data analysis, it is the definitive story about the havoc caused when poverty is confused with “neglect.” This story should fall under the heading “drop everything and read.”  I hope you will. 

OK, now that you’re back – in other news: 

● In New York City family defense is going on offense.  The Family Justice Law Center “will use affirmative litigation to seek justice for families mistreated by the child welfare system. It will challenge systemic abuses of government power that lead to the illegal separation of children from their families. It will seek redress for harms, while promoting change that would help families survive and thrive.” As Law 360 explains in this story, founder David Shalleck-Klein 

said he was drawn into family defense practice by injustices and lack of due process families are confronted with in Family Court.  "The criminal justice system pales in comparison," he told Law360. "Even people who work in the criminal justice field are shocked when they see what happens in Family Court." 

See also stories about FJIC in The 74The Imprint and Gothamist. 

● The Biden Administration is proposing some significant changes – for the better – in child welfare finance.  The changes are not nearly enough, but if the fine print matches this overview from The Imprint, and if the changes are passed by Congress – that’s a big if – they would be a real step forward.  Other administrations have made better proposals, but they got nowhere. 

From Maine to Hawaii, state legislators seem determined to respond to child abuse tragedies in ways that would make their systems worse.  

● In Maine, the state’s equivalent of the GAO got suckered by the Big Lie of American child welfare. I have a blog post about it.  

● In Hawaii, at the very same meeting where a key lawmaker refused to vote to fund jail expansion because “Basically, you’re putting people in jail because they’re poor,” the same lawmaker demanded that the state spend more to take away children  — who often are taken because they are poor. I have a guest column about it in Honolulu Civil Beat. 

Two important books that focus heavily on failures of the family policing system won J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project awards.  The book prize went to Andrea Elliott’s book, Invisible Child.  The judges call it “a tour de force of immersive reporting and a meticulous and unflinching depiction of intergenerational American poverty.” 

One of two awards for Works in Progress went to Roxanna Asgarian’s We Were Once a Family: The Hart Murder-Suicide and the System Failing Our Kids The judges write that “With an ever-present lens on poverty and racism, Asgarian’s investigation illuminates the innumerable ways child welfare agencies failed these six young Black children, indicting the ways the most vulnerable among us are imperiled by the very systems created to protect them.”

The Columbus Dispatch reports on a bill intended to curb still another way family policing agencies harm children – discriminating against their parents if those parents are disabled. 

Colorado Newsline reports on a “right to childhood” bill that passed the legislature. If the governor signs it, it may reduce the likelihood of cases like those described in this post – or at least reduce the likelihood of cases like the first one.

● Also in Colorado: A reminder that the horror stories go in all directions

● And in Los Angeles, the Reimagine Child Safety coalition has launched its website.

Monday, March 28, 2022

NCCPR in Honolulu Civil Beat: Hawaii Should Curb ‘Grab And Go’ Mentality In Child Welfare Services

Lawmakers should take the money earmarked for more personnel and use it to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty.

 Case No. 1: Six-year-old Ariel Sellers is taken from her home by Child Welfare Services. Relatives are ready to take Ariel in, but they say CWS ignores them. Instead Ariel is placed with strangers, Isaac and Lehua Kalua. Ultimately, they adopt her and change her name to Isabella. 

Now the Kaluas are charged with murdering Isabella. She allegedly died trapped in a dog cage with duct tape covering her mouth and nose. CWS still won’t place her siblings with relatives. 

Case No. 2: Bella is in her fifth-grade classroom when suddenly she is told her father has come to her school to pick her up. But the man is not the man she considers her father — rather it’s a man she barely knows — indeed a court order bars any contact. 

But that doesn’t stop CWS. In what a judge would call a “grab and go” CWS flies Bella to the other end of the state and leaves her with the father she barely knows. … 

Read the full column in Honolulu Civil Beat

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Myth-making in Maine

Maine’s equivalent of the GAO falls for the Big Lie of American child welfare – and the Disney version of how the system works 

Maine's Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability
fell for the same false narrative that contributed to the death of Logan Marr.

There are many reasons five-year-old Logan Marr died in 2001.  The most important is that she was placed with a foster mother – and former caseworker for the state “child welfare” agency – who tied her to a highchair in the basement with 42 feet of duct tape.  Logan died from asphyxiation. 

Another reason is that Maine, like every other state, routinely confuses poverty with neglect.  I suggest that anyone who wants to see how that played out for Logan Marr watch the PBS Frontline documentary The Taking of Logan Marr. 

But there was another reason: Maine’s embrace of the Big Lie of American child welfare.  You know the one: Sure a child might be emotionally harmed if we tear her from everyone we know and love, but at least she’ll be safe.  It’s the lie that says family preservation and child safety are opposites that need to be “balanced.”  It’s the lie that says if you do less to keep families together children are safer, and vice versa. 

It is the lie that contributed to the death of Logan Marr. 

The Logan Marr tragedy is a horror story, and I’ve written over and over that one should not draw sweeping conclusions based on horror stories.  But I’ve also written that when anecdotes collide, it’s time to look at the data.  And, precisely because most cases we think of when we hear the words “child abuse” are nothing like the horror stories and far more like the case of Logan Marr, the data show that, almost always, family preservation is safer than foster care.  You can read about those data here and here.  So the issue isn’t family preservation vs. child safety – it’s family preservation vs child removal. 

Given how this myth contributed to Logan’s death, one would hope Maine would be the last state where a body charged with doing independent research for the Legislature would be suckered by it.  Unfortunately, Maine’s equivalent of the federal Government Accountability Office, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) did indeed fall for it in a report released last week. 

An entire section of the report called “Child Welfare Philosophy and the Pendulum Swing” is devoted to making the false claim that: 

Shifts in child welfare policy and practice over time have often been described as a “pendulum swing” … between a priority on family preservation (preventing the removal of children and increasing reunification) and a priority on protecting child safety (even if that indicates removal of a child from the family). 

This framing appears at least seven times in the report.  OPEGA was so committed to it that when they surveyed “stakeholders” they stacked the deck when posing this question: 

We asked CPS staff and mandated reporters about their perceptions of the balance between child safety and family preservation by CPS … 

Survey respondents who disagreed that the balance is appropriate had the opportunity to provide comments. In these comments we observed that CPS staff who disagreed more often indicated that child safety is too heavily weighted over family preservation, while the mandated reporters more often indicated that family preservation is too heavily weighted relative to child safety. 

For OPEGA, the possibility that family preservation increases child safety was not even on the table. 

At one point the report does say the two are not mutually exclusive – but only in the sense that there are  laws mentioning both.  The idea that they are opposites that need to be balanced is never questioned – so the false framing that contributed to the death of Logan Marr is reinforced. 

OPEGA also gives an incomplete list of the reasons why people hold contrasting views. According to the report: 

These beliefs and opinions are shaped by individual experiences, perspectives, risk tolerance, and their role in the system. 

But one factor is left out: Those of us who support family preservation – because it’s safer for children – base it on research: The studies showing that, because typical cases are nothing like the horror stories, in such cases children left in their own homes typically do better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care, and the studies showing the high rate of abuse in foster care itself. (See above for the links.) 

In a story about the report, Portland Press-Herald reporter Randy Billings shows he understands the real debate.  Ironically, his excellent framing gives OPEGA more credit than it deserves.  He writes: 

There also is a lack of consensus about whether it is more important to emphasize child safety through removal from a family or through family preservation, the report says. 

Underestimating foster care panic 

In discussing the response to high-profile child abuse fatalities at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, OPEGA acknowledges that staff at the state family policing agency, the Office of Child and Family Services, said they were “working from a place of fear…” But the report underestimates the impact of that fear, looking only at increases in reports and investigations and not mentioning the huge increase in children torn from their homes.  As the state data tables available here show, in Maine entries into foster care skyrocketed more than 50% between 2017 and 2019. 

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Trends in Foster Care and Adoption, FFY 2011-2020

Using the same limited measures, OPEGA suggests that child abuse deaths in June 2021 didn’t have much effect, since investigations didn’t increase.  There are three problems with this: 

● It may be too soon to feel the full effects.

● There are no figures at all on entries into care – so we don’t know if they went up again.

● Most important: By 2019, Maine was tearing apart families at a record rate – the fanaticism for child removal was worse even than before Logan Marr died.  So when you’re at your very worst, saying: “Hey look, maybe it didn’t get worse still!” isn’t reassuring. 

Caseworkers themselves understand.  Everyone agrees a key problem is that the workers are overloaded.  But, as the report itself acknowledges: 

In surveys and interviews, some OCFS supervisors and caseworkers indicated that valuable time is spent investigating reports that – in their opinion – did not appear to warrant an investigation. … With a fixed number of caseworkers, if fewer reports are screened in as appropriate for investigation, caseworkers would, in theory, have more time available for each investigation and, in turn, the opportunity to complete a more thorough assessment of risk and safety concerns. 

Note the skepticism from OPEGA “in theory” “—in their opinion—” 

In contrast, no such skepticism is expressed for the more commonly suggested alternative: Hire a bunch of additional caseworkers.  But that has failed repeatedly. Hiring binges during foster-care panics are likely to lead to even further widening of the net of needless intervention into families. All the new caseworkers -- “working from a place of fear…” -- chase all the new cases and all you get is the same lousy system only bigger. 

The funds that would be squandered on a caseworker hiring binge would be far better spent bolstering services for families which, the report admits, range from grossly inadequate to nonexistent. 

Welcome to Disney World 

While perhaps not as damaging, another section of the report may be even more offensive: It confuses myths and facts because it confuses what’s on paper with actual practice.  The result is the Disney version of how a family policing agency works.  Indeed, this section reads as if it was written by the PR department of the predecessor of OCFS, the Department of Human Services at the time Logan Marr died.  What OPEGA accepts without question now is what DHS claimed then as it sought to defend itself. 

Thus, OPEGA claims it’s a “misconception” that “OCFS decides on its own whether a child is removed from their home.”  They regurgitate the party line you always hear from agencies like OCFS: “A judge has to approve everything we do.”  But in the real world, not Disney World, OCFS does indeed decide on its own. 

For starters, OPEGA repeatedly claims that caseworkers must get a so-called “preliminary protection order” (PPO) signed by a judge before removing a child.  But on page 24 of the report, OPEGA admits that’s not always true.  According to the report: 

If a child is determined to be unsafe and time is needed to write and file the petition, the caseworker may collaborate with law enforcement by asking them to invoke a six-hour hold in which law enforcement takes temporary custody of the child. 

In addition, Maine law states that 

"Removal of the child from home" means that the department or a court has taken a child out of the home of the parent, legal guardian or custodian without the permission of the parent or legal guardian.  [Emphasis added].

But more important, the requirement for a court order is meaningless.  There is no real hearing beforehand, no chance for a family to defend itself.  A caseworker simply marches into court (or, after hours, calls the judge) and says: “I think we need to take this child right now, here’s why.”  Do you seriously think a judge is going to say no?  

OPEGA could have checked.  They could have obtained records and determined how often a PPO request is rejected.  But, apparently, they didn’t. 

Also labeled by OPEGA as a misconception: “CPS caseworkers have authority to enter a home and compel parents to cooperate with an investigation.” 

But that depends on what you mean by “authority.”  They may not have the authority on paper, but in the real world if you refuse that in itself makes you suspect, so the worker can threaten to call a judge and get authorization to not only enter the home but walk out with your children.  

And in one case OPEGA is wrong even about the Disney version.  The report claims that parents have the right to refuse to let their children be interviewed.  But elsewhere the report specifies that the workers can go to, say, a child’s school and interview the child without the parent knowing.  (There are times when such action is justified, my point here is only that OPEGA is wrong to suggest this option doesn’t exist.) 

And, of course, if you don’t know about a right, you don’t have that right.  The report includes this curious statement: 

Over the course of the review, we heard that there is growing awareness among families that engagement with CPS is voluntary, and more families are declining to allow access to their homes by DHHS. [Emphasis added.] 

That doesn’t sound like caseworkers are actually telling families their rights when they knock on the door. 

Also labeled a “misconception”: “Caseworkers alone make child safety decisions.”  In fact, the report explains, they have to get a supervisor to sign off on them – so there may be all of two people involved - and sometimes they consult with others, too.  But the report does not say how often the supervisor actually overrules the caseworker – and whether that is more likely to happen when a worker wants to remove a child or leave the child in the home. 

The OPEGA report also notes that workers use a series of checklists known as “Structured Decision Making.” The report does not mention that there have been serious questions raised about racial bias in the SDM process. 

Logan Marr is missing 

And finally, we should note what the report says about Logan Marr, and about how Maine was briefly a national model when, in the aftermath of her death, it rejected the Big Lie and embraced safe, proven alternatives to foster care.  

What does the report say about that?  It says nothing. 

As far as OPEGA is concerned it’s as if Logan Marr never existed.  Unfortunately, that seems to be the prevailing view in Maine right now.  And that, of course, makes the next such tragedy even more likely.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending March 22, 2022

● This week we start with an upcoming event: The New York debut of Prof. Dorothy Roberts’ new book, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families -- and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World The event, sponsored by Rise,  takes place April 16, and it’s available in person or online. You can register here. 

Also from Rise: This column in The Imprint about how family policing systems harm families, based on their extensive research with families forced to encounter New York City’s family policing agency, the Administration for Children’s Services: 

Our research finds that the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) is described as an unavoidable system in Black and brown communities, deeply entangled with schools and services. As one of our focus group participants put it: “It is hard, hard — I’m going to say ‘hard’ again, to avoid ACS. Especially when they’re in the school system, the juvenile system, the court system, it is really hard to avoid them.” … 

Our research found that economic supports of financial aid or employment assistance were the least common services in parents’ ACS service plans, even though most families had extremely low incomes, and most system involvement is related to issues of poverty. 

The Imprint also has a look back at all that fearmongering about a supposed “pandemic of child abuse” – and what the research actually tells us.

● Two states are moving to curb the practice of forcing parents to pay ransom to get their children back from foster care.  (They don’t call it that, of course, they call it “child support.”  But if you take away someone’s child and make them pay money to get the child back, the proper term for the payment is ransom.)  Moves are underway in Washington State and California to curb the practice.  In fact, the practice can, and should be abolished entirely. 

Both stories leave the impression that getting rid of ransom is harder than it really is; they cite a federal law requiring ransom.  But as NPR’s excellent reporting on this topic makes clear, the law has plenty of wiggle room.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending March 16, 2022

● Bad as it is for any child to be torn from their home and consigned to the chaos of foster care, it’s worse for LGBTQ children – the very children now targeted by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.  NCCPR Board Member Prof. Dorothy Roberts, author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare and Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families--and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World explains why in this column for The Washington Post.  She also offers a broader analysis: 

Abbott’s move to punish parents who violate the state’s prescribed gender norms reflects the overall design of child protective services and its regulation of families. The directive’s veneer of benevolence, covering for its harmful objective, is not an aberration. Rather, it is a central feature of the child welfare system — a multibillion-dollar apparatus that controls marginalized families, especially those that are Black and Native, by taking their children away. Relying on vague state child neglect laws, investigators often deem conditions of poverty — lack of food, insecure housing, inadequate medical care — as evidence of parental unfitness. Only 17 percent of children enter foster care based on allegations they were physically or sexually abused. With the Texas directive, and in the child welfare system generally, what constitutes child abuse is subject to the interpretation of mandated reporters and caseworkers whose perceptions are influenced by racial and class biases. 

In other news: There are moves in three states to curb some of the ugliest practices in family policing: 

● In California, legislation would curb the practice of making poor people pay part of the cost of their children’s foster care.  Even child welfare establishment types, like this professor, are for it.   States call it “child support,” but when someone takes your child away and makes you pay money to get the child back the more appropriate term for the payment is ransom.  (For context concerning why this does so much harm to children, see this in-depth report from NPR.) 

● NPR, along with The Marshall Project also was among the news organizations exposing the practice of agencies effectively stealing foster children’s own money.  In response, NPR reports, New York City’s family policing agency is promising to curb the practice. 

● In Philadelphia, where Resolve Philly first exposed the practice, a member of the City Council says she will introduce legislation to curb it. 

● Remember that Colorado case in which a false allegation of neglect led to this? 

police had hauled [the mother] 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? That’s how they carried me.”  

Well, check out what happened in this case involving a false allegation of neglect in Nebraska: 

According to the Nebraska ACLU, the lawsuit claims Omaha Police Officer Ryan Keele entered [the mother’s] home, threw her to the ground, brandished a taser, and handcuffed and arrested her without probable cause. 

Aside from being falsely accused of neglect, want to guess what else the mothers have in common? 

● People assume that if you’re poor and the government has taken your child away you at least have a right to a lawyer, just as in criminal cases.  But in some states, that’s not true.  One of those states is Minnesota, which, year after year, tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation, and has the worst record of all when it comes to racial bias in the destruction of  Native American families. The part about not being entitled to a lawyer is about to change.  But, as this story in The Imprint makes clear, more is needed.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

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

● Every once in awhile, a story about the horrors of the family policing system “breaks through” to a larger audience.  Such is the case with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott using the vast power of the family police to enact his version of a far-right agenda: persecuting transgender children and their families.  But the system he is using is largely a creation of the Left.  I have a blog post on Greg Abbott’s liberal enablers. 

● Some Texas media still don’t quite get it.  The Texas Tribune, which, under a previous editor,  pushed for expanding the power of the system, has  a very good story about parents of transgender children rushing to hire lawyers – before the family police get to the door. That’s because, as one expert said: “Once you're in the clutch of the child welfare system, you're very vulnerable.”  But while there is a brief mention of some lawyers working pro-bono, there is no other mention of all the families who can’t afford to hire a lawyer – which is most families “in the clutch of the child welfare system.” 

● But one Texas-based reporter does understand: In this excellent story for Slate, Roxanna Asgarian writes:

The child welfare system—decried as “family policing” by critics—is a particularly potent tool for transphobic politicians because it was set up to surveil families that fall outside of the white, middle class norm.

● Speaking of the fact that almost everyone ensnared in the system is poor: Remember when apologists for the system insisted that family police agencies never, ever took away children because of poverty?  Now that everybody’s seen that’s not true they have a fallback position: We don’t take children because of poverty alone.  I have a column in Youth Today about why that’s not true either – and why it’s also irrelevant – because In child welfare, if the solution is money, the problem is poverty. 

● Greg Abbott is teaching us all a lesson about what happens when you create a giant family-destroying bureaucracy with no way for families to defend themselves in conservative Texas. Honolulu Civil Beat shows what happens when the giant family-destroying bureaucracy with no way for families to defend themselves is in liberal Hawaii. 

● Remember the scandal over “hidden foster care” in one county in North Carolina? (If you don’t, here’s a reminder.) Turns out it’s not just one county.  WBTV in Charlotte found more places tearing apart families without even the minimal due process protections of the formal system.


● And a Connecticut public defender tells the story of family policing in America through one case – described in a tweet thread.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Greg Abbott’s (and Ron DeSantis') liberal enablers

Greg Abbott (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

A giant vehicle with nearly unchecked power to destroy families was built largely by the Left.  Too bad it never occurred to a lot of my fellow liberals that, someday, someone like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott [or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis] would get the keys. 

UPDATE, JUNE 12: NBC News reports that another right-wing governor, Florida’s Ron DeSantis also wants to exploit power handed to him both by liberal politicians and by liberal media, particularly the Miami Herald, which has campaigned for years to make the state’s family policing agency ever more oppressive and more powerful. 

My fellow liberals are very upset – as they should be. 

Everywhere you turn, it seems, the liberal child welfare establishment is churning out statements “blasting” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for unleashing the state’s family policing agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare agency”) against transgender children and their families. 

The Children’s Defense Fund is doing what it does best, issuing a statement. Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago did the same and included endnotes. The American Civil Liberties Union is doing what it does best – suing.  The group that calls itself Children’s Rights is doing what it does best – exploiting the whole situation to collect email addresses for endless fundraising appeals. 

And it’s not just the usual suspects. The federal government’s Administration for Children and Families, which can take six months just to clear its throat, already has an entire “information memorandum” out.  Even President Biden weighed in, condemning Texas for “weaponizing child protective services against loving families.”  (Meanwhile, some of the same news organizations who are outraged by Abbott bought into the whole racist COVID “pandemic of child abuse” myth.) 

President Biden is right.  CDF is right. The ACLU is right. Chapin Hall is right. Even Children’s Rights is right.  Greg Abbott’s cynical, callous, breathtakingly cruel attack targeting transgender children deserves all the condemnation it is getting – and more.   (And while Abbott has systematized such attacks, they are not limited to Texas.  This case is from Michigan.) 

It’s just too bad all these groups didn’t think of consequences like this when, either by action or omission, they built the very system that Abbott is abusing.  Some of them continue to prop up that system.  It’s too bad all these groups and individuals didn’t notice that the family policing system has been “weaponizing child protective services against loving families” – in particular nonwhite families -- from its inception. 

As Prof. Shanta Trivedi of the University of Baltimore School of Law wrote in The Washington Post on Feb. 28: 

Though many are rightly outraged [by what Abbott has done], those familiar with the child welfare system are not surprised.  Vague definitions of abuse and neglect open the door to state-approved discrimination. These laws have historically been used to control Black and Native families, and these parents live in constant fear that their children could be removed. … Child welfare laws invite discrimination and have been used to regulate marginalized communities. 

How bad is this system that runs roughshod over families and was largely built by my fellow liberals? 

NCCPR’s Due Process Agenda, called Civil Liberties Without Exception, begins with this hypothetical: 

Suppose, when he was attorney general, William Barr had proposed anti-terrorism legislation with the following provisions: 

Special anti-terrorism police could search any home without a warrant – and stripsearch any occupant — based solely on an anonymous telephone tip.  Any occupant of the home could be detained for 24 hours to two weeks without so much as a hearing – and they’ll probably be detained far longer because, in the special anti-terrorism court set up by this legislation, all the judges are afraid to look soft on “terrorists.” 

At that first hearing the detainees may – or may not – get a lawyer just before the hearing begins, and they almost never get effective counsel. 

At almost every stage, the standard of proof is not “beyond a reasonable doubt” or even “clear and convincing” but merely “preponderance of the evidence,” the lowest standard in American jurisprudence, the same one used to determine which insurance company pays for a fender-bender. 

And in most states, all the hearings and all the records are secret. 

Had Barr proposed such legislation, it’s reasonable to expect that civil libertarians would have responded with fury. 

Yet this hypothetical anti-terrorism law already is the law governing the system we call “child welfare.”  And sadly, many who in other circumstances are quick to defend civil liberties either stand silent or support it. 

Now Greg Abbott has driven home the consequences of liberal silence and liberal support for a child welfare surveillance state that tramples on civil liberties. 

The Right bears responsibility, too 

The Right should not be let off the hook here.  This is an issue that creates unusual divisions and unusual alliances.  It was, after all, Newt Gingrich who called for putting poor people’s children into orphanages.  It was the Right that watered down the Family First Prevention Services Act to eliminate the kinds of help families need most – concrete help to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty.  (They’re still at it, blocking President Biden’s anti-poverty agenda – which is the ultimate anti-child abuse agenda.) And much of the backlash against racial justice in child welfare comes from right-wing ideologues, including one who proudly analogizes her work to that of Charles Murray. 

There also are groups, on the Left and the Right who do understand this and have worked together to curb the family policing system. 

But when you look at the lawmakers who lead efforts to make state and local family policing systems even bigger and more powerful, they tend to come from the Left.  At the federal level, while right-wing Republican Tom DeLay was a prime mover behind the odious, racist Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, a law that passed almost unanimously, it had an even more powerful backer: Hillary Clinton. She was still bragging about it when she ran for president in 2016. 

So now, thanks to ASFA, if Greg Abbott’s family police take away transgender children and stall the process for 15 months, federal law actually requires the family police to seek termination of those children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights). Because under ASFA it doesn’t matter why a child was taken in the first place.  

Enablers in Texas 

It is much the same in Texas. 

For decades Texas media fawned over Scott McCown, first when he was a judge in Austin and then when he ran a liberal think tank, the Center for Public Policy Priorities.  For at least a decade McCown was the Godsource for Texas media – no story about Texas child welfare was complete without an obligatory Scott McCown quote.  His skill at portraying himself as the lone Voice of the Left fighting for children against the right-wing Texas political establishment enhanced his appeal. 

McCown was the personification of everything wrong with the liberal child welfare establishment.  He said there was no problem with wrongful removal, that families had all the due process they needed and he was explicit in demanding that Texas take away more children.  You can read all about him in NCCPR’s 2005 report on Texas child welfare. 

McCown’s legacy lives on.  Even as they write story after story about the hellscape that is Texas foster care, with rare exceptions, Texas media won’t even consider that the problem involves taking away too many children and the widespread confusion of poverty with neglect. 

Last year, the Texas legislature considered a bill to modestly narrow the grounds for coercive intervention into families and make it harder to confuse poverty with neglect. In a "news story" dripping with sarcasm, Dallas Morning News Austin Bureau Chief Robert T. Garrett almost brags about refusing to report himself on issues of wrongful removal and due process. He writes: 

GOP leaders want to put a tighter leash on [child protective services]; make it harder to remove children from their birth families … Some staunchly conservative Republican lawmakers have helped make individual families’ fights with CPS, covered by right-leaning news outlets, into causes célèbres.

In fact, in a legislature where Democrats are greatly outnumbered, they made up more than one-third of the bill’s sponsors and cosponsors.  The bill passed almost unanimously.  One of those apparently not too keen on it: Greg Abbott. He let it become law without his signature. 

So which is it, Dallas Morning News?  Is the vast right-wing conspiracy in Texas out to crush innocent families by misusing its vast power?  Or is the vast right-wing conspiracy in Texas tying the hands of noble caseworkers and turning a blind eye to child abuse by cutting back on that same power? 

It’s not just the Dallas Morning News.  On March 4, the Texas Tribune ran a very good story about parents of transgender children rushing to lawyer-up – as they should.  Because, as one expert said: “Once you're in the clutch of the child welfare system, you're very vulnerable.”   

But back when she was editor of the Tribune, and before that when she covered child welfare for that respected online news outlet, Emily Ramshaw (now CEO of The 19th) wrote stories much like Garrett’s – and she, too, systematically shut out all dissent. 

Even now there’s a subtle bias.  Although the story about the rush to hire lawyers briefly mentions that some are working pro bono, it says no more about all the families who can’t afford to pay and aren't likely to find such a lawyer – which is most families “in the clutch of the child welfare system.”

UPDATE, MARCH 9: One Texas-based reporter does get it. In this excellent story for Slate, Roxanna Asgarian writes:

The child welfare system—decried as “family policing” by critics—is a particularly potent tool for transphobic politicians because it was set up to surveil families that fall outside of the white, middle class norm.

Not much of a learning curve 

Maybe all this would be excusable if these various organizations really learned anything.  We’ve seen that most Texas media have not.  At the national level, the ACLU has – they’re doing excellent work countering the use of predictive analytics (computerized racial profiling) in child welfare.  

But the Children’s Defense Fund, which has been fine with ASFA and opposed real child welfare finance reform is as regressive as ever.  Have you heard what they said about legislation to curb ASFA?  Neither have I. I haven't seen a word about it from Chapin Hall either.

And the award for chutzpah goes to Children’s Rights,  They have radically changed their rhetoric, especially their Twitter feed, but not their awful litigation – which repeatedly has made family policing systems bigger and more powerful.  CR even cites its own Texas McLawsuit – which does nothing to curb the power of the family policing system as somehow putting them “in a unique position” to recognize Greg Abbott’s hypocrisy!  (CR has an even worse settlement in Michigan, but they have leveraged none of their influence to do anything about what happened in the case cited above.) 

So here’s a test for any individual or organization who claims to oppose “weaponizing child protective services against loving families.” Are you ready to acknowledge your own complicity in building the weapon?  Are you ready to sue to stop wrongful removal? Are you ready to seek to reopen old settlements that fail to address the issue?  Are you ready to demand repeal of ASFA, or at least support significant reform?  What about it ACLU?  Where do you stand CDF?  Are you willing to do more than exploit the issue to raise money, Children’s Rights? 

And what about you, Mr. President?  Are you ready to support repealing a law that doesn’t just weaponize the family police – it gives them the equivalent of a nuclear arsenal? 

A teachable moment? 

Perhaps this is another teachable moment in child welfare.  Just as what Donald Trump did to children at the Mexican border brought home to millions of Americans the trauma of needless family separation, perhaps Gregg Abbott’s behavior will help my fellow liberals understand the need for civil liberties – without exception. 

It all boils down to this: A whole lot of people and organizations whose politics are a whole lot like mine decided that everything they professed to believe in about civil liberties did not apply as soon as someone whispered the words “child abuse” in their ears.  So they built a monstrous vehicle – like a giant tank - with the power to crush almost any family. 

But they never expected that, someday, someone like Greg Abbott would get the keys.