Tuesday, September 6, 2022

“Child welfare” in Pennsylvania: checking Pandora’s Box

Photo by Tara Winstead

Pennsylvania 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. 

The appalling 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 maltreatment.  

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 an adult. 

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 proposal 

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 Writ.  

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: 

The Support 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 overturned. 

But apparently, that means nothing to Frank Cervone.  He told the Inquirer: 

“They’re not [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. 

Apparently, Cervone 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 crusade.   

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. 

Embracing the Big Lie 

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 be balanced.  

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 

“There’s alarm 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 are criminals.  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 administrative hearing. 

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. 

Once again, Orwell would understand 

Any regular reader of this Blog knows that I invoke Orwell a lot.  Here’s why:  

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 life – 

The easier you want to make it for the family police to do all these things - the more you’re for “children’s rights.” 

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 driven.” 

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.