Friday, November 4, 2022

“Maybe we're just too damn intrusive": Tracing the take-the-child-and-run mentality that has endangered Massachusetts children for more than a century

If you're a poor child, the moment your family crosses this border heading north
the odds that you will be taken from your parents more than double.

● How did Massachusetts wind up tearing apart families at a rate more than 60% above the national average - and two to three times the rate of Connecticut? 

● Why does Massachusetts also institutionalize children at a rate 60% above the national average?

● Why does Massachusetts have one of the worst records of racial disparity when it comes to tearing apart Hispanic families? 

This post is adapted from a virtual presentation I gave last month to the Racial Justice Task Force of the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services, Child and Family Law Division. 

Forty-three years ago, I started work as a reporter for a public television station in Western Massachusetts.  Whenever anyone in state government was asked about the problems in the state’s “child welfare” system they’d give the same stock answer: As soon as the new Department of Social Services was up and running, and took over jobs then done by the Department of Public Welfare, everything would be fine! 

Today the Department of Public Welfare is the Department of Transitional Assistance.  The Department of Social Services got itself a new name as well: Department of Children and Families.  On the Massachusetts “child welfare” Titanic, there always are more deck chairs to rearrange. 

What has not changed in all of this is the fanatical devotion of Massachusetts public officials – and private agencies – to tearing apart families.  That history goes back well over a century. 

While researching my book on family policing, I read an invaluable history, Heroes of Their Own Lives, by Linda Gordon.  It traced the history and documented the racism that infused the work of the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  Here’s some of what she wrote: 

MSPCC agents in practice and in rhetoric expressed disdain for immigrant cultures. They hated the garlic and olive oil smells of Italian cooking and considered this food unhealthy  (overstimulating, aphrodisiac). … [T]hey believed that women who took spirits were degenerate and unfit as mothers. They associated many of these forms of  depravity with Catholicism. Agents were also convinced of the subnormal intelligence  of  most  non-WASP  and  especially  non-English-speaking clients; indeed, the agents' comments and expectations in this  early period  were  similar to  social workers' views  of  black clients  in the mid-twentieth century…. 

Black women were described as “primitive,” “limited” …”fairly good for a colored woman.”  White immigrants came in for similar abuse: e.g. “a typical low-grade Italian woman” [Others were called] “typical Puerto Ricans who loved fun, little work and were dependent people.” 

That last remark appears in a record from 1960. 

            When MSPCC agents felt their power was insufficient, they bent or broke the law.  When SPCC agents couldn’t get into a home legally 

They climbed in windows, They searched without warrants. Their case notes frequently revealed that they made their judgments first and looked for evidence later. … 

            As one annual report put it delicately: “It is true we have taken risks on the margin of legal liability which seemed needful to rescue the child … but without cost to the society … If ‘indiscreet zeal’ which is made such a bugbear occasionally leads us into mistakes, the public will condone the error … much more readily than they would approve the opposite fault of timidity or lukewarmness in cases of well-ascertained cruelty.” 

            In other words, as the current Massachusetts “Child Advocate” Maria Mossaides might say, they were “erring on the side of the child.” 

            Now let’s flash forward to 1989.  While researching my book, I interviewed a group of stewards for the caseworkers’ union in Massachusetts.  

            This is some of what they told me: 

“I work out of a very affluent area,” said Brett Cabral. “We screen in [for investigation] … things that Boston would be laughing at the person phoning in the report.” 

“Don’t get investigated in Weymouth,” said Robert Moro. “They’re famous for substantiating everything and naming everybody.” 

Said Philip Leduc, a veteran supervisor in Northampton: “If the level of intrusiveness perpetrated allegedly to protect children were attempted in any other field, we would be in court … we would be in jail, we would have the Supreme Court coming down with innumerable decisions against us.”

Or, as Moro put it: “Maybe we’re just too damn intrusive.” 

            Now, let’s consider where we are today.  In a moment, I’ll compare Massachusetts to the national average, but first I want to emphasize: The national average stinks.  There are places across the country that have proven children can be taken away at far lower rates than the national average, with no compromise of safety.  So a comparison to the national average understates how bad things are in Massachusetts.           

Here’s the bottom line: No matter how you slice and dice the data, Massachusetts is fanatical about tearing apart families. 

            So in 2021, the most recent year for which data are available, when you compare entries into care to impoverished child population, Massachusetts tore apart families at a rate 60% above the national average. 

            The snapshot number – the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day -- is even worse.  Massachusetts children were trapped in foster care at a rate 65% above the national average.           

And DCF has a fondness for putting children in the worst possible placement – institutionalizing them in “congregate care.” Massachusetts institutionalizes children, at a rate 60% above the national average. 

            Now, let’s see how racism comes into play. 

            Nationwide, Black children represent 14% of the child population – but 23% of the foster child population. 

            In Massachusetts, the disparity is similar.  Black children are nine percent of the total child population and 15% of the foster child population.  

However, the picture worsens when you add in multi-racial children. The federal government data source does not appear to have such a category online, but for Massachusetts, multi-racial children are four percent of the child population – and nine percent of the foster child population. 

            Nationwide, on average, Hispanic children are not overrepresented in foster care.   But in Massachusetts, they represent 19% of the child population and 33% of the foster child population. 

            Someone who lived in Massachusetts for only a short time, as I did, might think that bias against Native American families would not be a problem, because the Native American population in Massachusetts is low.  But that would be underestimating DCF!  

A study of America’s 20 largest counties found that the county where Native American children are most likely to be subjected to the trauma of a child abuse investigation is: Middlesex County, Massachusetts.  The county where Native American children are second most likely to have their rights to their parents terminated also is Middlesex County, Massachusetts. 

            There are only about 4,800 Native Americans in the county, but by God, DCF seems to have its eye on all of them!  Fully half of Native American children in that county will have to endure all the trauma of a child abuse investigation. 

            The percentage for Black children enduring traumatic investigations by DCF probably is even higher – since we know that nationwide, 53% of Black children will have to endure such trauma and, as we’ve seen, Massachusetts almost always is worse than the national average. 

Connecticut does better 

            Massachusetts’ record looks even worse when you compare to a neighboring state with similar problems: Connecticut.  The rate of removal in Massachusetts – again, factoring in poverty – is between double and triple the rate in Connecticut. 

            Connecticut has not done well at getting children out of foster care – so their snapshot number is very slightly worse than the national average – but still way better than Massachusetts.   

Connecticut fails on another count: though it tears apart fewer families, period, the racial disparities are disturbingly similar to Massachusetts. 

But Connecticut does better than the national average when it comes to institutionalizing children – they institutionalize them at about half the rate in Massachusetts. 

            The Connecticut comparison on overall removals is particularly relevant since it touches on the current all-purpose excuse for the take-the-child-and-run mentality in Massachusetts: Opioids. 

            Opioid abuse didn’t stop at the state line.  But while Massachusetts politicians and journalists spent their time demonizing parents, especially mothers, who used drugs, Connecticut invested in one of the nation’s most innovative home-based family drug treatment programs. 

            But that wasn’t even the biggest reason for the difference. The biggest difference is leadership.  In 2011, then-Gov. Dannel Malloy named Joette Katz to run that state’s DCF.  Not long after, there was a high-profile child abuse death.  There were all the usual calls for tearing apart more families.  Katz did something simple. 

            She said no. 

She made clear she wouldn’t tolerate foster-care panic, that sharp sudden surge of removals of children that often follows horror story cases.  And Malloy backed her up. 

            So far, their respective successors in Connecticut are showing the same strong leadership. 

            Massachusetts, of course, has taken a different approach.  DCF has no leader.  Oh, it has a commissioner, but it has no leader.  And, like his long-ago predecessors at the MSPCC, the governor has used every opportunity to smear families and promote the Big Lie of American child welfare, that family preservation and child safety supposedly are opposites. 

            So, in the wake of high-profile child abuse fatalities – and demagogic news coverage from what was then the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, the governor famously and falsely claimed there was “mission confusion” at DCF – and somehow an agency which, then as now, was tearing apart families at a rate far above the national average was putting family preservation ahead of child safety. 

            A Boston Globe headline at about the same time declared: “balance between children’s safety, family stability is perennial challenge.” 

            And over and over, everyone from Mossaides to lawmakers to newspaper editorials will give you some version of “well, you know, we have to err on the side of the child.” 

But it’s all a lie.  Anything that equates child removal with child safety is a lie. The only way to actually err on the side of the child is to err on the side of the family.  Because it’s not just that family preservation is more humane than foster care; for the overwhelming majority of children it is also safer than foster care. 

            That is because most cases are nothing like the horror stories.  Far more common are cases in which poverty is confused with neglect. 

            There now have been at least six separate studies showing that in typical cases, children left in their own homes typically fare better than comparably maltreated children in foster care – even when the families don’t get any special help.  (Imagine what would happen if we actually provided real help.) 

            That should come as no surprise.  The motivation of a DCF caseworker in Holyoke and an ICE agent at the Mexican border may be different, but the harm to a child torn from the arms of her or his mother is exactly the same.  Anyone who dares to use that “err on the side of child” line needs to sit and listen to a recording of anguished cries of separated children at the border, obtained by ProPublica.  To paraphrase activist Joyce McMillan: They tear apart families at the border of Roxbury, too. 

            Once taken, children can be moved from home to home, emerging years later unable to love or trust anyone.  They have twice the level of post-traumatic stress disorder of Gulf War veterans.  Only 20% are doing well in later life.  And they are more likely to wind up in prison than in college. How is that “erring on the side of the child”? 

            But it’s not just a matter of emotional abuse, enormous as that abuse is.  

            DCF wants you to believe that in any given year only 1.59% of Massachusetts foster children are abused in foster care. 

            Here’s what that means.  They are claiming that if you filled a room with 70 former foster youth and asked: “How many of you were abused during the last year you were in foster care?” only one would raise her or his hand. 

            Of course, that’s absurd on its face.  But in case anyone seriously needs research to confirm it, study after study after study has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes – and for a variety of methodological reasons, those estimates almost certainly are low.           

The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions – which DCF loves so much – is even worse. 

            If a child is taken from a safe home, or one that could be made safe, only to be beaten, raped or killed in foster care -- recall, for example, Avelina Conway-Coxon -- how is that “erring on the side of the child.” 

            But even that isn’t the worst of it.  

            All that time spent on investigating false allegations, trivial cases and poverty cases, all that time searching homes and stripsearching children, all that time spent needlessly taking away all those children is, in effect, stolen from finding the relatively few children in real danger. 

            And that almost always is the real reason for the horror stories that make headlines.  How is that “erring on the side of the child”? 

Reefer madness at DCF 

            Then there’s the all-purpose excuse for Massachusetts’ obscene rate of removal that I mentioned earlier: Opioids. 

            That, too, fails for several reasons. 

            First, in more than two-thirds of all Massachusetts cases, no substance abuse of any kind is even alleged. 

            Second, all substance use isn’t opioids.  There is no breakdown of how often the substance at issue is one that is now legal in Massachusetts: marijuana.  But we do know this: The referendum legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts included language saying that marijuana use alone could not be grounds for even a DCF investigation, let alone removal.  DCF must have “clear, convincing and articulable evidence that the person’s actions related to marijuana have created an unreasonable danger to the safety of a minor child.”

             That caveat is so mild that even Mossaides didn’t object.  But DCF threw a fit.  The referendum passed anyway so now the problem is solved – if, that is, you believe DCF rigorously follows the law when it comes to intruding on families.  

            The point here is that the talk about drug abuse may say more about Massachusetts’ puritan tradition and reefer madness at DCF, than actual danger to children. 

            Third, even in the case of opioids, a 2014 story hyping the opioid epidemic and parents giving birth to children with drugs in their system, oh-so-briefly noted an admission from Boston Medical Center.  They acknowledged that most of the infants born with drugs in their system were exposed not to heroin, but to drugs like methadone or buprenorphine – drugs medically prescribed to treat heroin addiction. 

            None of that means opioid abuse is not a serious and real problem.  But even in such cases, we should learn from a previous “worst drug plague ever” – crack cocaine. 

Researchers studied two groups of children born with cocaine in their systems; one group was placed in foster care, another left with birth mothers able to care for them.  After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out.  Typically, the children left with their birth mothers did better.  For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine. 

Similarly, consider what The New York Times found when it looked at the best way to treat infants born with opioids in their systems. According to the Times: 

[A] growing body of evidence suggests that what these babies need is what has been taken away: a mother.  Separating newborns in withdrawal can slow the infants’ recovery, studies show, and undermine an already fragile parenting relationship. When mothers are close at hand, infants in withdrawal require less medication and fewer costly days in intensive care. 

 “Mom is a powerful treatment,” said Dr. Matthew Grossman, a pediatric hospitalist at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital who has studied the care of opioid-dependent babies. 

It is extremely difficult to take a swing at so-called “bad mothers” without the blow landing on their children. That doesn’t mean we can always leave children with addicted parents.  But it does mean that in most cases, even when untreated parental drug use might endanger children, drug treatment for the parent is a better option than foster care for the child.  

Connecticut recognized that.  The Puritans of Massachusetts DCF have not – and neither has much of the Massachusetts media. 

The Betty Ford standard 

Instead, Jennifer McKim’s reporting for the New England Center – reprinted in the Boston Globe – echoed the worst examples of “crack baby journalism” from the 1980s. 

Her stories are replete with phrases condemning parents “who caused their [infants’] drug problems in the first place…” or a mother whose pregnancy “did not cause her to alter her daily heroin habit…” 

I doubt that McKim, or any other reporter, would have spoken that way about the mom addicted to prescription opioids and alcohol who raised her teenage children in an affluent neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia back in the 1970s.  And no family police agency investigated her when she moved to a new residence in D.C. – the White House. 

On the contrary, Betty Ford was treated as a hero for admitting her addiction – and she wound up opening a celebrity rehab center. 

So let’s try applying the Betty Ford standard to Black people, and Hispanic people, and Indigenous People and poor white people. 

One last thought about child welfare and opioids.  Massachusetts’ extreme outlier status existed long before the opioid epidemic.  But that epidemic was well underway before a huge spike in children torn from their homes that started in 2014 and continued through 2016 – in other words, when the state’s awful record got even worse.  That spike had nothing to do with opioids, and everything to do with foster-care panic – the response by DCF to the demagoguery that followed high-profile child abuse deaths. 

But there are signs that, at last, some people may be ready to reconsider the take-the-child-and-run approach that has brought down so much misery on Massachusetts families – and made all children less safe. 

            For a year, Mossaides stage-managed presentations to her Massachusetts Mandatory Reporter Commission, in order to persuade the commission to further expand mandatory child abuse reporting – indeed, that was the commission’s charge.  But after hearing from affected families, practitioners, advocates and scholars across the country, the Commission refused to buy what Mossaides was selling.  They refused to make any recommendations at all.  This was so extraordinary that it recently gained national attention in a story by NBC News and ProPublica, which documented the enormous harm mandatory reporting does to families. 

            Because there’s so much available about this on our special mini-website about the Massachusetts Mandatory Reporter Commission, I won’t repeat it here.  But lawmakers need to understand that mandatory reporting makes children less safe. 

            Yes, the lawmakers will be upset.  Some will say: “If we won’t have mandatory reporting we’ll miss some cases.”  They need to understand that there is no system that will find every case.  But with mandatory reporting, you actually miss more of those “real cases.”  That’s because the cases or horrific abuse that make headlines are needles in a haystack.  

Nationwide, the blue represents the percentages of cases that are screened
out or determined to be false, the red is the percentage of "substantiated" neglect
(which often means poverty) and the green are the percentage of "substantiated"
abuse of any kind.

Each time you expand mandatory reporting you make the haystack bigger, further deluging DCF with false reports, trivial cases, and poverty cases. That only makes it harder to find the needles – even as you inflict needless trauma on tens of thousands of children. 

            Mandatory reporting also creates serious cases of abuse.  Because it makes families afraid to seek help before cases become serious. 

            Then they may say: “Can’t we fix it with ‘training’?  I would say: But how many times have we heard training proposed as a panacea? How many times has it worked?  If we had before you massive evidence of the harm – and the racism – of stop-and-frisk policing, how many of us would be satisfied if a police chief said: “Don’t worry, we’ll just provide more ‘training’ about who to stop and how to frisk them”? 

            There is no such thing as training that eliminates racial bias, or class bias.  And even if there were – even the best-trained mandatory reporter may have to ignore the training rather than risk fines or jail time for not reporting. 

            That’s why creating some kind of second hotline to report families who just need help won’t work either – unless you also eliminate mandated reporting. 

            Eliminating mandatory reporting is not the same as eliminating reporting.  Professionals would remain free to exercise their professional judgment and call DCF whenever they genuinely believe it’s essential. 

            Like the rest of us, lawmakers have grown up on a steady diet of  “health terrorism” – the misrepresentation of the true nature and scope of “child abuse” in the name of “raising awareness.”  So of course abolishing mandatory reporting would be a tough step to take, even though it will make Massachusetts children safer. 

            But at a minimum lawmakers should be willing to eliminate one of the worst aspects of mandatory reporting – requiring people who work with survivors of domestic violence to turn those survivors in to DCF if the children saw them being beaten, leaving the survivors open to “failure to protect” allegations.           

            Taking children from battered mothers is illegal in New York City, thanks to a class-action lawsuit.  It still happens, of course, but it happens less.  My group’s Vice President was co-counsel for the plaintiffs.  During the trial, one expert after another said the same thing: Witnessing domestic violence can be emotionally harmful for a child. But taking the child from the non-offending parent is far, far worse.  One expert said taking a child under such circumstances is “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.” 

            The policy of DCF, and the approach of Maria Mossaides, boils down to: “Please pass the salt.” 

            There are superb resources about this specific to Massachusetts in the detailed written testimony to the Mandatory Reporter Commission from Jane Doe, Inc., in the spoken testimony of attorney Michelle Lucier and in a recent Western New England Law Review article. 

            Long ago, the father of family defense (and the president of NCCPR), Prof. Martin Guggenheim, said: “There is a lot of hate disguised as love in this system.”  Nothing better illustrates the point than the fact that Maria Mossaides and DCF refused to consider something as minimal as exempting those who deal with victims of domestic violence from mandatory reporting laws. 

            Another issue on the horizon concerns how children are represented in court.  Mossaides is trying to, in effect, silence children by undermining what’s known as -- expressed wishes representation – that is, requiring children’s lawyers to fight for what their child clients want.  Mossaides is exploiting a horror story, the death of Harmony Montgomery, to try to undermine that – even though the real lesson from that tragedy is that Harmony probably never should have been taken from her mother in the first place. 

A final note about names 

            I began by noting how often Massachusetts family policing agencies change their organizational structure – or even change their names.  But if the Massachusetts family police were honest they’d simply adopt the name used by poor people more than a century ago to describe the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  Just call yourselves what you really are: “The Cruelty.”