|Photo by Tara Winstead|
take-the-child-and-run extremists are upset about the very idea that families
should get an administrative hearing before they’re blacklisted forever in the
state’s central registry of alleged child abusers
Suppose you were
reading a news story about a community that had decided to end the racist
practice of stop-and-frisk policing. You
read that not only does it brutalize and humiliate those stopped and frisked –
overwhelmingly Black teenagers and young adults – but also, the cops almost
never find anything. It does nothing but
harm those stopped and frisked, violate basic American principles of justice,
and leave in its wake increased hostility toward law enforcement.
But then you hear
from a politician who voted to keep stop and frisk – or maybe a high-ranking
police officer. And he says: “Even
though we didn’t find anything, they’re all still guilty! Too much time passed, and they just got rid
of the evidence before we could stop them!
What might you
think of such a comment? If you were,
say, Newt Gingrich, Tucker Carlson or Donald Trump I’m sure you’d agree
100%. But would progressives fall for a
line like that? Or would they wonder if
the speaker had a racial bias problem?
I ask because, in
the inside-out upside-down world of family policing (a more accurate term than
child welfare), this can happen:
An organization can
slap one of those boilerplate “black lives matter”- type statements on its
website acknowledging that “Today, we understand that the child welfare system
is inherently racist.” Then, the same group’s director can turn around and take
the inherently racist position that, in his city, where the target population
is overwhelmingly nonwhite, everyone who a caseworker even guesses is a child
abuser must be guilty! If an arbiter
says otherwise, he explains, it’s just because “the case deteriorated on its
own by the passage of time.”
And he’s not alone.
A whole coterie
of take-the-child-and-run extremists have done enormous harm to the very children
they want to help in his city, Philadelphia, and the state of Pennsylvania as a
whole. They went into the field to do
good. Their efforts have backfired.
comment in question can be found in a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week concerning a lawsuit brought by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. No, the subject isn’t stop-and-frisk, it’s an
even worse infringement on civil liberties that does even more harm to
children: placing families on Pennsylvania’s blacklist of alleged child abusers
based on little more than a caseworker’s guess, with no hearing beforehand –
only a cumbersome process to fight your way out afterward that’s often
impossible for poor people to navigate.
In this report CLS explains how the process works:
All too often,
indicated reports are based on faulty or incomplete investigations, or on the caseworkers’
misapplication of evidence or misunderstood statutory definitions. In many cases, racial,
cultural, or economic differences create an additional bias that factors into a caseworker’s
determination of whether child abuse or neglect occurred. Furthermore, there is no hearing or
opportunity to present evidence to a neutral party. The “investigator” is also the “judge and
jury.” A caseworker checks off a box, and an individual is placed on the child abuse registry,
effectively for life unless the individual successfully appeals within a short deadline. While
a 2014 amendment requires that agency solicitors review a worker's child abuse determination,
this has not measurably reduced erroneous child abuse determinations.
That listing has
huge consequences. It will get you fired
from a vast range of jobs that involve working with or even having “routine
interaction” with children, and make it impossible for you to get another job
like it, sometimes forever.
Many of these jobs
are entry-level, low-paying jobs, the first rung on the ladder out of
poverty. So families are driven deeper
into poverty. That makes them targets
when the poverty is confused with “neglect.” That
neglect allegation is even more likely than usual to lead to removal of the
children – because, after all, there was that other “substantiated” allegation. But remember, substantiation in Pennsylvania,
and most other states, can mean only that a caseworker guesses it’s slightly more
likely than not that what you did fits expansive definitions of child
And if you happen
to live in metropolitan Pittsburgh it’s even worse. The registry listing will raise the “risk
score” stamped on your child
– in some cases at birth - by one of Pittsburgh’s racially biased “predictive analytics” algorithms – again,
increasing the risk of child removal and coming back to haunt the child in
later life – because having a high risk score as a child counts against you as
In effect, when the
caseworker checks the box on the form that says “substantiated” she can be
checking Pandora’s Box. That one bad guess by a caseworker can set off a cascade of
compounding errors that needlessly destroys overwhelmingly poor
disproportionately nonwhite families.
A truly modest
CLS and the others
who are suing are not asking for the moon.
All they seek is protection that anyone not familiar with family
policing probably would assume already exists: an administrative hearing – not
even a full-scale trial – before a neutral arbiter before a family is
blacklisted. Twelve other states already
do this, and there is no sign that child abuse has run rampant in those states
as a result.
Even if the lawsuit
is successful, the family still might shave to navigate the system alone,
unless the Legislature also were to mandate that most basic protection: A
lawyer for people who can’t afford one.
But this minimal
request to curb the vast power of caseworkers was enough to infuriate some of the
take-the-child-and-run extremists who have, for decades, done enormous harm to the
Pennsylvania children they want to save.
The comment I cited
above comes from Frank Cervone, who, for decades, has run something called the
Support Center for Child Advocates. A check via the Wayback Machine confirms that, over the years, the Center’s
website has showcased a litany of horror story cases that bear no resemblance
to the typical cases seen by workers.
They toned it down a little in the most recent version, but I have never
seen them showcase an instance in which they intervened because a child never
should have been taken away in the first place.
Apparently, they don’t believe such cases exist.
Yet all the while,
Cervone remained the “Godsource” for Philadelphia media – the one person who
reporters rushed to for every story, and whose assertions were treated as Holy
His influence is
among the main reasons why, for many years, Philadelphia tore apart families at
the highest rate among America’s big cities.
A willingness to stand up to him and treat his pronouncements with more
skepticism is one reason why Philadelphia’s record is starting to improve.
It is Cervone’s
group that recently slapped that lovely statement onto its website. The
statement reads in full:
Center for Child Advocates (Child Advocates) began representing children in the
child welfare system in 1977 and since then, the agency has witnessed the
disproportionate impact that the system has on families of color. Today, we
understand that the child welfare system is inherently racist, and we must use
our power and privilege to counteract this systemic racism and its impact on
the communities we serve.
But last week,
Cervone used his power and privilege to do the opposite.
The CLS lawsuit
includes the fact that while, at the first level of appeal, within the state
family policing agency, caseworker decisions are never – yes never –
overturned, when families make it through the labyrinth and manage to be heard
by a neutral arbiter – often long after they’ve been blacklisted – they usually
win. The caseworker’s guess is
But apparently, that means
nothing to Frank Cervone. He told the Inquirer:
[overturned] because the person was wrongly accused. The case deteriorated on
its own by the passage of time."
Behold the Cervone
Doctrine of Caseworker Infallibility! If
the worker says they did it, they did it!
Sort of makes you wonder why we bother with hearings at all, much less
courts of law. And keep in mind, as you
read that pious pronouncement about racial justice from Cervone’s group, about 65% percent of the accused Cervone
stigmatizes are Black and
another 18% percent are Latinx.
One more thing: If there really is a problem with the “passage of time,”
nothing will fix that faster than requiring a prompt, fair hearing before
anyone can be blacklisted in the first place.
isn’t the only adherent to the infallibility doctrine in Pennsylvania.
Consider Penn State
Prof. Sarah Font, whose notable contributions to the field include joining the right wing’s rhetorical assault against America’s most progressive child
welfare legislation, the Indian Child Welfare Act, and calling for laws requiring every parent
in America whose child is not otherwise seen by “mandated reporters” to produce their children for a child abuse
inspection whenever they
reapply for “public benefits” (so we know exactly who the target population is)
-- even when no one has accused them of anything.
I have seen no
comment from Font about the CLS lawsuit.
But I don’t think she’ll like it much. Font co-authored a paper suggesting that Pennsylvania families
should receive even less due process.
It includes this graphic, which suggests that there is no such thing as
a mistaken allegation. No matter how
many tribunals find you innocent, according to this graphic, you are always the "perpetrator.”
And then there’s
Cathleen Palm, who somehow managed to achieve Cervone’s Godsource status all
over Pennsylvania. She has been among
the biggest cheerleaders for the slew of laws that vastly increased
Pennsylvania’s child welfare surveillance state in the wake of the scandal
surrounding former Penn State coach, foster parent and group home owner Jerry Sandusky. Palm
repeatedly took both data and definitions out of
context to advance her
The laws caused a
spike in the number of children torn from their homes, especially in
Philadelphia, and they continue to overload systems so workers are less likely
to find the relatively few children in real danger. She helped fuel the false
narrative about COVID-19
supposedly setting off a pandemic of child abuse. And she is a champion of those Allegheny County algorithms – the
ones that have been found to bake-in racial bias.
But most of all,
Palm is a true believer in the Big Lie of American child welfare – the false
claim that “family preservation” and “child safety” are opposites that need to
Whoever wrote the
subhead for the Inquirer story accepted this false framing, declaring as
fact that “Any fixes to the ChildLine registry need to strike a difficult
balance between helping wrongfully accused adults and protecting children from
harm.” (The reporter who wrote the
actual story, to his credit, was more careful.)
But framing that
accepts the Big Lie ignores the enormous emotional trauma of foster care
placement - as bad for a child taken by a Pennsylvania caseworker as it is for
one taken at the Mexican border. It
ignores the high rate of abuse in foster care itself. It
ignores the dismal outcomes for many foster youth. It ignores the mass of research showing that, in typical cases, children
left in their own homes do better even than comparably-maltreated children
placed in foster care. 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.
Real defenders of children’s rights support family
preservation because it is almost always the safer option for children.
And yet, Palm tells
the Inquirer that merely because of a call to require a hearing before
someone is blacklisted for life based on a caseworker’s guess
from some of us that the pendulum is swinging a little too far or is a little
too adult-driven and losing sight of the fact that for a lot of people who are
put on the registry they have, in fact, done something harmful to a child.”
Actually, we don’t
know that. That’s the whole point. It’s reasonable to believe that some people
on the registry did “something harmful” [emphasis added] and among those
are some who did something so harmful they need to be on the
registry. But a lot? In the absence of a hearing before a neutral
arbiter, we have no idea.
Some people in jail
That doesn’t mean we
abandon the process of an actual trial in order to find out if they are
criminals or not.
Yet Palm uses scare
rhetoric in response to a proposal for even less due process than that – a mere
To understand what
really upsets the take-the-child-and-run extremists so much, one need only
recall the words of still another defender of untrammeled power for the family
police, longtime Philadelphia “child welfare” apparatchik Paul DiLorenzo. He’s the one who declared that people like himself “have remained the
arbiters of child safety … It would never be wise for us to let go of our grip.”
I haven’t seen
DiLorenzo take a stand on CLS’ lawsuit.
But it clearly upsets the take-the-child-and-run crowd to see a lawsuit
that calls for a change that would even ever-so-slightly loosen their grip.
Orwell would understand
Any regular reader
of this Blog knows that I invoke Orwell a lot.
In the world of
Cervone, Font and Palm and their counterparts across the country:
● The easier you
make it for strangers to bang on the doors of poor people's homes in the middle of the
night to demand entry,
● the easier you
make it for those strangers to demand you awaken your children and force them
to be interrogated by those strangers,
● the easier you
make it for those strangers to stripsearch your children,
● the easier you
make it to leave those children terrified that the strangers may come back to
take them away,
● the easier you
make it to create situations that give those children nightmares, and prompt
some of them to hide under their beds when they hear a loud knock at the door, sometimes for years, because they fear
another interrogation – or worse,
● the easier you
make it to do all this in a system that already subjects more than half of all
Black children to a child abuse investigation before they turn 18,
● the easier you
make it to actually take those children and consign them to the chaos of foster
care – and the high risk of abuse in foster care,
● the easier you
make it to brand someone a child abuser for life, put them on a blacklist and
make it almost impossible to support their family financially,
● the easier you
make it to confuse poverty with neglect when they can’t support their families and
● the easier you
make it to brand what amounts to a scarlet number risk score on children for
The easier you want
to make it for the family police to do all these things - the more you’re for
If, on the other
hand, you want to spare children this trauma, and also free up overloaded
caseworkers to find those few cases where children really are in danger, the
more you’re one of those awful “parents' rights” people who’s “too adult
What really scares
the take-the-child-and-run extremists is that, as America’s racial justice
reckoning finally reaches “child welfare,” people are becoming less likely to
fall for it.