Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Chapin Hall prepares to whitewash abuse in foster care

Their “study” methodology guarantees most abuse will be overlooked, and their advisory panel consists of extremists who want to expand the child welfare surveillance state while denying any problem with racial bias.

Worst of all, they’re trying to persuade an “advisory board” of foster youth into believing  this is legitimate. I don’t think they’ll be fooled. 

I have often written that there are a couple of easy ways to tell if a family policing agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agency) is bulls----ing you.  One way is if they hand you that line about “we don’t remove children – a judge has to approve everything we do.” For anyone who still believes that, please see here, here, here, here, here and here. 

The other is if they try to pass off official figures about abuse in foster care as bearing any resemblance to reality.  States typically claim that, in any given year, fewer than one percent of foster youth are abused or neglected in foster care.  In fact, as of 2019, the most recent year for which data are available, half the states put the figure at 0.27% or less!

Family policing agencies want you to believe that, on average, if you put 370 former foster youth in a room and asked: “During the last year you were in foster care how many of you were abused or neglected?” only one would raise her or his hand.  

I don’t believe anyone really believes that -  but they just keep putting that b.s. out there. 

It’s not just common sense that tells you this is wrong.  When independent researchers do the studies the results are somewhat different.  Over and over they’ve found abuse in one-quarter to one third of foster homes.  The rate in group homes and institutions is even worse. And remember, more than one-third of foster youth will endure more than two placements in a year.  Do the math. 

Bottom line: The independent studies find rates of abuse at least 92 times higher than the median that states are willing to admit to.  (Though, in fairness, if you give the foster care apologists every benefit of the doubt you could make a case that it’s only 46 times higher*)  

What accounts for the difference? 

Simple.  When a family police agency is investigating an allegation of abuse in foster care the agency is, in effect, investigating itself.  After all, the agency has legal custody, the agency picked the foster home or group home or institution and the agency forced the child to live there.  The embarrassment alone is reason enough for caseworkers to convince themselves the allegation is unfounded.  

Then there are the practical considerations.  If there’s abuse in the foster home the child has to be moved.  The other children have to be moved.  The home is no longer available for future foster children.  This exacerbates an artificial “shortage” of foster homes.  (Artificial because it’s caused by taking away too many children in the first place.) 

When the abuse is in a group home or institution there’s another problem: The abused children are effectively prisoners.  Except for an agency caseworker who may or may not visit once in a while, anyone they would tell works for the institution.  That is likely to induce enormous fear of retaliation if the prisoner – sorry, foster child – speaks up. 

For all of these reasons, when it comes to abuse in foster care, there is an enormous incentive for caseworkers to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in the case file. 

And if you have any doubt about the extent to which family police agencies will cover up abuse in foster care, check out what USA Today found. 

Fortunately, independent researchers have found a brilliant way around this problem.  They meet foster youth after they are out of the system and need not fear retaliation.  Then they find out if the foster youth have been abused – by asking them. 

So, for example, researchers for the Casey Family Programs Northwest Foster Care Alumni study interviewed 479 foster care alumni in Oregon and Washington State – including alumni of Casey’s own program, considered to be a model program.  The study found that one-third reported abuse by a foster parent or another adult in the foster home.  That doesn’t even count foster youth abusing each other.  

Enter Chapin Hall 

So, there you have it.  Two ways to measure rates of abuse in foster care.  Accept family police agency figures at face value, or go out and actually interview a representative sample of former foster youth. 

Guess which method Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago is using for a big new study they proudly announced last week.  (If you know Chapin Hall, you won’t be surprised that it’s the one that guarantees most of the abuse will be missed.)  

As their statement explains, the study will use only data officially reported by family policing agencies using two federal databases, the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), and the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS).  No actual foster youth will be interviewed about her or his own experiences. 

And why are they doing it this way?  As one of the researchers, Amy Dworsky, explained in an email: 

Because we are doing secondary analysis, we are limited to what is contained in the NCANDS data.  We recognize that this is a significant limitation of the study.  However, we see this study as shining a light on an issue that has not received much attention at all from researchers over the past 2 decades and hope that it will lead to future research that involves talking with young people about their experiences. 

Got that?  By using bad methodology we can shine light on an issue and maybe that might lead to future research using good methodology!  Somehow, Chapin Hall couldn’t cope with skipping right to doing the research the right way. 

And here's the problem with the “secondary analysis” that’s supposedly to determine “the relationship between child maltreatment in out-of-home care and child characteristics”: If your sample omits the overwhelming majority of the abuse, there’s no way to know if those few cases agencies will admit to are even a representative sample.  And, by the way, the principal “characteristic” that leads to a child being abused in foster is the fact that the child is in foster care

Meet the advisors 

It gets worse.  The study is being conducted with advice from “an External Advisory Board made up of child welfare scholars.”  These "scholars" undoubtedly believe their approach helps children. But they are a who’s who of child welfare establishment extremism.  They are: 

Emily Putnam-Hornstein, the nation’s foremost evangelist for using “predictive analytics” in child welfare.  She was co-author of the notorious Pittsburgh algorithm that was the subject of this scathing expose by the Associated Press. UPDATE, FEB. 1, 2023: Putnam-Hornstein's algorithm is now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible bias against families where a parent is disabled. 

It’s the algorithm family police agency officials in Pittsburgh touted with ethically-questionable ethics reviews.  Putnam-Hornstein also has gone out of her way not simply to disagree with a leading Black advocate for change, but to mock her comments. And she is on record as saying she believes "it is possible we don’t place enough children in foster care or early enough.” 

● Perhaps even more extreme is Sarah Font, of what should properly be called the Penn State Penance Institute, since it was created after the Jerry Sandusky scandal in an apparent effort to show no one would be tougher on child abuse than Penn State.  (Contrast this to how Penn State responded to the national reckoning on racial justice.)  Font has proclaimed  her opposition to the Indian Child Welfare Act and written a paper claiming that families in Pennsylvania get too much due process.  That same paper includes a graphic labeling everyone accused of child abuse or neglect a “perpetrator” – even after they’ve been found innocent. 

Both Font and Putnam-Hornstein collaborate with one of the most extreme advocates for tearing apart families, Naomi Schaefer Riley of the American Enterprise Institute.  Riley was kicked off a blog run by the Chronicle of Higher Education for a column widely condemned as racist.  But the “child welfare” establishment has been more welcoming.  Riley brags that her book attacking family preservation is modeled on the work of her AEI colleague Charles Murray – who claims Black people are genetically inferior. 

Font and Putnam-Hornstein collaborated with Riley on a set of proposals so extreme they include forcing every parent whose children are not otherwise seen by a mandated reporter to submit their children for a child abuse inspection.  Well, not every parent – only those reapplying for “public benefits.”  So don’t worry affluent parents, you’d be exempt.  The three also collaborated on an AEI publication denying that there is racial bias in child welfare or that poverty is confused with neglect. 

● The third advisor, Melissa Jonson-Reid has a lower profile. But she frequently co-authors papers with one of the foremost proponents of the idea that there is no racial bias in child welfare, Richard Barth.  Indeed, she and Barth co-authored a paper making that very argument. 

In a world filled with genuine scholars of child welfare, these three extremists were the only ones Chapin Hall turned to for “expertise.”  You’d also think they could do a little better on diversity: None of the research team or the advisors is Black. 

All of this fits perfectly with the long, unfortunate history of Chapin Hall itself, from the time one of their researchers tried to retaliate against a scholar who exposed journal bias, to their attacks on Intensive Family Preservation Services, to calling for double standards in evaluating programs, to throwing gasoline on the fires of foster-care panic in Illinois, to exaggerating the rate of child abuse by using a graphic that, literally, made the numbers up, (when we called them out on it, they made the disclaimer bigger) to cosponsoring a conference with the specific intent of denying that there is any racial bias in child welfare.  Yes, they’ve tried some reputation laundering lately, but this “study” reveals what Chapin Hall still is really all about. 

If you deny there is racial bias in child welfare, if you deny poverty is confused with neglect, if you think families get too much due process and if you think we may need to put more children in foster care and do it sooner, then clearly a study that minimizes the extent of abuse in foster care is to your advantage. 

The one hope in all this (aside from Chapin Hall having a crisis of conscience and having the decency to do a study of abuse in foster care the right way) is in a second advisory group.  In her email responding to my question about relying only on the abuse agencies themselves admit to, Dworsky added: 

We have a young adult advisory board made up of young people who had been in foster care and we talked with them about this very issue just last week. 

One can only wonder how that talk went.   But I’m betting they won’t be fooled. 

*-Foster care apologists may note that the official figures are for a single year, while the independent studies may cover a young person’s entire time in foster care.  But other limitations in the independent studies counterbalance this.  One study asks only about the one home in which the children stayed the longest, another excludes abuse by other foster children.  But hey, let’s give the apologists every benefit of the doubt: Average length of stay in foster care is between one and two years.  So let’s say two.  That means that, on average, if official stats are to believed, an average of 0.54% of foster children are abused and neglected while in foster care – a mere 46 times lower than what was found by independent researchers.