Wednesday, August 31, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 30, 2022

● Montana is the child removal capital of America, tearing apart proportionately more families, by far, than any other state when rates of child poverty are factored in.  That may change if a bill approved by a legislative committee becomes law.  But the family policing establishment already is mounting a fear-and-smear campaign against the bill

● Add to the long list of those condemning the racism of the American family policing system the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. (See paragraphs 43 and 44.)  And see this story from The Imprint on the hearings leading up to the report. 

● Prof. Dorothy Roberts reminds us that the oppression of impoverished families through family policing is also a reproductive justice issue. She told The Guardian: 

Prisons are a major impediment in the United States to reproductive freedom. People who have had their children taken away by a discriminatory child welfare system that targets Black neighborhoods for family separation do not have reproductive freedom. To me, reproductive justice is inextricably linked to the fight against the prison industrial complex and the family policing system. 

● In The New York Times even social problems can be gentrified.  I have a blog post about how they just did the “oh-my-God-it’s-spreading-to-the-white-middle-class!!” story about the overuse of psychiatric medication on kids. 

● Among the many amicus briefs filed with the Supreme Court urging the court to uphold the Indian Child Welfare Act, this one stands out – and not just because it’s co-authored by NCCPR’s President.  The brief focuses on how ICWA is the gold standard of “child welfare” for all children, not just Native American children.  It emphasizes that requiring “active efforts” not just “reasonable efforts” to keep families together and not terminating children’s rights to their parents without proof beyond a reasonable doubt, not just “clear and convincing” evidence, should be the standard for all cases, not just Indian cases. 

What makes this significant is the groups that signed on to this brief.  They include such bastions of the family policing establishment as the Children’s Defense Fund, the Child Welfare League of America and the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. 

In other words, all of these organizations are now on record as saying it’s best for children if active efforts were required to keep all families that come in contact with the family police together.  And they’re saying it’s best for children if no child had her or his rights to her or his parents terminated in the absence of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that this is necessary. 

● For more insight about why ICWA is so urgently needed, check out this story in The Imprint about a survey of survivors of “child welfare” before ICWA.  The survey isn’t just a way to make sure we don’t forget “child welfare’s” complicity in attempting to wipe out Native American culture.  One of those working on the survey said it also will “provide a vital historical context for understanding struggles within Indian families who come into contact with child welfare authorities today.” 

Two scandals involving family police caseworkers are in the news: 

●The Colorado Springs Gazette reports that: 

Robin Niceta was a key child protective caseworker witness in 30 active investigations when she was arrested for allegedly falsely reporting that a vocal critic of the Aurora police chief had sexually abused her son, according to an Aurora councilwoman who is suing Niceta and the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services. 

A lawyer representing parents seeking to join the suit against the family police agency said: 

“Some of them had no say. Some of them had evidence ignored, lies told about them, false evidence introduced, false testimony given in their cases. And they have had their children taken away from them permanently.” 

● In Alabama, the Dothan Eagle reports that 

The Alabama Supreme Court says a Dale County man can sue a social worker who kept him from seeing his children based on falsified drug test results.

●And Youth Today asked Sixto Cancel, founder and CEO of Think of Us:

If you had a magic wand, and you could do one fix on the child welfare system right now, what would it be? 

I would go ahead and ensure that kin were able to take in their relatives without going through an exhaustive and intrusive process of getting licensed.  

Sunday, August 28, 2022

New York Times does the “oh-my-God-it’s-spreading-to-the-white-middle-class!!” story about overuse of psychiatric meds on kids

In the Times, even social problems can be gentrified.

In a front-page story in The New York Times today (Aug. 28) about the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medication on children, these are what journalists call the “nut grafs” – the paragraphs that summarize what the whole story is about and why it’s important: 

Psychiatrists and other clinicians emphasize that psychiatric drugs, properly prescribed, can be vital in stabilizing adolescents and saving the lives of suicidal teens. But, these experts caution, such medications are too readily doled out, often as an easy alternative to therapy that families cannot afford or find, or aren’t interested in. 

These drugs, generally intended for short-term use, are sometimes prescribed for years, even though they can have severe side effects — including psychotic episodes, suicidal behavior, weight gain and interference with reproductive development … 

Moreover, many psychiatric drugs commonly prescribed to adolescents are not approved for people under 18. And they are being prescribed in combinations that have not been studied for safety or for their long-term impact on the developing brain. 

What? You mean you’re horrified – but not shocked?  Not even surprised?  That’s because, if you read this Blog regularly, you probably work in or study “child welfare.”  So you know that, for the children with whom you are familiar, this has been going on probably for as long as the medications have existed. 

When the “news” isn’t new 

The one and only thing new is the one thing Times editors apparently decided made it worthy of a front-page story: It’s happening to kids who are white and middle-class!  In The New York Times, even social problems can be gentrified. 

But that’s not the most offensive part of the story.  The most offensive part is how the story attempts to ignore those who are most vulnerable to this kind of abuse:  

Public health officials first grew concerned about the problem of multiple medication use, or polypharmacy, a decade ago, when it emerged among young people in foster care and low-income settings. Legislative reforms were passed to curb the practice in those settings, but it has since widened to include affluent and middle-class families. 

“It’s gone mainstream,” said Julie Zito, professor of pharmacy and psychology at the University of Maryland. 

That first paragraph is wrong in almost every respect. 

First of all, the practice of doping up foster youth to make them docile for overburdened caretakers didn’t mysteriously “emerge” into public view.  Second, it’s been known for well over a decade.  We know about it primarily because of outstanding investigative reporting from other news organizations.  

Karen de Sa, now executive editor of The Imprint,  exposed it while at San Jose Mercury News in 2014. Sarah Fitzpatrick, now a supervising investigative producer at NBC News, exposed it on the PBS series Need to Know in 2010.  Tracy Weber, now a managing editor at ProPublica, exposed it while at the Los Angeles Times -- in 1998!  One line from Weber’s stories I will never forget: “Even a three-year-old knew the word ‘meds.’” 

And then there are the official reports like the one by then Texas State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn in 2004, and scholarly journal articles like this one from Angela Olivia Burton in 2010. 

But the Times story says, in effect: Hey, those laws fixed the problem for the poor kids and the foster kids, so we can just focus on the affluent white kids – because those kids are “mainstream.” 

But there are some problems with counting on a law here and there to fix this. 

“Child welfare” is not run by the federal government.  Even if laws could fix this, there is no federal law that even tries.  The only state I know of that changed its laws is California, in response to de Sa’s reporting.  I’ve seen no data on how much difference it’s made. It’s probably made some, since industry lobbyists have been trying to weaken the reforms.  But there’s nothing to suggest it’s done enough for journalists to say: We fixed that problem; let’s move on! 

In Florida, the late George Sheldon made curbing the drugging of foster children a cause when he ran the state “child welfare” agency.  That’s why Florida is the only state I know of that closely monitors the practice.  Unfortunately, though there has been some reduction in the use of psychiatric medication in family foster homes, there’s been no change in the settings where abuse is most likely, group homes and institutions.  As of August 25, 2022, more than one in four institutionalized Florida foster youth was on at least one psychiatric medication – about the same as when the state started collecting data in 2009. 

Similarly, in response to Strayhorn’s report, Texas initiated what a 2013 news account calls “massive reforms.”  And they did reduce the number of foster children on psychiatric meds – from 42% to 32%. 

And what about the other 47 states? 

The Times story cites almost no actual data – only a single report by a prescription drug plan – to document that the problem is worsening among the “mainstream.”  And it has no data at all to show that the problem is worse among the “mainstream” than among foster youth or children from impoverished families.  It seems unlikely, however, that one-quarter to one-third of all children are on psychiatric medication. 

What the need for laws tells us 

The very fact that we need laws to curb this abuse of foster youth illustrates why they were and always will be the most vulnerable to this kind of abuse:  The decisions are being made exclusively by people who don’t love them – group home staff and stranger foster parents.  At least in cases where the problem has “gone mainstream” there is usually a parent who loves the child.  A parent may be misled by doctors, a parent may not know about better alternatives, but at least a parent has the power to say: Stop! 

Indeed, those Florida data show another pattern: Children placed in foster care with relatives – kinship foster care – are far less likely to be prescribed psychiatric medication than children forced to live with strangers or children who are institutionalized.  Perhaps that’s because relatives will put up with behavior that strangers won’t – because relatives typically love the children placed with them. 

The Times, however, remains fixated on the idea that this is a new problem.  From the story: 

“You can very cogently argue that we don’t have evidence about what it means to be on multiple psychotropic medications,” said Lisa Cosgrove, a clinical psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “This is a generation of guinea pigs.”

No, we’ve had generations of guinea pigs.  We just haven’t been paying attention. 

Every time we see evidence of misusing and overusing psychiatric medication on any population it deserves front-page stories.  But those who are most vulnerable to such abuse need the most attention, rather than being written off in a single paragraph.

Later this week: More media criticism.  A public radio station talks to the right people - but still misses the point.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 23, 2022

● We begin with a photo: Check out the ads on New York City buses, from JMac For Families:  

● J. Khadijah Abdurahman, who is both a parent with lived experience dealing with New York City’s family policing agency, the Administration for Children’s Services – and a Tech Research Fellow at the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry.  I have a blog post about her powerful story in Logic Magazine. She describes her own experience of retaliation after she complained about one of the private foster care agencies with which ACS contracts, offers an overview of how “predictive analytics” makes things worse, and makes clear we need to dig deeper into how ACS is using it. 

● Abdurahman also moderated this international conference panel, Abolishing the Child Welfare System (and its Algorithms!) with panelists Prof. Dorothy Roberts and Benjamin Lundberg Torres S├ínchez


● And while we’re on the topic of algorithms run amok, there’s this, from The New York Times

The Imprint reports on a United Nations committee in Geneva that heard testimony about the racism that permeates the American child welfare system and asked tough questions of U.S. government representatives – all of which they evaded. 

● The American Bar Association – a group that is about as “establishment” as one can get, came remarkably close to calling on Congress to repeal the three worst federal laws dealing with family policing.  I have a blog post about it. 

● When we think of the confusion of poverty with neglect (and it’s taken decades to get the family policing establishment to think about it at all) we tend to think of the obvious: A family is living in unsafe housing but instead of fixing the housing the family police take the children.  But there are a whole series of more subtle ways in which neighborhood conditions related to poverty lead to needless removal of children.  Nora McCarthy, co-founder of the New York City Family Policy Project, discusses this – and what can be done about it – in this column for The Imprint. 

● And - yet again - a study shows that cash assistance for poor people - in this case the federal Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit - almost immediately reduces what family policing agencies call child abuse and neglect.

● In Florida, is it a case of “here comes the new ‘lead agency’ just like the old ‘lead agency’”? In the Tampa Bay area, people are worried this is the case.  But it doesn’t have to be.  NCCPR explains what needs to be done in this story from WFLA-TV. 

● In Houston, a desperate mother with nowhere to turn when her 14-year-old started running away and causing trouble at school sought help from the Texas family policing agency.  Naturally, instead of help, they took away the child – and because Texas does that so often they have no place to put the children, they parked the child in a hotel.  When the child told a family police worker she was hungry, the worker told her to become a prostitute.  The worker was fired, but rest assured the swift response from the family police in Texas didn’t stop there: As KRIV-TV reports, they retaliated against the family for complaining

● Sometimes family policing agencies can be as imaginative as they are greedy. You’ve probably heard about how they swipe foster children’s Social Security benefits and use the money to keep the foster care-industrial complex running smoothly.  But as Ian Marx, the son of a veteran points out, they also snatch veteran’s benefits.  He writes: 

The financial security my mother meant to be my legacy after her proud service slipped right by me and into the hands of my new legal parent — the foster care agency — who was ultimately more concerned about its bottom line than my best interests. 

Marx points out that the federal Administration for Children and Families can stop this practice through regulation.  And if they won’t, Marx writes, Congress should.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The violence of family policing, in analog and digital form

J. Khadijah Abdurahman speaking at a virtual panel on predictive analytics
in “child welfare” in New York City.  Organizers had to be pressured to include her.

In this powerful story from Logic Magazine, J. Khadijah Abdurahman, who is both a parent with lived experience dealing with New York City’s family policing agency, the Administration for Children’s Services – and a Tech Research Fellow at the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, ties it all together: her own experience of retaliation after she complained about one of the private foster care agencies with which ACS contracts, an overview of how “predictive analytics” makes things worse, and a call for everyone to dig deeper into how ACS is using it. 

In a couple of ways, Abdurahman was fortunate: She has the education and the experience with the system – she was a kinship foster parent for her brother’s children – to know how to fight back, how to document everything and how to go on offense.  Most parents facing the kind of assault her family faced wouldn’t stand a chance on their own.  (ACS is doing its best to keep it that way, successfully lobbying against legislation to simply inform families of the few rights they already have.  So JMac For Families has launched a campaign to tell them – including ads on city buses.) 

Oh, and Abdurahman had one other thing going for her: When the family police pounded on the door and demanded entry at 2 a.m., the home was tidy.  

I’ve often written that there is no line of work I know of that takes more seriously than family policing the idea that cleanliness is next to godliness – and none where the consequences can be so awful.  Sure enough, Abdurahman writes, one of the family police caseworkers said: “We don’t take kids from apartments that look nice like yours …”  (So remember, if you really are one of the very few parents who brutalizes their children, just be sure to keep the home spotless!) 

But even so, Abdurahman writes, the caseworkers 

insisted on completing the most dreaded aspect of an investigation: waking up the kids for strip searches to check them for bruises. I marched each of them out one at a time into the bathroom, where they had to remove all of their clothes down to their underwear, including the baby. 

I mention this because, for some reason, the single element of trauma inflicted on children by the family police that reporters find hardest to believe really happens is the widespread practice of stripsearching.  (That’s why I so often cite a story from The New Yorker, which has an outstanding record for fact-checking.) 

Perhaps reporters find it hard to believe because they are mostly white and middle-class. And, as Abdurahman writes: 

While what happened to us might seem shocking to middle-class readers, for [us,] family policing … is the weather. 

Abdurahman doesn’t stop with her own case. Rather, she uses it to show how much worse things would have been had she lived in, say, Pittsburgh, which has the most highly developed system of computerized racial profiling.  No, that’s not what they call it.  But it’s now well-documented that Pittsburgh’s highly-touted Allegheny Family Screening Tool predictive analytics algorithm bakes-in racial bias.   

Abdurahman writes: 

What AFST presents as the objective determinations of a de-biased system operating above the lowly prejudices of human caseworkers are just technical translations of long-standing convictions about Black pathology. 

In New York, one leader of ACS during the administration of former Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gladys Carrion, understood that.  Abdurahman reminds us that when asked about predictive analytics in child welfare, Carrion replied: 

“It scares the hell out of me… I think about how we are impacting and infringing on people’s civil liberties,” she replied. She added that she ran an agency “that exclusively serves black and brown children and families” and expressed her concern about “widening the net under the guise that we are going to help them.” 

But Carrion misunderstood her job.  She thought her first responsibility was to protect children. But in the de Blasio Administration the first responsibility of any commissioner was to protect de Blasio.  So after the death of a child “known to the system” made headlines, Carrion was out and David Hansell – who perfectly understood de Blasio’s priorities -- was in.  

He started the drive to bring predictive analytics to ACS.  As Abdurahman notes, ACS is notoriously “opaque,” so it is unclear how it is being used.  A 2019 PowerPoint presentation offers some hints, suggesting that, at least at that time, they were not using it the way Pittsburgh uses AFST – or its even more Orwellian “hello baby” algorithm.  But almost from the start, ACS officials have made clear they’re open to that. 

And as Abdurahman makes clear, had it been applied in her case, everything could have been far worse.  Maybe it’s time for reporters in New York to take a close look at exactly what ACS is doing with predictive analytics, what it plans to do and whether the current commissioner, Jess Dannhauser, is willing to put a stop to it. 

After reading the article in Logic Magazine, you’ll see why predictive analytics proponents were so desperate to try to keep Abdurahman off a panel that was billed as a virtual “examination” of the topic.  Family advocates and defenders had to fight to get her included.  Start the event video here and you’ll see why they were so afraid – and why the rest of us have reason to be grateful that J. Khadijah Abdurahman and others like her are fighting back.  Because, as Abdurahman writes: 

Data and predictive risk modeling is not something that exists outside obscene forms of analog violence; it is an inextricable part of it.

Monday, August 22, 2022

The American Bar Association(!) just came damn close to calling for repeal of America’s three worst “child welfare” laws

 They even acknowledged their own role in “contributing to racism in the legal field” in general and “within the child welfare legal field in particular…” 

Offhand, I can’t think of an organization that says “establishment” more than the American Bar Association.  Oh, a committee or a task force may say something radical from time to time – but the entire House of Delegates? 

So take a look at ABA 2022 House of Delegates Resolution 606.  The topic is “anti-Black systemic racism within the child welfare system.” 

I’ve noted before that lots of “child welfare” establishment groups have been engaging in reputation laundering. They’ve rushed to slap “Black Lives Matter” statements on their websites and otherwise pretend to support real change – while supporting nothing that would reduce the family policing system’s power or acknowledge their own complicity in creating and supporting that system. 

The ABA resolution is different on both counts. 

At various points, the report gets specific about where to find the racism.  It singles out for criticism three odious laws, the Adoption and Safe Families Act, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act.  The resolution makes clear that the ABA views these laws as running afoul of the right to maintain one’s family. 

Then, a few pages later it says "policymakers must evaluate where laws run afoul of the right to maintain one's family and, where necessary, revise or repeal legislation with discriminatory impact." [Emphasis added.] 

And then there’s this the part, on page 2, where the ABA seems to be apologizing for its own role in supporting ASFA and for its “Termination Barriers” project.  That project taught lawyers how to persuade judges to rush to terminate children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than “termination of parental rights”). According to the resolution: 

the ABA also has a responsibility to recognize its own role contributing to racism in the legal field. … Within the child welfare legal field in particular, the ABA has also traditionally supported and helped design pieces of legislation that have disproportionately affected and caused harm to Black children, parents, and families.[10] 

And just to be sure everyone knows what they’re talking about, that [10] refers to a footnote which states: 

See e.g., Dorothy Roberts, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2001), (Referencing the ABA’s project Termination Barriers and active support for provisions in the Adoption and Safe Families Act that facilitated parental and child termination of family rights). 

The report continues: 

Recognizing the discriminatory effect of these laws requires that the legal profession stand up and do something to change them. Even if those results arose from well-intended laws, no profession should turn a blind eye once the consequences are clear. 

So, now that the American Bar Association has done it, what about you Children’s Defense Fund?  Will you admit how wrong you were about ASFA and call for repeal, or at least support of Rep. Karen Bass’ bill to significantly revise it?  Are you ready to admit the failure of CAPTA and MEPA and act accordingly?  How about you “Social Current” – or whatever you call yourselves this week?  And you, Child Welfare League of America.  Are you finally ready to put the needs of children ahead of the financial security of your members?  And you, Prevent Child Abuse America. Are you really ready to renounce your long, ugly history of, in your own words,  “health terrorism” and support change that goes beyond prattling about “well-being”? 

The ABA itself still has some work to do.  Although what was once the termination barriers project is largely gone, it’s still active in Pennsylvania – though the name has been sanitized and, I’m sure they would argue the goals broadened a bit.  But they’re still pushing, for example, the horrific practice of “concurrent planning.” 

But still …  

In 2003, I debated Howard Davidson, the first director of the ABA Center on Children and the Law, before the National Center on Adoption Law and policy.  The topic was ASFA. 

In my closing statement, I cited two of the extremely rare occasions when child welfare establishment groups actually apologized: Australian governments for the Stolen Generations, and CWLA for its project to destroy Native American communities through transracial adoption, which they admitted was “both catastrophic and unforgivable.” I said that in doing so, Australia and America showed they had become better nations. 

I concluded this way: 

I am convinced that someday America will become a better nation still.  And from tomorrow’s perspective, we will see that what is happening now is  -- both catastrophic and unforgivable.  I don’t know who will say it or when it will be said.  But I know that someday someone will stand before its victims and their descendants – and seek forgiveness for ASFA. 

We’re not there yet.  But I never thought we’d get this close in my lifetime.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

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

● Last week, we noted the stunning Atlantic cover story about the Trump Administration policy of trying to destroy families at the Mexican border.  This week on the NCCPR Blog: Hoping that the story helps everybody make the connection.  (No one who reads this Blog regularly should have to ask “what connection?”) 

But for those who still haven’t made the connection, check out this exceptional investigative reporting from Mother Jones on a system of calculated family separation that has nothing to do with Donald Trump. 

● Did the entire American Bar Association just go on record calling for the repeal of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act? Not quite.  Did the ABA apologize for its own role in supporting racially biased “child welfare” laws and initiatives? Not quite.  But they came damn close. Check out the resolution their House of Delegates just approved. 

● In Kentucky two foster children, one age 9 and one age 7 died over the past two months.  Both had been institutionalized in residential treatment centers.  In an op-ed for the Lexington Herald-Leader NCCPR asks: Why is Kentucky institutionalizing young children in the first place?  One reason: The media-fueled myth discussed in our 2020 post about Kentucky Fried Data. 

● A key pillar of the child welfare surveillance state is Central Registries of Rumor and Innuendo kept by almost every state (they don’t use that name, of course, but that’s what they are).  The registries do enormous harm to children by driving families deeper into poverty, and ratcheting up unwarranted suspicion that can lead to a child being needlessly thrown into foster care.  Now, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia has filed a landmark lawsuit challenging the process by which people are placed on the registry in Pennsylvania.  There’s a story in The Imprint.  And here’s the CLS press release. 

● One reason New York City tears apart families at less than half the rate of Philadelphia is an infrastructure of family advocacy and family defense unmatched anywhere in America.  A key architect of that infrastructure was David Tobis, author of From Pariahs to Partners: How Parents and their Allies Changed New York City's Child Welfare System.  He discusses his work in New York City and his current work building family advocacy internationally in this podcast from the Kempe Center

● The situation is far worse in Colorado, where lawyers can be punished for so much as speaking to a reporter about a case – even when no identifying information about a child is revealed.  At least that used to be the case – until a federal appeals court overturned that part of Colorado law.

In 2019, Jessica Peck, the lawyer who sued to overturn the law, was threatened by a judge after she went public about a case in which a three-year-old child was at risk of being taken from her mother “without a single shred of evidence.  In an interview with KDVR-TV that year, Peck said:

 “The agency operates in darkness, empowered to bully into silence the grieving families, reporters and lawyers who dare to question the agency’s role in any derogatory way. My client may have lost her child had we not spoken out. The Fourth Estate is critical to protecting my clients’ interests and without journalists, we’re doomed.” 

● Hidden foster care – taking children from their homes and bypassing even the minimal due process requirements in the formal system – is a problem almost everywhere.  But, unfortunately, it’s been found illegal only in one small county in North Carolina.  Carolina Public Press brings readers up to date with this excellent primer on how hidden foster care worked, and why it did so much harm. 

● And Alaska now joins other states in seeking to bolster protection for Native children, now that the Indian Child Welfare Act is under threat because of a pending Supreme Court case.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

NCCPR in the Lexington Herald-Leader: Kentucky does not need to institutionalize young children. Too much goes wrong.

 On June 4, Ian Sousis, a foster child, ran away from a residential treatment center in Kentucky.  Four hours later, his body was found in the Ohio River.  He had accidentally drowned.  Ian was nine years old. 

On July 17, Ja'Ceon Terry, a foster child, died in another residential treatment center in Kentucky. The cause of death is unknown. [UPDATE, SEPT. 16, 2022: According to the Jefferson County Coroner, the cause was homicide - due to "positional asphyxia."]  But we do know this: Ja’Ceon was seven years old. 

People are asking lots of questions about these specific cases.  But so far, no one has asked the most important question of all: Why is Kentucky institutionalizing such young children?

Read the full column in the Lexington Herald-Leader

Thursday, August 11, 2022

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending August 9, 2022

Not a lot of stories this week, but two of them are blockbusters:

● In all the time I’ve followed child welfare – more than 45 years now – I’ve probably read hundreds of stories about foster children trapped in all sorts of hideous makeshift placements.  But here’s what sets last week’s stories in The Philadelphia Inquirer apart.  They got the solutions right.  One of the stories summed it up this way: 

Advocates say what’s needed now is to address the short-term glitches while pursuing the long-term vision of supporting more families at home — not backsliding into the era when congregate beds were ample and eagerly filled by a system that saw removing and institutionalizing kids as an easy fix. [Emphasis added]. 

That summary is in what reporter Samantha Melamed herself called the “TL;DR version.”  But I hope you’ll resist the temptation and read the full story. 

● NCCPR has an op-ed in the Inquirer with more on how to fix the crisis. 

● The Inquirer’s own editorial about this is all over the map.  But its conclusion suggests that, in mainstream media, Prof. Dorothy Roberts has opened the “Overton Window”: 

Dorothy E. Roberts, a scholar on race and gender at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, has called for dismantling America’s child welfare system, arguing that it largely punishes Black families for being poor. Studies show Black children continue to be taken from their mothers at a higher rate than white children in similar circumstances. 

Roberts’ suggestion may seem extreme, but it’s understandable. Something must give when children are dying, being abused, and sleeping in government office buildings because there is no other place for them. Additional disruptions caused by the pandemic have exposed a child welfare system that too often does more harm than good. It is in desperate need of repair, and there’s no time to waste. [Emphasis added.] 

● Think you know everything about the Trump Administration’s ghastly exercise in calculated cruelty when thousands of children were torn from their families at the Mexican border?  Trust me, you don’t.  In a masterpiece of investigative journalism for The Atlantic, the result of an 18-month investigation, Caitlin Dickerson reveals that it was worse than we ever could have imagined.  I have a blog post on whether this story will help more Americans make the connection.  (It’s the connection Joyce McMillan of JMac for Families makes here:

 ● Alan Detlaff, dean of the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston and co-founder of upEND, makes the connection on the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia How Is That Legal? Podcast.  He also tells a story about his own days as a “child protective services” investigator.  When his agency investigated cases jointly with the police, the cops would ask him to go in and question the parents first.  Why? Because police have to inform parents of their rights; but the family police don’t. 

● And speaking of Joyce McMillan, check out video of her testimony in Geneva before the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Atlantic reminds us of the horrors of family separation – at the Mexican border. It was even worse than we thought.

Perhaps this extraordinary, vivid account will finally prompt more Americans to make the connection.  (Yes, this connection):

Joyce McMillan of JMac For Families has a reminder for us.

A word of advice to any journalist contemplating entering the National Magazine Awards competition in the Reporting category – and I say this with the utmost respect: If you’re not Caitlin Dickerson of The Atlantic, you probably shouldn’t bother.  Dickerson’s masterpiece of in-depth reporting on the Trump Administration’s policy of family separation at the Mexican border is that good. 

It took 18 months of reporting, more than 150 interviews, and a lawsuit to obtain relevant documents.  Yes, it’s nearly 30,000 words – the longest article The Atlantic has published in its 165-year history.  But it’s also, to use that awful word from blurbs about thrillers: unputdownable. 

You may think you know everything about that ghastly exercise in calculated cruelty. Trust me, you don’t.  Dickerson reveals that it was worse than we could have imagined.  “It’s been said of other Trump-era projects that the administration’s incompetence mitigated its malevolence,” Dickerson writes.  “Here, the opposite happened.” 

You may think you’ve heard so much about what happened that you no longer can be shocked or brought to tears. Perhaps.  But consider just one of the many “little picture” examples Dickerson cites as she tells the story of this exercise in mass child abuse: 

Remember the audio leaked to ProPublica of desperate children crying for their parents at a detention center?

Now consider this from Dickerson’s story, as she describes how, month after month, parents had no idea where their children were: 

One woman, Cindy Madrid, only located her 6-year-old daughter, Ximena, after recognizing Ximena’s voice in the audio released by ProPublica, which was played during a news broadcast shown in the South Texas detention center where Madrid was being detained. 

But even as this story rekindles feelings of despair over what was done to thousands of children in our name, and fury at those who did it, it also rekindles the frustration a lot of us felt at the time about the failure to make the connection.  Any regular reader of this Blog knows which connection. 

The very fact that this story reveals so much about the sadistic glee that some in the Trump Administration seemed to take in tearing apart families makes it harder to understand one simple fact:  People with only the best of intentions are doing the same thing to hundreds of thousands of children right now. 

Take almost any example from Dickerson’s story, and there is a comparable example from the American system of what is called “child welfare” – or as it should be called, family policing.  Whether the people tearing a child from the arms of a loving parent have an ID that says “Child Protective Services” or one that says “Border Patrol,” the anguish experienced by the children is  the same.  While Trump’s family separation policy was underway, we even prepared this handy chart comparing how the two systems work: 

But we wall ourselves off from that anguish in two ways: First by convincing ourselves it’s somehow different if the people taking the children mean well.  But also by demonizing the parents.  

More than 50 years of what’s been aptly called “health terrorism” persuaded many Americans that while the parents at the border are innocent victims, the parents who lose their children to CPS agencies all must be beating and torturing their children.  A very few of them are.  But most have far more in common with impoverished refugees than with those depicted in the horror stories that fuel health terrorism.  The Atlantic itself contributed to the demonization of families caught up in the traditional American family policing system in a 2018 story (to which I will not link). 

That’s why the same scenes that prompt us to draw back in horror when they play out at the Mexican border make too many of us cheer when they happen in our own backyards.  The family police revel in their middle-class rescue fantasies and celebrate – yes, celebrate – when these overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite families are torn apart forever. 

But the children taken by the family police are shedding the same sorts of tears as those taken by the Border Patrol – for the same reasons. 

Dickerson’s story also reveals how little those who don’t encounter family policing every day know about how it really works. 

At one point, Dickerson cites one of the few people who comes off well in her story, a U.S. Attorney who tried to reunite the families: 

He was outraged. In no place in the American criminal-justice system, he reportedly testified, would it be considered either ethically or legally permissible to keep children from their parents for punitive purposes after their legal process is completed. “We wouldn’t do that to a murderer,” much less a parent facing misdemeanor charges …

Wanna bet? 

Technically, he’s partly right.  But only because family policing is part of the civil, not criminal legal system.  

Is it not “keeping children from their parents for punitive purposes” if children are held in foster care even after their parents jump through every hoop the family police agency imposes on them, just because they can’t afford to pay the ransom the agency has imposed?  (Agencies don’t use that term, of course, they call it “child support” to reimburse them for the cost of “caring” for the children.)  Since it doesn’t help the children and it doesn’t even help the agency – collection efforts cost more than what’s collected – how is this anything but punishment? 

And don’t forget all the victims of the “war on drugs” who were released from jail sentences they often never should have had to serve, only to find their children gone – forever – because under the odious Adoption and Safe Families Act, CPS agencies can seek termination of parental rights for no other reason than the passage of a specified amount of time. (This also applies to families detained and/or deported by immigration authorities.)

For more examples of just how much the American family policing system can get away with, see NCCPR's Due Process Agenda.

Similarly, in exposing the horror of the huge institutions in which children taken at the border were warehoused, the story states that: 

Large-scale institutions had long since been eliminated from the domestic child-welfare system because they were found to be traumatizing and unsafe. 

No, they haven’t. They’ve just rebranded as “residential treatment centers.” And they’ve been engulfed in  scandal after scandal, after scandal after scandal.   

The worst way to respond to the Atlantic story would be to say: At least an outraged public ultimately was able to put a stop to it.  Because the needless separation of families has never stopped.  It began long before Donald Trump – in fact, its roots are in slavery – and it continues to this day.  So as you read Caitlin Dickerson’s brilliant reporting, keep in mind the reminder from Joyce McMillan of JMac For Families that’s at the top of this post: They separate children at the border of Harlem, too.

Monday, August 8, 2022

NCCPR in the Philadelphia Inquirer: Philly doesn’t have too few foster homes. It has too many foster kids.

The city can make smarter choices that will reduce the number of kids placed in foster care, which will reduce strain on the system — and save kids from having to sleep in conference rooms. 

We’ve all heard the adage that goes: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” A classic example of that adage is Philadelphia’s approach to the welfare of its children. 

In 2016, Philadelphia closed its only juvenile psychiatric residential treatment facility — Wordsworth — after a 17-year-old died in a fight with staff. The city opened another in 2020, but that facility soon lost its license due to “multiple child right violations,” according to the state. Now, the city is asking providers to bid for a contract to create another facility. 

So, the plan is to build an institution to replace the abusive institution that replaced another abusive institution. Meanwhile, because Philadelphia still is taking too many children from their homes, there are not enough foster homes, so the children are held in conference rooms. 

There are better answers. … 

Read the full column in The Philadelphia Inquirer

Friday, August 5, 2022

At last! One news organization gets the makeshift placement story right!

Once touted as a model institution, the Glen Mills School was closed after
the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed widespread abuse.

The Philadelphia Inquirer zeros in on real solutions 

Here’s something I never thought I’d see in a story about children trapped in night-to-night placements because family policing agencies (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agencies) had no place else to put them: 

Advocates say what’s needed now is to address the short-term glitches while pursuing the long-term vision of supporting more families at home — not backsliding into the era when congregate beds were ample and eagerly filled by a system that saw removing and institutionalizing kids as an easy fix.

But there it was, in one of two outstanding stories in The Philadelphia Inquirer Thursday.  It’s taken a long time. 

For as long as I’ve been following family policing – and that’s more than 45 years now - I’ve been reading stories exposing the horrors inflicted on children forced to endure days, sometimes months in makeshift placements such as family policing agency offices, hotels, hospital wards, jails – even parked cars. 

As I recall, every one of those stories got the solutions wrong.  Oh, there might be a token paragraph somewhere about how “prevention” is a really good thing.  But that part about “not backsliding into the era when congregate beds were ample and eagerly filled by a system that saw removing and institutionalizing kids as an easy fix”?  Never! 

Instead, the reporters would accept as gospel the party line from the “residential treatment” industry. It’s always some version of: “See, we need to build more places to institutionalize kids!” Or, “See? We told you you shouldn’t have shut down our hellholes sorry, therapeutic communities!”  

It would have been easy for The Philadelphia Inquirer to fall into the same trap.  After all, Philadelphia has made significant progress in reducing the number of children torn from their families.  But Philadelphia now has a serious problem with children staying night-to-night in family police agency conference rooms, among other awful places.  Workers sum up the conditions there as “chaos.”  And Philadelphia either shut down or pulled kids out of several institutions in recent years – because the institutions themselves were so abusive. 

But perhaps because colleagues of reporter Samantha Melamed exposed horrific abuse in some of those institutions, such as Glen Mills (which is now closed) and Devereux, she wasn’t ready to accept the idea that the answer is to reopen them, or build new ones. 

Yes, the story includes the usual claim from a residential treatment trade association representative, whining that, now that the city has “reduced capacity” (by refusing to warehouse all those children in hellholes) it’s “destabilized the industry” making it hard to find placements for children with “really complex or sophisticated behavioral health needs.” 

But instead of simply accepting this claim at face value, Melamed broadened her source base.  For starters, she explained Philadelphia’s longstanding dismal status as a child removal outlier: 

For years, Philadelphia DHS removed children from their homes at one of the highest rates in the nation. It was an agency shaped, in many ways, by its response to abuse scandals including the 2006 starvation death of 14-year-old Danieal Kelly while under DHS supervision. 

Now, the city is part of a national and statewide push to stop institutionalizing kids, spurred on by the federal Family First Prevention Services Act. That shift comes amid a widespread recognition that abuses happen in those institutional settings, too — and with startling frequency. It’s also an acknowledgment of racial disparities: Black children account for 13% of Pennsylvania youth, but 35% of those in foster care and two-thirds of those in state juvenile-justice placements … 

But the story goes on to explain that, even with the improvements, Philadelphia still is an outlier when it comes to tearing apart families.  That means there still is plenty of opportunity to free up “capacity” by not filling family foster homes with children who don’t need to be there. 

From the story: 

In the child-welfare system, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s Kathleen Creamer said the city needs to double down on preventing family separations. 

Already, she noted, Philadelphia DHS has reformed its process for screening and investigating abuse allegations, and increased funding for legal aid for families. It also begun holding rapid-response meetings to enlist extended families to help kids in danger of being removed. She said that work now needs to go even further, reallocating some of the millions that would be spent on group homes or foster care to properly fund the supportive services that can help families working to stay together. 

“The question is, what’s the policy solution for this?” she said. “The policy solution is to stop separating so many families. We don’t have good placements for them, so let’s actually try to work with the family.” 

Indeed, in a sidebar serving as what Malamed herself tweeted is “the tl;dr version” of the story she includes that paragraph I quoted at the top: 

Advocates say what’s needed now is to address the short-term glitches while pursuing the long-term vision of supporting more families at home — not backsliding into the era when congregate beds were ample and eagerly filled by a system that saw removing and institutionalizing kids as an easy fix. 

The residential treatment typically responds by saying something like: Even if you have enough families, what about all those children with “really complex or sophisticated behavioral health needs”?  

But even when residential treatment centers are not hellholes, there is no evidence that they can meet “really complex or sophisticated behavioral needs.”  On the contrary, the evidence is overwhelming that residential treatment is a failure. 

In contrast, Wraparound services, in which anything a child needs is brought right into the child’s own home, or, when placement is genuinely necessary, a family foster home, do work.  There is nothing residential treatment does that Wraparound doesn’t do better and at less cost. 

How does it work? differently for every child – that’s the point.  So the best way to understand Wraparound is to let one of its pioneers, Karl Dennis, give you an example: 

But perhaps the best indication of why building more institutions won’t work comes in this part of the Inquirer story, the ultimate example of the adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result: 

Wordsworth, Philadelphia’s lone juvenile psychiatric residential treatment facility, was shut down by the state in 2016 after 17-year-old David Hess died in a fight with staff. A replacement opened in 2020 — then quickly lost its license, too, due to what the state said were “multiple child right violations.” (The city last year invited two new providers to negotiate contracts for yet another replacement, but it’s not clear when such a facility may open.) 

So what if, instead of trying to build an institution to replace the abusive institution that replaced another abusive institution, Philadelphia invested those funds in Wraparound programs and other supports for families? 

What if, at the same time, Philadelphia built on its progress to date and reduced its rate of removal to, say, that of New York City?  That would be well under half the Philadelphia rate.  What if Philadelphia then said to the foster parents in those now-empty homes: Take in the relatively few children who really need placement – and we will bring into your home whatever help the children – and you – need to cope with those “really complex or sophisticated behavioral health needs” and make the placement work? 

Would that mean that no Philadelphia child ever again would have to spend even one night in an office or some other awful makeshift placement?  Probably not.  But it would happen to a hell of a lot fewer children than endure it now.