Wednesday, April 27, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending April 26, 2022

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

● One of our recommendations is to abolish mandatory child abuse reporting – something that would be in line with decades of research showing that mandatory reporting backfires.  It’s one of the topics Prof. Dorothy Roberts discusses in The Regulatory Review.  She writes: 

Mandated reporting, therefore, drives many family caregivers from the very people who are most equipped to support them. It deters families from seeking needed assistance and weakens the capacity of teachers, doctors, and social service workers to nurture children’s well-being. Providing aid to families within a threatening and punitive system ruins the opportunity for schools, health care clinics, and social programs to be community-based resources where families can find non-coercive help with meeting their needs. 

● Prof. Roberts expands on that theme in the foreward for the new issue of Family Integrity and Justice Quarterly.  The issue is devoted to one of the two issues the family policing establishment least wants to talk about: the confusion of poverty with neglect. (I’ll be very disappointed if you can’t guess the other one – but here’s a hint.) 

Also in this issue: A mother and daughter write about being needlessly separated due to issues all rooted in family poverty. At one point, Hope VanSickle was jailed for writing bad checks to pay the bills.  Her daughter Diana writes:

During my mother’s incarceration, we were fortunate enough to be able to visit her. Those days were the absolute best days. I remember being able to see my mom would be the light of my entire week. Not to mention I think those visits are what got my mother through it all. My sister and I did not care that she was incarcerated, or that we were visiting her at a jail site, we just wanted to see her. If you asked me today if I remember anything about the jail I visited my mother at so many years ago, I simply could not answer because I was not wondering why I was at a jail at the age of 7. I was just excited to see my mother and that is all that mattered to us.

● When journalists publish a big project, it’s often accompanied by a “how we got the story” sidebar.  But the one that accompanied a major reporting project by The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica is different. It includes the reflections of a reporter who shows a rare willingness to grapple with ambiguity, complexity and nuance in covering child welfare. 

As Molly Parker writes: 

News stories about child welfare tend to stake out one of two positions: They take agencies like [the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services] to task for missing numerous and seemingly obvious red flags leading to a child’s death; or they draw attention to cases where children have been unnecessarily removed. Both of those situations are unfortunate, and deserving of attention. 

But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking: What does DCFS do about cases where departmental and parental shortcomings collide in a gray area? These types of cases, though exceedingly typical, don’t receive the public policy attention they deserve. 

And she adds: 

Having given birth to twins last year, I am awash with a fresh wave of empathy for struggling, tired, overwhelmed parents. I love my children dearly, but when you’re sleep deprived and inexperienced, some days are long and hard — especially when my children are sick and the crying feels ceaseless, or when I’m stressed about bills and work obligations I can’t always meet. I don’t know how I would manage without a husband, a village of family and friends, a supportive workplace and enough money to hire babysitters on occasion so I have room to breathe. 

So many of the parents I interviewed for this story have none of these luxuries. 

A Boston Globe expose reveals that, for hundreds of young people confined there, New Hampshire’s Youth Detention Center was 

a house of horrors. Rampant sexual abuse by staffers, beatings so severe they broke bones. Residents forced by staff to fight each other for food. Solitary confinement stays that stretched for months. The kind of violence that leaves lasting psychological damage, rippling through generations. 

It’s been that way for more than 150 years.  Indeed, the Globe reports, in the 1930s they even had their own version of waterboarding.  And for all that time, what is now the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families, and its various predecessors, which have been responsible for running the place, either were too stupid to know what was going on, or willfully ignorant. This seems to be a habit at DCYF.  DCYF is also the same agency that tears apart families at one of the highest rates in America.  Why in God’s name would anyone trust them with the power to do that?

Friday, April 22, 2022

A Blueprint for Child Safety

I am proud to serve on a special committee of the Philadelphia City Council examining the child welfare system in that city.  We released our report today.  Here is my statement.

Remarks of Richard Wexler, executive director,
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, for:

Councilmember Bass, Councilmember Oh, members of the committee, affected families and friends. 

I regret that, because I am over 65, and because Amtrak has failed to show the same wisdom as the City of Philadelphia concerning masks and indoor spaces, I can’t be with you in person today.

At the first virtual meeting of our committee I said this: 

Philadelphia has been leading the nation since before it was a nation. There is no shortage of talent or creativity. So my hope is that we frame recommendations that won’t just make Philadelphia no worse than other cities, but will allow Philadelphia to leap ahead and become a model of what child welfare can be.  I want there to come a time when people from all over America say: We need to do it the Philadelphia way.  

Today, we release a report filled with concrete recommendations to help achieve that goal.

But to get these reforms, one thing above all else must happen.

Our policymakers must no longer be suckered by the Big Lie of American child welfare: the false claim that massive intrusion on families and all the terrible suffering that inflicts upon them is somehow necessary to keep children safe.

To those to make that claim I have one simple question? Did it work?

Back when Philadelphia was tearing apart families at the highest rate among America’s biggest cities, did child abuse disappear? Did children “known to the system” stop dying? 

The people who want to sucker you into thinking that we need massive intrusion into families are the people who built and maintain a system that has done just that for decades, and it has failed.

Nationwide, the system they built inflicts emotional trauma on one-third of all children, and more than half of all Black children, through needless investigations.

The system they built exposes children to the high risk of abuse in foster care itself.

And the system they built so overloads frontline workers that they can’t investigate any case properly.

The system they built, in the name of child safety, has made all of Philadelphia’s vulnerable children less safe.

So why in the world should we keep listening to them?

All of us here today are the true advocates of children’s rights.  We are the true defenders of child safety. We are the true child advocates.  Today, we release a blueprint for child safety.

In closing, there are some people I’d like to thank.  First Councilmembers Bass and Oh, for their leadership in bringing this issue to the forefront and demanding action.  I’d like to thank Tyler DeBusi for his tireless staff work, and my fellow committee members for their abiding concern for Philadelphia’s most vulnerable children, both on the committee and in their day jobs.

I want to thank the family defenders at groups like Community Legal Services and the Medical Legal Partnership at Penn – their model of high-quality family defense should be available to every family.

There’s another group I want to thank.  Frontline DHS caseworkers and their union.  Overwhelmingly, they want what we want – safe children and strong families. Sometimes we disagree profoundly on how to get there, but nothing in this report should be taken as a condemnation of their dedication and their concern as they do some of the hardest jobs imaginable.

Even if none of these recommendations is adopted, I think this committee has had a positive effect.  It is one of the reasons DHS has changed for the better.  There still is a long, long way to go. Philadelphia no longer is worst, though it still tears apart families at a far higher rate than many other cities.  But DHS deserves credit for beginning to make crucial changes.

That brings me to whom I want to thank most: The families.

The movement to change this system has been building for nearly two decades, starting with the work of DHS-Give Us Back Our Children.  But I believe a key turning point was the two days of City Council hearings that led to this committee’s creation.  The hearing was only supposed to go a few hours.  

But families rose up almost as one to defend their children against the harm inflicted on them by DHS.  One after another after another they told their stories; it took two days to hear them all.  The City Council listened.  That put pressure on DHS, and the creation of the committee keeps the pressure on.

I hope DHS will embrace these recommendations and use them to accelerate progress.

Thank you.

Read the full report.

Read the story about the report in Billy Penn.

Read the story in the York Daily Record

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

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

● The Washington Post Outlook section describes its weekly “Five Myths” feature as “challenging everything you think you know.”  Guess what the topic was on Sunday. 

● Following up on last week’s NCCPR column in The Imprint about what is being left out of stories about Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s war against transgender children: Contrary to what one caseworker told the Texas Tribune, Abbott’s behavior isn’t revealing what one family policing agency has become. It reveals what all such agencies have been all along. On the NCCPR Blog: Is even a moment of self-reflection too much to ask? In child welfare – and journalism – apparently, yes. 

● Because they have no shame, the people who build and run the foster care-industrial complex would probably claim Sarde Hardie as evidence of how wonderful the system is.  After all,  she’s a film executive in Canada. Here’s some of what Ms. Hardie has to say about herself and her siblings in the Los Angeles Times: 

It is impossible for me not to imagine what our lives might have been like if we had stayed with our birth mother. What others' lives would be if their families were given support and means to survive instead of forced separation. 

● Connecticut is proposing to fund an agency to help link families to real help. It would be a private agency separate from the state’s family policing agency. But is it separate enough? The Imprint has a story about it. 

The Imprint also reports on a committee in California looking at a more far-reaching solution: reparations. 

● And in South Carolina, legislators heard testimony on a “right to childhood” bill – the kind that would specify that it’s not neglect to let a child, say, do her homework alone in the front yard – yep, that was an actual case.  Fortunately, it is not yet considered neglect to let a child testify before a state legislature.  One of the witnesses was Caroline Lanz, age 6.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Is even a moment of self-reflection too much to ask? In child welfare – and journalism – apparently, yes.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Contrary to one caseworker’s claim, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s war against transgender children isn’t revealing what one family policing agency has become. It reveals what all family policing agencies have been all along. 

Last week, The Imprint published a column I wrote called “Affluent America Gets a Wake-up Call on CPS Intrusion.”  It’s about how Greg Abbott’s war against transgender children is catching in the “child protective services” net people who never thought they’d be there – white, affluent families.  

The column focused on an excellent Washington Post story about one such family – and how wrenching the trauma was, even though they were so well off they could hire two lawyers and a private social worker to fight off CPS; even though they had advance warning of the inspection of their home and even though they were able to limit that inspection. 

Poor families have none of these options. 

I ended the column with the hope that 

readers finding out for the first time what a child abuse investigation is really like, and those who are writing stories about it for the first time, will remember something. While it is new to them, poor parents, especially poor parents of color, have known it all along, just as they know they will have to give their children “the talk” and fear that their children will be stopped and frisked. For more than half of all Black children, a child abuse investigation will be part of their childhoods. 

I also expressed the hope that we would see more stories about such families and more self-reflection within the system and in journalism. 

So far, it’s not looking good.  In fact, another story, even as it shows enormous sensitivity to these affluent white families, includes a sentence reinforcing the false “health terrorism” master narrative about the overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite families who dominate worker caseloads. 

This time the story, in the Texas Tribune, focused on workers who, finding themselves intruding needlessly on families with whom they could identify, are quitting. 

The story focuses on a transgender caseworker, Morgan Davis, who said he was glad that if anyone was going to have to investigate a family persecuted by Gov. Abbott at least he might be able to cushion the blow. 

But, according to the story: “The family’s lawyer didn’t see it that way.”  Yes, once again the family had a lawyer ready and waiting.  In fact, in an interview with Vice News about the same case, Davis said: “I was very grateful that they had attorneys.” 

In the 46 years I have been following these issues this is the first time I ever heard or read those words coming from a CPS worker. 

In fact, he goes further.  On the one hand, higher-ups at the Texas family policing agency have made it much harder to close these cases than others, leaving families in limbo.  On the other hand, this caseworker acknowledges that these families’ treatment during the investigations amounts to CPS lite, in part because he works out of an office in Austin. As he told Vice: 

But what if there's a county or a supervisor that [Agrees with Abbott]? And sends their caseworker in [and says] I want you to go to the school, I want you to record the child, show up unannounced to the home, all things that are normally done during the course of action of any investigation? [Emphasis added.]

In other words: OMG! What if we have to treat these white, affluent families the way we routinely treat poor families and nonwhite families? 

And speaking of things I’ve never read or heard before, consider this from the Texas Tribune story: 

Even the person who made the child abuse report didn’t seem to agree with the directive: Davis said they were sobbing on the phone, distraught that they were reporting the family, but the person was mandated by law to report child abuse and feared the consequences of not making a report. 

“[They] said to me, ‘Just promise me you’ll be kind,’” Davis remembered. 

Now consider how the caseworker made his judgment about the family he was forced to investigate.  According to the story: 

When he visited the family, the house was clean, the pantry was well stocked and the kids were healthy, happy and well loved. 

Now, let’s break that down: 

When he visited the family, the house was clean … 

To which the only reasonable response is: SO WHAT???? 

Why are caseworkers obsessed with equating cleanliness with love? Do only neat-freaks love their children? 

In no field I know of is the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness” taken more literally than family policing – and none where the consequences are worse. 

A dirty home means you’re neglecting your children – so they wind up in foster care. 

Conversely, after reading thousands of news stories about family policing over the past 46 years I’ve seen it over and over again: fatal neatness - caseworkers declaring they never suspected anything was wrong in the home where a child died “because it was always so neat and clean.”  

I know of no study of how often caseworkers are blinded by what might be called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Home syndrome, but it happens often enough that one former state “Child Advocate,” Kevin Ryan, made this recommendation to the New Jersey child welfare agency in 2005: 

Until someone demonstrates a correlation between cleanliness and child safety, [the state child welfare agency] should instruct employees that this factor is, at best, hardly relevant unless the filth is severe enough to cause a real and immediate risk to the child. This both will reduce needless removals from dirty homes, and encourage workers not to write off the potential for risk in homes that happen to be spotless. 

Another observation from the caseworker: 

…the pantry was well stocked … 

Well of course it was! It’s not as if this family had to worry about the SNAP benefits running out at the end of the month. Again, what does that have to do with love? 

Not only does the Texas Tribune story show no understanding of the irony in all this, there are dark hints throughout that with all the resignations at the Texas family policing agency there won’t be enough people to go after the real abusers – and we all know who they are, right?  After all, as the story says, caseworkers are dealing with a crisis of children pouring into the system with no placement for them.  And, the story says: 

that’s in addition to their existing, often overwhelming job duties investigating some of the most heartbreaking, challenging cases of abuse and neglect.

Such cases are serious, real – and very rare.  Mostly family police are dealing with the confusion of poverty with neglect.  The reporter here has simply bought into the whole narrative of “health terrorism” that family policing agencies have sold for decades – that the extreme horror stories are the norm and family policing agencies are a “thin blue line” protecting helpless children from their (overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite) parents who are sadists at worst and sick, sick sick! at best. 

At the very moment that this reporter is eyewitness to the abuse of power of family policing, she rushes to draw a distinction between people like us and people like them. 

The workers interviewed seem anxious to do the same; the story is filled with their proclamations of moral superiority. 

None of this is meant to diminish the trauma endured by transgender children and their families in Texas – and elsewhere, or the trauma for caseworkers.  But as soon as the crisis hit, those who already know what family policing is like responded with empathy.  Within days, NCCPR Board Member Prof, Dorothy Roberts, America’s leading scholar of racism in family policing, had a column in The Washington Post condemning Abbott and emphasizing that, bad as foster care is for other children, it’s even worse for LGBTQ children. 

I have not yet seen evidence that such empathy is a two-way street, either within family policing or within journalism. 

At the top of the Texas Tribune story, the reporter notes that she and a colleague are working on several more stories and they’d like caseworkers to please reach out to them.  There is no similar request to poor, nonwhite families.  

As for those within the system, at one point David, the caseworker profiled in the story, says: 

“It was just heartbreaking to me, to everyone, to see what we were doing, to see what we had become.”
I’m sure Davis went into this work for all the right reasons.  He wanted to help children.  Now he sees how much harm a family policing agency with vast, unchecked power and no accountability can do.  But it’s not a matter of what one family policing agency has become.  In poor communities, especially poor communities of color they know: This crisis simply reveals what all family policing agencies have been all along. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending April 12, 2022

● While discussing her new book, Torn Apart, on public radio’s The Takeaway, Dorothy Roberts made host Melissa Harris-Perry gasp. Want to hear it? And see also this story in Jezebel. 

● Thanks to Greg Abbott, affluent white people are discovering that even “CPS-lite” is enormously traumatic for children and families.  As I note in this column for The Imprint, for Black, Brown, Native and poor white families it’s a whole lot worse. 

● How can families respond when the family police are at the door?  Following up on her brilliant reporting on the confusion of poverty with “neglect,” Suzanne Hirt of USA Today canvassed family defenders for advice

● A big victory for families in Washington State:  The Olympian reports on a new law that will put relational permanence ahead of paper permanence. 

● And bracing for a possible big defeat: With the Indian Child Welfare Act facing a challenge in the Supreme Court, The Imprint reports on states passing their own ICWA-like laws to protect Native children. 

● How do family policing agencies respond when their negligence leads to large damage awards? Do they A. Clean up their acts or B. Rush to the Legislature whining about their plight and demanding a cap on damage awards?  It’s B, of course.  

Agencies go on to blame a shortage of caseworkers.  They want money to hire more of them, of course.  But unlike most such stories, this one in Billy Penn quotes those favoring a better answer: 

Across the country, child welfare experts have issued recommendations to reduce the number of kids in foster care by 50-percent or more because most kids in the system are not actually there for reasons of abuse. [Susan Vivian Mangold, CEO of the Juvenile Law Center] sees the spate of civil suits and the workforce issues as reasons to embrace “right sizing” as a potential solution, allowing social service workers to pay more attention to the cases that require it. 

“These lawsuits should serve as a wake-up call that kids are being severely harmed in care,” concludes Mangold. “We need a different way of doing things.” 

● A new study finds that legalizing marijuana reduces the number of children torn from their families – and, perhaps, not just for the obvious reason. 

● And Law Week has a good overview of Colorado’s new right to childhood law – with a discussion of both of the cases highlighted in this blog post.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

NCCPR in The Imprint: Affluent America Gets a Wake-up Call on CPS Intrusion

Ever since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott decided to wage war against transgender children there have been stories about the fear and anguish these children and their parents are enduring. For me, a front-page story in The Washington Post stood out. This excellent story ran under the headline “Dreading the knock at the door: Parents of trans kids in Texas are terrified for their families.” 

The story focused primarily on the family of Amber Briggle, an activist for the rights of trans kids. In 2016, the family even had Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over for dinner. Briggle thought they’d changed Paxton’s mind. She was mistaken. 

The Post story stood out because, for me, that framing was so familiar. Indeed, the headline  echoed, almost word for word, an essay by a 14-year-old girl in New York City, written in 2006. ... 

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending April 5, 2022

Is this on YOUR kindle yet?

● Twenty years ago, Penn Law Professor (and NCCPR Board Member) Dorothy Roberts changed the landscape of “child welfare” when she literally wrote the book on racial bias in family policing: Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare.  Yesterday Basic Books published her new book: Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families--and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World.  Check out Prof. Roberts’ interview with Boston Review. And read an excerpt from the book in Mother Jones

Prof. Roberts, Kassandra Frederique, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance and Dr. Virginia Eubanks, author of Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor; (the book the Allegheny County Department of Human Services hopes you will never read!) will be the keynote speakers at this free virtual conference on April 27. 

● The extent to which even the mainstream is beginning to understand what Prof. Roberts’ first brought to light, can be seen in the headline on this press release: New York State Bar Association Finds Child Welfare System Replete With Systemic Racism, Pushes for Reforms (The release includes a link to the full report.) And this isn’t the usual let’s-slap-a-Black-Lives-Matter-statement-on-our-website-and-go-back-to-business-as-usual document.  The report is comprehensive, and scathing. The Imprint has a story about it. See also the story in the Albany Times-Union. 

● Who gave a damn about Harmony Montgomery? She’s a seven-year-old New Hampshire girl who has disappeared and is feared dead.  I have a column in CommonWealth Magazine about how the one person who cared is the person no one would listen to: her mother. 

● In Arizona, a story from the “this really shouldn’t have taken a court ruling” file. The Arizona Republic reports that 

A woman who used medical marijuana during her pregnancy did not neglect her pre-born child and should not be punished by being put on a list that could limit her employment, the state Court of Appeals has ruled. 

● In Rhode Island, a story from the “this really shouldn’t have taken a federal civil rights complaint” file.  The Rhode Island family policing agency will be required to provide sign language interpreters when it investigates and takes children from deaf parents.  As The Boston Globe reports: 

Three complaints alleged that DCYF failed to provide sign language interpreter services to parents who are deaf during child protection investigations, even when DCYF removed the children from their homes. A fourth complaint alleged that DCYF based conclusions about a parent’s capacity on their epilepsy and intellectual disabilities and failed to provide reasonable modifications. 

● And finally, I have reposted NCCPR’s annual reminder that If it’s April Fools, it must be Child Abuse Hype and Hysteria Month.

Monday, April 4, 2022

NCCPR in CommonWealth on how two states failed Harmony Montgomery

Who gave a damn about Harmony Montgomery? 

I don’t mean now, as governors and other politicians fall all over themselves expressing shock and outrage.  I mean who gave a damn when no one else did? 

Not the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families and Massachusetts courts. They tore Harmony from her mother and placed her with her father Adam in New Hampshire,  — someone whose long criminal record included shooting a man in the face during a drug deal. 

Not the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families, whose overloaded workers seem to have performed, at best, cursory investigations, and didn’t want to hear that the child was missing. 

The one person who gave a damn is the person no one would listen to; the person who was written off from the start: Crystal Sorey — Harmony’s mother. ...

Read the full column in CommonWealth.