Friday, May 27, 2022

Power, privilege, and passing judgment in “child welfare”: The Massachusetts “Child Advocate” gets it wrong again

Massachusetts "Child Advocate" Maria Mossaides

Consider the relative positions and power of two women in Massachusetts. 

Crystal Sorey is the mother of Harmony Montgomery, a child who was taken from her because of her illness – drug use - and ultimately placed with her father.  Harmony was last seen toward the end of 2019.  We still might not even know that Harmony is missing were it not for her mother’s persistence in demanding answers. 

Sorey grew up in poverty. She has no power and no privilege in our society.  What she does have is a love for her daughter that prompted her to fight for that daughter when no one else would.  But the same biases that led to Crystal Sorey losing custody made her less credible to those with the power and privilege to act – so for a long, long time, they didn’t.  You can read about Ms. Sorey’s fight for her daughter in this excellent story from The Boston Globe. 

Maria Mossaides is a woman of enormous power and privilege.  She is the state’s “Child Advocate,” and before that ran a prestigious private agency specializing in adoption and foster care.  She has repeatedly misused her power and privilege.  Like most people in “child welfare” her intentions are good.  But she so misled a commission she chaired on mandatory child abuse reporting that commission members declared themselves “shocked” “surprised” and “taken aback” to learn that there is a vast body of scholarship holding that mandatory reporting backfires.  

Mossaides further misled the commission when she claimed that failure to comply with the mandatory reporting requirement in the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act would cost the state $400 million.  In fact, it might cost, at most, $1.5 million – and the state would save more than that in reducing needless investigations and foster care. 

Yet we live in a society where, somehow, people like Maria Mossaides are empowered effectively to sit in judgment of people like Crystal Sorey.  In a report on Harmony’s case, Mossaides exercises that judgment ruthlessly.  As she has before, she embraces the Big Lie of American child welfare – that child safety, or the even broader, more amorphous and biased standard of child “wellbeing” - and family preservation are opposites that need to be “balanced.”  And in a state that already tears apart families at a rate more than 60% above the national average, Mossaides issues recommendations that, if enacted, would further escalate needless removals and needless foster care – and increase the chances of more tragedies such as the disappearance of Harmony Montgomery. 

Ratcheting up the Big Lie 

Typically advocates of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare – the one that has dominated Massachusetts “child welfare” for decades and the one Mossaides still doesn’t think goes far enough – falsely frame the issue as a matter of “child safety” vs. “family preservation.” 

That is bad enough because it ignores the enormous emotional trauma of foster care placement and it ignores the high rate of abuse in foster care itself.  The Big Lie encourages massive needless removal of children – which overloads systems and leaves them less time to find the few children in real danger.  In short, it makes all vulnerable children less safe. 

But Mossaides makes clear she wants children torn from their families even when they are not in danger.  She wants them taken whenever their parents don’t live up to her determination of what will promote the child’s “wellbeing.” 

So Mossaides rushes to use this horror story to draw broad-brush conclusions declaring that if everyone in Massachusetts doesn’t accede to her demands 

the OCA fears that the errors in Harmony’s case will be repeated and children’s wellbeing will not be elevated to be on equal footing to the consideration parent’s current fitness. … The OCS is concerned that too often in Massachusetts legal practice parental rights are given significantly more weight than the child’s best interests or welfare 

The problem, of course, is that terms such as “wellbeing” and “best interests” mean whatever powerful people want them to mean  - and that means wellbeing is likely to mean: The parents are richer.  They live in a nicer neighborhood. They can send this child to better schools.  So really, let’s just take away all those poor kids – especially the ones whose parents can’t afford ritzy private treatment for their drug problems – and place them with people more like us – nice, middle-class strangers. 

There is, in fact, a place for government in assisting with children’s wellbeing. Government can provide voluntary help to their families, especially financial help for better housing and high-quality childcare.  When the issue is substance use that compromises the safety of a child, government can provide intensive in-home drug treatment.  When a child has special medical needs, as Harmony Montgomery does, government can be sure that families have the resources they need to provide for such needs.  (In contrast, Mossaides implies that an inability to provide for such needs in itself might be grounds to take away a child forever – the very approach for which Massachusetts recently was sanctioned by the federal government.)  

But government should never be allowed to become the Wellbeing Police.  That is an invitation to confiscate children who are poor, or who are nonwhite, or who don’t conform in some other way to a picture-postcard vision of white, affluent America.  (Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s persecution of transgender children is being done in the name of promoting their “wellbeing.”) Indeed, the case of Harmony Montgomery itself illustrates the pitfalls of Mossaides’ approach. 

Though there is much focus on the failings of Harmony’s father, very little is said about Crystal Sorey.  We are simply told that Harmony was torn from her, almost at birth, then reunited, then placed in foster care again, then reunited, then placed in foster care a third time. 

What can we conclude from this? Mossaides clearly wants us to write Crystal Sorey off as what the tabloids love to call a “druggie mom.”  Indeed, her report implies that any child who has a parent who relapses or is at risk of relapse should lose their parents forever.  According to her report: 

It appears the permanency goals for Harmony did not consider the recurring nature of substance use disorder.  … The challenges Harmony’s parents both faced with substance use disorder, and the possibility of relapse, were not balanced by the vulnerability of a very young child, with physical limitations, and her own increasing behavioral health needs. 

But we know nothing about why Crystal Sorey relapsed or what a competent agency (which the Massachusetts family police agency, known as the Department of Children and Families, clearly is not) could have done to prevent it.  Nor is there any discussion of other options during periods of relapse such as having friends or relatives step in to help the entire family.  And there’s certainly no mention of doing what rich parents do all the time: buy private drug treatment.  Had she been around at the time, can you imagine Maria Mossaides recommending that a drug addict like former First Lady Betty Ford have her children taken forever because of the risk of relapse? 

But since Crystal Sorey is not wealthy or powerful, Mossaides argues that DCF should have rushed to terminate parental rights, so Harmony could have been adopted by her foster parents, the strangers who cared for her each time she was removed from her mother.  She makes this case oblivious to the fact that her own report illustrates its fundamental flaw: The factor known as love. 

The same foster parents Mossaides portrays as saints, the ones who could have supposedly provided Harmony with a permanent, loving home, actually gave up on Harmony when the going got rough.   That’s not how Mossaides puts it – she sugarcoats it and, in effect, blames Crystal Sorey: 

While the foster parents provided exceptional care and were committed to Harmony, with each subsequent placement the scope and depth of her behavioral and emotional needs grew. The foster family felt that after Harmony had been removed from Ms. Sorey’s care for the last time, they were no longer able to provide for her increased needs. Several months into her third placement, Harmony’s foster parents determined that it was in Harmony’s best interest to be placed in a therapeutic foster home where she would receive the specialized and dedicated attention she needed. It is evident in the record this was an extraordinarily difficult decision for the foster parents as they consistently expressed their love for Harmony. 

And so, Mossaides concludes  

A decision to explore adoption for Harmony should have been pursued earlier. The delays in achieving Harmony’s permanency resulted in emotional trauma, which led to the disruption of her pre-adoptive foster placement. 

Strip away the treacle and what do you have: Strangers who loved Harmony when it was easy and gave up when it got hard.  And they did that even though they almost certainly possessed more material advantages than Crystal Sorey. 

This is a common pattern.  It’s why research shows that when foster care really is needed placements with relatives are more stable, and safer than placements with strangers.  Relatives also are less likely to demand that their kinship foster children be placed on potent psychiatric medication to make them easier to manage. 

Why? Because when you love someone you put up with stuff you might not tolerate from a stranger.  And keep in mind, Harmony’s foster parents weren’t dealing with a rebellious teen.  They decided to stop caring for Harmony when she was no more than five years old. 

This is, in fact, a splendid illustration of why imposing the Maria Mossaides “wellbeing” standard is
bad for children.  You can measure a dirty home.  You can count the number of relapses.  It’s a lot harder to measure love. 

And for anyone who says: How could Crystal Sorey love her children if she had a drug problem? Again, I have two words: Betty Ford. 

Of course, Mossaides assumes that the cause of Harmony’s behavior problems was the failure to get her mother out of her life sooner.  In fact, it may have been the fact that DCF kept taking her away from her mother. 

What Mossaides really is doing is exploiting a tragedy to take a position that boils down to: affluent white people with overactive rescue fantasies should be free to swoop into any home and tear the children from their parents whenever they think those children’s “wellbeing” would be better in some other home. 

Undermining children’s voice in court 

To understand the extent to which Mossaides proposes to undermine the rights of children – in the name of children’s rights – imagine the following scenario.  You are on trial for murder.  Your lawyer gets up to make an opening statement to the jury.  “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” she says, “my client maintains he is innocent and wants you to acquit him – but I think he’s guilty as sin and you should throw the book at him!” 

That’s probably not what you’d want to hear from your own lawyer.  But that’s what Mossaides wants the state to require lawyers for children in Massachusetts to do.  

Currently, lawyers in Massachusetts representing children old enough to express a rational preference are required to do what any other lawyer would do: Fight for what their client wants.  Of course, that’s not because children are always right.  But deciding what is right for a child in these circumstances is what judges are for.  And, as in any other legal proceeding, judges are most likely to make the right decision if all sides have lawyers fighting for what their clients want. 

But Mossaides said children should be stripped of this kind of vigorous advocacy whenever the lawyer happens to think that what the child wants is contrary to the child’s “wellbeing.”  Then lawyers should tell judges what their clients want – and why the lawyer personally thinks it’s a bad idea. 

Why does Mossaides want to do this?  Because at one key court hearing during the horror story case of Harmony Montgomery her lawyer followed Harmony’s wishes and advocated – successfully - for placing her with her father.  In Mossaides’ world, it seems, all public policy should be guided by horror stories. 

And even in Harmony’s case, there already was a lawyer advocating against placing Harmony with her father – the lawyer for the Department of Children and Families.  

Mossaides says that Harmony’s lawyer did a good job, while DCF’s lawyer did a bad job.  But instead of suggesting that, say, Massachusetts stop dragging so many families needlessly into court so DCF lawyers have more time to prepare carefully, she argues that every child’s own lawyer should undermine their own clients’ whenever the lawyer’s personal view is that the child should not be placed with a parent.  

Mossaides also has an alternative idea which would be as bad or worse. She supports a proposal by Gov. Charlie Baker to require that, in addition to a lawyer, a child be appointed a so-called guardian ad-litem.  The GAL’s job would be to do her or his own “investigation” and advocate for whatever s/he thinks would be best for the child’s wellbeing.  In other words, they’re like Court-Appointed Special Advocates but with salaries.  We’ve seen the result of that: Study after study makes clear that CASAs, overwhelmingly white and middle class, impose their biases on families who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite. Studies find that CASA actually prolongs foster care, increases the likelihood that children will “age out” of foster care with no home at all and reduces the chances of reunification.  The program has been aptly described as “an act of white supremacy.” 

So of course, Mossaides wants what amounts to CASA on steroids, so every child can have someone in the courtroom ready to ignore an impoverished mother’s love for a child in favor of those foster parents with their beautiful home in a good school district. 

Mossaides also appears unaware of an irony detailed in her own report.  It appears that one reason so many in the process, possibly including the judge, were so anxious to rush ahead with placing Harmony with her father was their fear that if they didn’t, she might wind up back with her mother – and, clearly, we wouldn’t want that!  The very stereotypes and biases about mothers with substance use issues that  Maria Mossaides reinforces in her report may have contributed to the tragedy she now deplores. 

Another stacked-deck commission 

After lamenting that her office has no authority to examine the performance of the judiciary – and proceeding to do so anyway – Mossaides suggests creation of a “working group” to examine her concerns and ratify her conclusions.  That’s not how she puts it, of course, but it’s pretty close. 

She wants the working group to “Map how a child’s welfare and best interest considerations are currently presented in Care and Protection cases and what changes may be needed to that a parent’s rights are appropriately balanced with a child’s needs.” 

Thus, from the get-go, the working group is to assume that “parents' rights” and “child’s needs” are at odds and inappropriately balanced – again, in a state that already tears apart families at a rate more than 60% above the national average.

The Massachusetts State Senate already has passed a bill to create such a group. 

In other words, Mossaides wants a repeat of the mandatory reporter commission, in which it was simply assumed at the outset that mandatory reporting should be expanded and the only question was how.  Fortunately, the members of the commission caught on and ultimately refused to let Mossaides mislead them. 

In a just world, a working group would be convened with a very different charge: It would be a truth commission, in which families destroyed needlessly by DCF – with the never-ending encouragement of Maria Mossaides – finally got a chance to be heard.  The children torn needlessly from everyone they knew and loved could speak out about what happened to them.  And, her good intentions notwithstanding, Maria Mossaides would finally be called to account for the harm the approach she advocates has done to children in the name of “saving” them. 

In short, in a just world people like Crystal Sorey finally would have the chance to judge people like Maria Mossaides.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

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

● You know how family policing agencies say they never, ever take children away or keep them in foster care on their own?  Remember how they say: “a judge has to approve everything we do”?  Apparently, there’s an exception: If the judge orders a child returned to a mother who had never abused or neglected that child, but the family police just don’t feel like it.  Oh, and then they lie under oath about who’s responsible. 

All that is according to a judge in Kentucky. The Louisville Courier Journal reports that the judge held the state family police agency in contempt – and urged authorities look into criminal sanctions against agency employees she says lied under oath.  She also filed a complaint with the Kentucky Bar Association against the agency’s lawyer. 

In other news:

● WBTV in Charlotte, North Carolina, continues its excellent reporting on the harm done to children and families by hidden foster care in that state. 

● Prof. Dorothy Roberts and members of Rise discuss Prof. Roberts’ new book, Torn Apart at Revolution Books: 

Rise has more about the event here.

● Two lawsuits deal with the harm done to children when hospitals rush to judgment. 

--In Illinois, the Chicago Tribune reports, a hospital confused a Black child’s birthmark with a bruise.  According to the lawsuit, without even minimal investigation, the hospital rushed to call in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.  DCFS is in full foster-care panic mode – which helps explain why they promptly inflicted a so-called “safety plan” – actually a form of hidden foster care -- on the family. 

--According to a lawsuit in Pennsylvania, a hospital reported  to family police authorities a mother who had just given birth for allegedly using methamphetamine – after a single drug test that can’t distinguish between meth and the mother’s Vyvanse – a legally prescribed amphetamine.  The Allentown Morning Call describes the trauma inflicted on this family – and others.  The story is one more illustration of the harm done by the so-called “plan of safe care” provision of an odious federal law, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.

● At last: Some skepticism from local media about Pittsburgh’s use of what amounts to computerized racial profiling in family policing. For more context, see this AP story

WHYY Public Radio reports on a hearing held by the Philadelphia City Council Special Committee on Child Separations in which the commissioner of the city’s family policing agency responded to the committee’s report.  Here’s some context on that report.

● And, as The Appeal puts it in this story: “A judge finally called bs on ‘shaken baby syndrome.’”

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending May 3, 2022

BuzzFeed News examines the enormous harm to families when parents are wrongly placed on “central registries” of alleged child abusers. A listing can shut parents out from the very jobs most often open to low-income workers, driving their families further into the poverty that often is confused with “neglect” in the first place.  And, because of who is disproportionately likely to be included in these registries, the story is aptly titled “The Black List.” 

● At last, a big, mainstream news organization that wasn’t suckered by the hype spewing forth from the evangelists for using “predictive analytics” in family policing: Much of that dangerous hype has come from Pittsburgh, where proponents hand-picked the people who would review their plans.  But look what the Associated Press found when, at last, there was a truly independent evaluation: 

According to new research from a Carnegie Mellon University team obtained exclusively by AP, Allegheny’s algorithm in its first years of operation showed a pattern of flagging a disproportionate number of Black children for a “mandatory” neglect investigation, when compared with white children. The independent researchers, who received data from the county, also found that social workers disagreed with the risk scores the algorithm produced about one-third of the time. 

The story reveals something else; the character of Erin Dalton, who led the push for using this kind of computerized racial profiling in Pittsburgh and now runs the family policing agency there.  Her response to the potential for error boils down to: So what? Or as she told AP: 

“If it goes into court, then there’s attorneys on both sides and a judge,” Dalton said. “They have evidence, right?” 

The Imprint has a big story about Prof. Dorothy Roberts and her decades of work exposing the racial bias that permeates family policing – work that continued in April with the publication of her new book, Torn Apart. 

● Here Prof. Roberts discusses her book, and racism in child welfare with Marc Lamont Hill 

And here with Ali Velshi on MSNBC:

● Velshi refers to Prof. Roberts’ article in The Nation on the real lessons for family policing from COVID-19: No, there was no “pandemic of child abuse” – on the contrary, children did better when family policing agencies were forced to step back and mutual aid organizations stepped up. You can read that story here. 

● It seems like a week doesn’t go by without some “child welfare” agency announcing an initiative that supposedly will make family policing kinder and gentler.  But none of them takes account of “the tattletale factor.” I have a blog post about it. 

● In Hawaii, a state legislator is urging that state’s family police agency to stop stealing foster youth’s Social Security benefits, a practice exposed last year by The Marshall Project and NPR.

● In Massachusetts, children in family policing proceedings already get a lawyer charged with advocating for what the child wants – not because that’s always what should happen, but because judges can’t make informed decisions unless everyone has a zealous advocate for their point of view.  But now, the governor wants to spend $50 million adding a fifth wheel to the process – a guardian ad litem (GAL) whose job would be to act on his or her own adult whims and prejudices and, quite possibly, fight against the child’s wishes if they don’t match those whims and prejudices.  In other words, something a lot like the quintessence of racial and class bias in child welfare, Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).  CommonWealth Magazine has an excellent commentary on why the GAL proposal would make the state’s atrocious system even worse. 

The motivation for this terrible idea is a horror story – the disappearance of 7-year-old Harmony Montgomery.  But it was Massachusetts’ fanaticism about tearing apart families that made that tragedy more likely in the first place.  So, of course, leave it to the governor and his human services leadership team to propose doubling down on their failed approach.  In my own commentary for CommonWealth Magazine last month, I suggested some alternatives. 

● In the Albany Times Union, Madelyn Freundlich, policy research consultant for the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York writes in support of legislation that would replace anonymous reporting of alleged child abuse and neglect with confidential reporting.

Monday, May 2, 2022

The tattletale factor in “child welfare”

It’s why all those plans for kinder, gentler family policing won’t do much good – and might even backfire.  Connecticut is a case in point. 

It seems like a week doesn’t go by without some “child welfare” agency announcing an initiative that supposedly will make family policing kinder and gentler.  

There’s the longstanding “differential response” in which, in cases deemed less serious, caseworkers are sent out to do a supposedly family-friendly “assessment” and offer voluntary help, instead of an investigation with the accompanying risk of onerous surveillance.  On the one hand, there are a lot of reasons to be concerned that this leads to needless net-widening. On the other hand, another in a long line of studies suggests it may reduce foster care entries. 

Then there are “family resource centers” – drop-in centers, in which families can stop by and get help, including the concrete help families really need. 

But for these and similar interventions there is one huge catch:  Call it the tattletale factor.  

All of these alternatives are either run by the family police themselves or contracted out to agencies whose workers are mandatory reporters of “child abuse” and “child neglect.” At worst, this can wind up widening the net of needless intervention into families.  At best, this creates a deterrent to families coming forward to seek help because they never know if the “helper” will feel compelled to call the family police.  Prof. Kelley Fong, who’s done extensive research on this issue, summed it up in an article for Family Integrity and Justice Quarterly: 

“Seeking help is no easy decision when those in a position to assist are also potential tattletales.” 

The tattletale factor persists because no state or locality creating these plans has taken the one step necessary to make them work: surrendering some of their vast, untrammeled power to intervene in the lives of families. 

And that brings me to something included in Connecticut’s plan for how to use funds under the federal Family First Act.  Here’s how The Imprint describes the plan: 

The state is planning to support a community-based organization that will help steer some reports away from its surveillance-oriented hotline, known as the Careline. 

Funding for this venture — described wonkily in the Family First plan as a Care Management Entity (CME) — has already been included in the state’s budget negotiations this year, and department leadership are confident it will secure about $1.5 million for this venture. 

“We want to go further upstream and serve families without having them become known to us … and really do prevention in a more robust way other than cases accepted,” said DCF Deputy Commissioner of Operations Michael Williams. 

The idea is that reports of concern that do not rise to the level of abuse or neglect would come to the CME from schools or child care centers, law enforcement officials or the community. Parents could also come directly in search of help. 

The effort is probably sincere.  It may have been inspired by Prof. Fong’s research, some of which was done in Connecticut.  And when it comes to reducing needless foster care, over the past decade or so, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families has shown some real leadership and done better than other states (although using the Orwellian term “Careline” to describe the number you call to reach the family police does not inspire confidence). 

But the closer one looks at the fine print, the less there is to Connecticut’s plan. 

For starters, the claim that this entity will “serve families without having them become known to us”
isn’t quite accurate.  Under the plan, mandated reporters will keep right on calling the policing line (no way I’m calling it “Careline”).  Then, if the family police decide the report doesn’t rise to a level that needs investigation, the reporter will be told to call the CME instead. 

So this means that a second entity will, in fact, go out and knock on a family’s door in situations where that does not happen now, thus reinforcing fears that Family First opens the door to making needless intervention into families worse. 

And while it’s true that, in theory, this new entity is only there to help, there’s another catch: According to the plan “CME staff are mandated reporters and if they hear something that meets the statutory criteria of abuse or neglect, they will refer to the [family police].”  Why, then, should families be less afraid of the CME than they are of any other mandated reporter? 

Prof. Fong describes parents forced constantly to weigh whether to reach out for help and, if they do, what they dare not say to “helping” professionals: 

In communities highly exposed to [child protective services], the specter of CPS accompanies families to doctors’ visits, to parent-teacher conferences, to homeless shelters, to therapy

Appointments … Parents in need face a no-win situation: close off opportunities for support or open themselves up to the risk of state scrutiny and family separation. 

Connecticut’s plan doesn’t change this. 

A far better approach would be a plan that said: “We will seek legislation exempting CME staff from mandatory reporting requirements.”  That doesn’t mean they’d be prohibited from reporting, only that they’d be free to exercise their professional judgment without fear.  But that would require the family policing agency to relinquish some of its power. 

A good plan also would have included a provision allowing “mandated reporters” to fulfill their legal obligations by calling this new entity instead of calling the family police.  But that, too, would require the family policing agency to give up some of its power. 

The fact that this proposal is part of Connecticut’s plan to implement the so-called Family First Act creates additional problems.  Family First will only help states pay for a service if the service is provided for families where children are, using the law’s own Orwellian term, “candidates” for foster care.  That creates even more entanglement with the family police.  As the proposal itself says: 

…the CME will be expected to conduct an assessment protocol for all families coming through the CME. This will include 1) an evaluation of safety; if there is a safety concern the CME will make a call to the Careline for further evaluation, and 2) an assessment of risks, strengths, and needs to inform case planning, and service matching… 

So how can this be purely voluntary, if the family must allow all that “risk assessment”? Will a family that says: “no, thank you, we’re not interested” automatically become higher risk?  And how does all this constitute serving families “without having them become known to us”? 

At best, this seems no different from differential response, at worst is it simply subcontracting child abuse investigations by another name? 

Why entangle this with Family First at all?  Surely the richest state in America could come up with the $1.5 million needed for the CME without federal reimbursement. [UPDATE: I now understand the state is, in fact, going to come up with that $1.5 million without Family First.] As for Family First eligible services, with the strings that attach to them, savings from reduced foster care would cover the costs of any services the CME might arrange. 

A better approach would be to take the money the state would spend on the CMEs and give it to community-based community-run service providers, no strings attached, and let them figure out how to reach out to families and help them – in other words, what happened in New York City, not by design but by way of COVID-19.  But that would require the family police agency to relinquish some of its power. 

Short of that, there is one thing that would make this plan far more reassuring: If the mandate for the CME included immediately linking the family to high-quality interdisciplinary legal representation

But that would require the family police agency to – well, you know.