Wednesday, May 31, 2023

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending May 30, 2023

--Colorado makes it incredibly difficult for impoverished parents to get their children back – and incredibly easy for foster parents with enough money to keep any child they damn well please.  That’s the upshot of this investigation from 9News in Denver.  Foster parents have carte blanche to intervene in a case – and play the bonding card – if they have a child in their “care” for just three months.  And if they do, the odds are nearly four in five that the child is never going home. 

--“What’s really frightening is that it happens a lot. What was unique was our ability to hire an attorney,” said Joshua Sabey about why he and his wife were able to get their children back after they were falsely accused of child abuse.  They told the Associated Press that's why they're suing in an attempt to force more accountability for all families forced to confront the family police.  And AP made a point of looking not only at what happened to this white, middle-class family but also at the experiences of families who are neither, with comment from Joyce McMillan and Prof. Dorothy Roberts. 

--In Los Angeles, the family policing agency – which takes away children at one of the highest rates among big cities – is known as the Department of Children and Family Services.  But, as the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition explains in a new report, DCFS Stands for Dividing and Conquering Families. 

Particularly interesting is the section on the bias built into the two methods DCFS uses to assess “risk,” Structured Decision Making and, in some offices, a predictive analytics algorithm co-developed by Emily Putnam-Hornstein.  She also co-developed the Pittsburgh algorithm that is now reportedly under investigation for bias by the U.S. Department of Justice. 

But if there’s one thing Putnam-Hornstein and her colleagues really are good at, it’s p.r. So while the algorithm used to label some families “complex risk cases” now the families are labeled as in need of “enhanced support.” 

--Want to see a classic example of “health terrorism”? Check out the fear and smear campaign a Texas group is waging against some good legislation in that state, a bill to replace anonymous reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect with confidential reporting, and how two news organizations got suckered.  I have a blog post about it. 

--The Imprint reports that the Texas Legislature passed another excellent bill - it would provide the equivalent of Miranda rights for families facing the family police. It also would put some limits on "hidden foster care" in a state which may abuse this practice at the worst rate in America.  

--That puts Texas ahead of New York, where The New York Post reports on the fight for similar legislation.

--A 12-year-old Native Alaskan girl in foster care says she wants to commit suicide.  What could be better for a child like that than to ditch her in a hospital for a week, all alone, without telling her family, or anyone else, where she is?  As the Anchorage Daily News reports that is exactly what Alaska’s family police agency did.  That’s not unusual. But this time a judge was so outraged that he refused to let the agency hide its incompetence behind confidentiality. 

But the judge got one thing wrong: He blamed a lack of staff at the family police.  But there are more than enough family police in Alaska – or there would be if they would stop tearing apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation.  Alaska also is a state in which nearly three-quarters of Native families will be investigated by the family police. 

--Every few years Child Trends takes on the Herculean task of trying to figure out exactly how much every state spends on “child welfare,” where that money comes from and what it’s spent on.  Because it’s so arduous, it takes awhile. So the latest report, just released, covers 2020.  But spending doesn’t change much year to year, so, like its predecessors, this report is likely to be a useful snapshot.  NCCPR will be using it in the next few weeks to update our Rate-of-Spending index.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

No, 1,000 Texas children won’t die if the state replaces anonymous reporting with confidential reporting

 A bill to replace anonymous reporting with confidential reporting
has passed the Texas Legislature.

UPDATE, JUNE 20, 2023: The governor signed the bill!

I have written often about how the entire debate over what to do about child welfare has been poisoned by “health terrorism,” the misrepresentation of the true nature and scope of a problem in the name of “raising awareness.”  I did not make up the term. It comes from a group that admits to having practiced health terrorism for decades, Prevent Child Abuse America.  (They say they’ve stopped, the evidence suggests otherwise.) 

In Texas, masters of health terrorism include the people at Texans Care for Children. When it comes to children’s issues, they’re also the “Godsource” for Texas media  – whatever they say is taken as Gospel. A classic example of health terrorism – and how easily media are suckered by it – can be seen in a recent story from The Texas Tribune. 

The story deals with a bill passed by the Texas Legislature and now awaiting action by Gov. Greg Abbott. [UPDATE: He signed it!]  The bill would largely replace anonymous reporting of suspicions of child abuse and neglect with confidential reporting – that is, the accused still wouldn’t know who accused them, but the state family police agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare agency”) would.  This both would curb the use of false reports as a way to harass families, and free up more time for workers to find children in real danger.  It would make all Texas children safer. 

If anything, the bill is too weak. It specifies that if the operator at the state child abuse hotline can’t persuade the accuser to leave her or his name, the operator is to tell the accuser s/he remains free to call law enforcement anonymously – and if law enforcement thinks the report is credible they can refer it to the family police for investigation. 

But watch how Texans Care for Children uses health terrorism, to distort the issue, and how the Texas Tribune helps them. According to the story: 

In 2022, there were 12,473 anonymous calls to the state and about 1,000 of those calls resulted in a substantiated finding of abuse or neglect, said Kate Murphy, director of child protection policy with the advocacy group Texans Care for Children. 

“Unfortunately, if this bill were to pass, those 1,000 children would be left to continue experiencing abuse and neglect or worse,” she said on Thursday, hours before the bill passed.

“Leaving children in danger can have disastrous consequences. Last year, 182 Texas kids died of abuse and neglect.” 

By the time Murphy and the Tribune are done, piling leaps of logic on faulty data, it’s no wonder readers might come away thinking “Oh my God, if Gov. Abbott signs this bill 1,000 children will die!”

 That’s how health terrorism works. 

What Texans Care for Children didn’t say

To understand all the misrepresentations we need to go back and parse Murphy’s claims point by point:

 Here’s what Murphy does not say, and the Tribune does not explain: 

1.     Substantiated means only that a caseworker checked a box on a form guessing it is slightly more likely than not that something that meets Texas’ definitions of abuse and neglect occurred. 

2.     Of those 1,000 cases, it is likely that 770 did not involve sexual abuse or any form of physical abuse 

S    So what the numbers actually show is that, of all anonymous reports alleging abuse or neglect in Texas in 2022, 92% were flat-out false.  That means caseworkers handling these cases spent 92% of their time harassing innocent families, inflicting trauma on their children – and wasting time that could have been used to find children in real danger.

      Add in the cases that were “substantiated” but involved neither physical nor sexual abuse, and the figure rises to more than 98%.  That’s 98% of workers’ time spent on cases that are nothing like the horror stories.

      Now consider the leap of logic behind this claim:

 “Unfortunately, if this bill were to pass, those 1,000 children would be left to continue experiencing abuse and neglect or worse,” she said on Thursday, hours before the bill passed. Last year, 182 Texas kids died of abuse and neglect.” 

Keep in mind that if this bill becomes law, the accused still won’t know who accused them, only the family police will know.  So what Murphy is saying, and the Tribune never questions, is that people who sincerely believe children are in danger of horrific abuse won’t come forward if they merely have to give their names to the family police – nor will they take advantage of the loophole allowing them to report anonymously to law enforcement. 

Journalists in particular should be skeptical about this one.  Reporters deal with anonymous sources all the time. Policies vary among news organizations, but typically, when a source demands anonymity, the reporter will say: “I will not put your name in the story, but I need to know who you are and my editor has to know who you are.”  In my own experience as a reporter, almost always, whistleblowers coming forward out of a sincere concern about some sort of injustice will agree to those terms.  With children’s lives at stake - and that’s exactly Murphy’s claim – why does she think people won’t do the same? 

As for those 182 children who died – that happened under the current system, which allows anonymous reporting.  Some of them probably died because Texas caseworkers are so desperately overloaded with all those false reports -- and anonymous reports are those most likely to be false, -- that they didn’t have time to investigate any case carefully. 

It also would have been helpful had the Tribune reminded readers of the report issued in 2009 by a liberal Texas think tank that used to be Texas media’s Godsource on these issues, a think tank whose then director used to crusade for tearing apart more families.  That stopped after they studied child abuse fatalities in Texas and found that none of the traditional investigative and "police" functions of child protective services contribute anything to raising or lowering the rate of child abuse fatalities.  You’ll never guess what does – actually, you will. 

No system can save every endangered child.  But which is more likely to lead to a child dying: Requiring people who report child abuse to disclose who they are to the family police?  Or continuing to force caseworkers to drown in a tsunami of false reports and poverty cases that occupy up to 98% of their time? 

If only the Texas Tribune had thought to ask that question.

As the Dallas Morning News pointed out in an editorial about the bill:

It is no secret that [Family Police Agency] employees are understaffed, overworked and, in some cases, undertrained, and that the agency bobs from crisis to crisis in a sea of chaos that victimizes children caught in the system. 

Oh wait: the Dallas Morning News used this as a reason to oppose the bill -- which just goes to show the extent to which overexposure to health terrorism can addle your brain.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, weeks ending May 23, 2023

--Yes, children can be torn from their mothers during some of the most crucial hours and days of their lives – their first – just because Mom smoked pot.  The Bronx Defenders is suing New York City’s family police agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, over such a case. They’re also suing to find out more about that scathing internal assessment of ACS’ own racism that the agency commissioned and then tried to hide.  Check out the stories in The New York Times, Law360 and The Imprint.  But note that in all of these stories,ACS once again flat-out lies when it claims it can’t comment on individual cases. So, one more time, here’s the link to the law that says they can.

So please ask yourselves: Why should an agency that lies over and over and over again about something so basic be trusted about anything?

--“If you’re Black you’re ACS adjacent,” says one of the mothers investigated by the agency in this story by the New York Civil Liberties Union and The Appeal.  The story takes readers step-by-step past the Disney version ACS wants you to believe, and explains how it all really plays out.  From the story: 

The department has vast authority over those who come under suspicion, and it’s able to conduct “emergency removals” of children from their families. ACS can carry out these removals outside of family court hours, without prior notice, and without submitting to oversight beforehand to ensure the action is justified. The timing can leave parents reeling and unable to contact government offices with questions or objections: If ACS conducts a removal on a Friday night, for example, a judge will not review it until Monday.

In an accompanying commentary, Sarah Duggan of JMAC for Families writes about the urgent need for a family Miranda rights law, because

Once the family police gain access to a home, they inflict extreme stress on parents and children. Children watch a stranger rummage through their refrigerators, closets, and drawers. They listen as this person interrogates their parents about relationships, personal medical histories, and employment. They are forced to answer probing questions designed to portray their caretaker as negligent and untrustworthy. This stranger often asks them to undress so they can search their body for scrapes and bruises, regardless of whether there is an allegation of abuse.

And please remember: New York City’s horrible system is better than almost everyplace else – so wherever you are, it’s probably worse.

--You may think you know all about the evil - and that is the word -- inflicted on Native American children by the Child Welfare League of America – but now please read this from The New York Times.  (And CWLA’s long-ago apology rings hollow – since they still support draconian policing laws such as the so-called Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act.) 

And see also this story from Searchlight New Mexico, which focuses on a Native American child adopted by a well-meaning white couple. That couple gave her everything money could buy. But that wasn’t what she needed.

--The abuses described in the Times story were curbed by the Indian Child Welfare Act. But with ICWA facing a challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court, many states are moving to enact their own protections.  The Imprint has a state-by-state rundown.

--Attn: Family police: Children’s “well-being” is none of your damn business!. It’s not that well-being isn’t vitally important. In fact, it’s far too important to leave to agencies that claim to promote “well-being” by threatening to take away children. So called “child and family well-being systems” only further increase family police power – and drive families away from seeking help.  In this column for The Imprint, Nora McCarthy explains what should be done instead.

--The extent of family police involvement may limit the effectiveness of initiatives in California such as those discussed in this story from The Imprint.  But at least they include proposals to discourage needless reporting of “neglect.”  Also, in a field where rhetoric can have a profound effect, the change in rhetoric from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors from, say, a decade ago, is remarkable.  Oh, and Sean Hughes, a lobbyist and consultant for family policing agencies who has derided the very idea that poverty is confused with neglect is against it, which is always a good sign.

--The Indiana Capital Chronicle published a very good story after seeing NCCPR’s blog post about a study revealing that almost every Black child in that state will be forced to endure a child abuse investigation.

--The justification for inflicting so much trauma on millions of children is child abuse horror stories.  But as we noted on this blog, the horror stories go in all directions.

--There’s been still another expose of still another “child welfare” agency swiping foster youth’s Social Security benefits to keep for themselves – this time it’s San Diego County, California.

--And Newsweek looks at “How Hospitals Are Secretly Drug Testing Pregnant Women.”

Monday, May 15, 2023

A reminder: The horror stories go in ALL directions

 Several years ago, I made an offer to America’s latter-day “child savers” – the term their 19th Century counterparts proudly gave themselves as they tore impoverished immigrant children from, their parents: I suggested a mutual moratorium on using horror stories to influence policy. 

I knew they’d never take me up on it.  Because when it comes to advocating for a take-the-child-and-run approach, horror stories are all they’ve got.  The actual evidence of the inherent harm of foster care and the high rate of abuse in foster care is so overwhelming, that all they can do is try to distract us with horror stories. 

But that only further overloads the system with false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which poverty is confused with neglect – so workers have even less time to find those very rare cases that will become the next horror story. 

Whether the target is impoverished immigrant children as it was in the 19th Century or Black and Native American children as it’s been forever, a system built on extrapolating from horror stories makes all children less safe. 

But as long as the child savers insist on regurgitating horror stories because they have nothing else, those of us who have the evidence on our side can’t unilaterally disarm. 

So here’s a reminder: The horror stories go in all directions.  These stories appeared just in March and April of 2023: 

● In San Diego, KNSD-TV reports, 

A San Diego mother filed a $10 million wrongful death claim against the county last month, saying Child Welfare Services failed her 11-year-old biological daughter, Aarabella McCormack, who died in the hospital last August. Prosecutors say she was severely malnourished, weighing just 48 pounds at the time. They also say her body was covered in bruises and doctors found 15 still-healing bone fractures. 

The mother says Arabella was taken because she’s witnessed domestic violence, a tragically common reason for wrongful removal.  She was placed with foster parents who adopted her.

Prosecutors say Aarabella’s adoptive grandmother, adoptive grandfather and adoptive mother worked together to torture and physically abuse Aarabella and her two surviving sisters, ages 7 and 6. They say the children were hit with paddles and sticks, deprived of food and water, isolated in their rooms, denied access to bathrooms and forced to participate in rigorous exercises. 

● In New York City, WNBC-TV reports: 

A 34-year-old Bronx man was arrested on a bevy of charges when two children -- a 14-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy -- were found badly bruised inside his apartment earlier this week, authorities say, after they were allegedly held captive for months while being starved and even pistol whipped. … 

According to the criminal complaint, the 14-year-old girl told police that [Michael] Ramos would threaten them and hold a pistol to their heads. The 13-year-old boy was severely underweight, with swollen eyes and bruises.

"The defendant used a fork to jab [the girl] on the right side of her face and knees, causing bleeding puncture wounds and small lacerations to the right side of her face and knees," the complaint alleges. "On more than one occasion, the defendant struck [the girl and the boy] repeatedly about the head and various parts of their body with a wooden bat, a metal bat, a black tension rod, and an electrical cord."

And The New York Post added this detail:

Ramos allegedly taunted the siblings with the weapon, holding it to their heads and saying, “Someone is going to die today.”

“Do you want to die today?” he allegedly told them. “Open your mouth!”

In Ohio, the Lima News reports, investigators repeatedly ignored allegations of abuse against a foster parent.  When a 12-year-old boy says the foster parent sexually assaulted him, administrators went on the offensive – against the child.  From the story: 

“I just can’t believe a search warrant is being considered off solely what (redacted) is reporting knowing his past,” Brent Bunke, a former program administrator who oversaw the agency’s adoption and foster care division, wrote in a text message to colleagues, according to messages recovered by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

 “If they find out (redacted) is lying I hope they charge his little (expletive) for this (expletive),” Staci Nichols, a fellow program administrator from the agency’s intake division who has since resigned, wrote in another text message that evening.

 The boy wasn’t lying. The foster parent was sentenced to 94 years in jail.

 ● In Clearwater Florida, WFTS-TV reports

 A new lawsuit describes claims of mental, physical, and sexual abuse against boys under the care of Clearwater foster parents that date back to 1997.

 Close to a dozen agencies that are tasked with keeping children safe are named as defendants in the lawsuit. … [P]laintiffs in the lawsuit report little to eat, manual labor from sun up to sun down, and what they thought was only happening to them, sexual abuse by their foster father. …

 Twenty men and children shared stories about the abuse they endured in the foster home dating back to 1997.

 ● In Nevada, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports on still another litany of horrors alleged at still another “residential treatment center” a place called “Never Give Up.”  From the story:

 In October, the Department of Justice released a report finding that … the state relies on segregated institutional settings such as hospitals or residential treatment facilities and does not provide adequate community-based services.

 The report does not mention Never Give Up, but it paints many of the critiques of the private facility as institutional, statewide problems.

 And recall what the top official of the Devereux McTreatment chain said when the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed abuse at their facilities:

 “This is not an aberration that happens at Devereux because of some kind of lack of control or structure.  This is an industry-wide problem."

● A lawsuit accused a politically-connected Indiana “residential treatment center” of being rife with sexual abuse.  As the Indianapolis Star reports

A psychologist’s report prepared for the lawsuit said [the center] “showed deliberate indifference” to the rampant sexual abuse of young boys, interfered with the ability of residents and staff to report to DCS, and “emboldened sexual predators.” 

The center denied the charges and the lawsuit was settled.  But the center wasn’t done.  They pushed for a state law granting them immunity from future lawsuits.  Fortunately, as a result of the Star's revelations, the bill was withdrawn. 

 The Altoona Mirror reports on the case of three children needlessly taken from their families and placed with foster parents who ultimately were jailed for abusing them.  According to a civil suit, the foster parents;

 – Used racial slurs in referring to the three children, who are African-American.

– Beat the children.

– Would force the youths to stand against a wall for hours.

– Would allow the children to be bitten by dogs.

– Told the children their parents were dead.

--Threatened physical punishment for eating food unless it was approved by the adoptive parents. 

None of this stopped the family police from proceeding full speed ahead with terminating parental rights and allowing the abusive foster parents to adopt the children. 

 As the Mirror reports:

 According to the lawsuit, despite the arrest, the children still remained in the foster care system until they became of adult age.

 At that point, each of the (children) reunited with their families and “have been welcomed home and receive the love and support from which they had been deprived for the majority of their lives,” the lawsuit concluded. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending May 9, 2023

● We begin with a quote from an extraordinary eight-month investigation by WOUB Public Media in Athens Ohio.  A little girl in foster care whispers to her mother during a “supervised visit”: 

‘Mommy, I’m scared. Please, please don’t make us go back,’” [her mother] Theresa recalled. “She says, ‘Please don’t make us go back to this foster home. Please Mommy, don’t make us go back there. They’re so mean to me and Everly and we don’t feel comfortable there. Please, Mommy. Please.’ 

Over the course of eight chapters, WUOB tells a story that strips away all the excuses for the family policing system – a more accurate term than “child welfare” system.  What makes this series so horrifying is it doesn’t focus on a horror story – it focuses on a case that is remarkably typical, and concludes: 

The agency removed her children based on allegations for which it appears the agency did little to investigate and never provided much evidence to support. What evidence is available shows most of the allegations were false. 

Still, it took Theresa months to get three of her children back. In the meantime, her daughters suffered abuse at a foster home and her younger son descended into a mental health crisis. 

It’s a long read that’s worth every word, and every minute of your time. 

● Rylenn isn’t the only child whose anguished cries were in the news last week. Listen to the there-year-old son of Joshua Sabey and Sarah Perkins as he is forcibly removed by Massachusetts family police in the middle of the night. 

 The parents are suing.  And there’s an important lesson for other middle-class families in why they’re suing.  As WBZ-TV reports: 

They say they’re bringing the lawsuit against the public employees who took their kids because they are in a position of privilege and want to see change in DCF’s practices. “We’re educated,” Sarah Perkins explained. “We have really involved family members. We have access to resources and financial assistance, and I think the vast majority of families in the system are impoverished, or, you know, just have way fewer resources at their disposal. And I think because of that, we feel a real responsibility to do something that can help families in this system that don’t have this sort of capability to change laws, to change statutes.” 

And as Sabey told The Boston Globe: The system “just churns out injustice after injustice.”  

See also NBC10 Boston’s story about the lawsuit, an in-depth examination of the case from The Washington Post, and our take in this blog post. 

● On The Imprint podcast, professors Vivek Sankaran and Christopher Church discuss the enormous harm inflicted on children by family policing’s mad rush to termination of children’s rights to their parents. They show how this approach undermines the very “permanency” the family police claim to favor.  And though this kind of termination is often analogized to the death penalty, Sankaran and Church show that it’s actually worse.  Their law review article on the topic is here.  I wrote about their findings on this blog here. 

● And speaking of “permanency”: Remember that distinguished professor at Penn State who said even aging out with no family at all might be better for foster youth than reunification or guardianship?  She claimed that’s because aging out foster youth have access to “additional resources” – in other words, money is more important than love.  Youth Today reports on a new study which finds that’s not working out too well. 

● Another study by Professors Youngmin Yi, Frank Edwards, et. al,  provides new insight into how far the termination madness has gone in some states.  In West Virginia, for example, 14% percent of Black children will have their parents taken from them forever.  In Maine, it’s 15% of Hispanic children. I discuss the findings, with a link to the full study here.  And NCCPR has summarized some of the findings in the NCCPR Index of Family Police Oppression:

● Movement for Family Power, Reimagine Child Safety, the Maryland Office of Public Defender and several other groups released a groundbreaking report, Drug Tests Are Not Parenting Tests.  (And for those who share my aversion to the flipbook format, the report can be downloaded as a .pdf) 

The report reminds us: 

In healthcare settings, pregnant people who use drugs are often vilified and deemed unfit or dangerous to their children based on their drug use alone. This social stigma causes individuals to fear physicians, social workers, and other healthcare providers, and often discourages pregnant people from engaging in routine prenatal care or, when there is an actual substance use disorder, from seeking treatment.35 This is why the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) opposes non-consensual drug testing and punitive responses to drug use during pregnancy such as criminal prosecution or the threat of child removal. 

The report also reminds us of the unreliability of drug testing: 

Even poppy seeds can trigger an opiate positive if eaten close enough to the time the sample was taken. 

● I single out that example, because as this story from makes clear, it is not just a hypothetical.

Monday, May 8, 2023

The horrifying ubiquity of the family police


There are so many things Black parents must teach their children that white parents like me never had to deal with: There’s “the talk,” – when every Black parent has to tell their children how to behave when stopped by the police. There are the reminders to never forget a driver’s license, so the cops don’t think the nice car they’re driving was stolen. There’s how to deal with being followed around by store security.  

In much of America, especially states like Indiana, Black parents need to add one more: How to prepare themselves and their children for a middle-of-the-night pounding on the door when caseworkers for the state’s family police agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agency) demand to enter the home to investigate an allegation of child abuse or neglect. 

I said when, not if, because at some point, it will happen to nearly four out of five Black families in Indiana – the highest rate in the nation, vastly higher even than the national average for Black families of 53%. 

That’s just one of the findings in the new study we highlighted in yesterday's post to this Blog (a study I first read about on the excellent blog written by Robert Latham, Associate Director of the University of Miami Children and Youth Law Clinic). That study features state-by-state estimates of the likelihood that children will have to face the family police at some point before they turn 18. The study looks at every step of the process, from investigations to how often a caseworker claims a case is “substantiated” to entries into foster care to termination of children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights).  

A child abuse investigation is not a benign act. Having a stranger come to the door, awaken children in the middle of the night, pull them aside and question them about the most intimate aspects of their lives can be an enormously traumatic experience for a child. The caseworker will demand to see every room and look into every closet and cupboard. Often, it’s all accompanied by a stripsearch looking for bruises. 

Of course, the trauma is compounded if the caseworker decides to take the children on the spot and consign them to the chaos of foster care; something the same study reveals will happen to 18% of Black children in Indiana – and that’s only the second highest rate in America. 

Yes, second highest. In West Virginia every Black child is born with a target on her or his back: in a state where only three percent of the child population is Black, nearly one-third of those children will be forced into foster care, and 14% will have their parents taken away from them forever.  (As is discussed below, Minnesota's treatment of native American children is as bad or worse.)

In Maine, the target is on the backs of Hispanic children. Maine’s child population is only four percent Hispanic, but more than one-quarter of them will be forced into foster care and 15% of them will lose their parents forever. That state’s child welfare “ombudsman” issues reports indicating she’s never seen a problem with wrongful removal in Maine. How, then, does she account for how the Maine family police treat Hispanic families?  

But apparently, Maine isn’t as much of a cesspool of depravity as Indiana. After all, what else could explain the fact that, in addition to investigating 79% of Black families, Indiana family police also investigate 54% of Hispanic families – and even 54% of white families? Arkansas families apparently must be  similarly depraved; in that state, they investigate 73% of Black families, nearly two-thirds of white families and half of all Hispanic families.  

A few other examples from the study: 

● Indiana and Arkansas are among ten states where two-thirds or more of Black children will have to endure a child abuse investigation. The others are Arizona, Washington, D.C., Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Montana, Oregon, and Tennessee – where, as a recent case illustrates, even Driving While Black can be enough to get your children taken away. 

● In addition to West Virginia, states that force Black children into foster care at extreme rates include Arizona, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada and Wyoming. 

● West Virginia, long a contender for child removal capital of America, can’t get that distinction just by
tearing apart Black families – because there aren’t all that many Black families in West Virginia. But in addition to taking away nearly one-third of Black children, West Virginia will force 17% of its white children into foster care at some point during their childhoods.  

● In Alaska, Native families are the primary targets. Nearly three-quarters of Native Alaskan children will be subjected to an investigation. In Minnesota, long known for its extreme overpolicing of Native families, it’s nearly two-thirds. And it doesn’t stop there. Nearly half of Native American children in Minnesota will be forced into foster care and 13% will have their parents taken from them forever. 

In one sense all of these numbers are underestimates. They break down interventions by race but not by income. Affluent white families are almost immune from family police intrusion – and on those rare cases when that immunity is breached, boy are they surprised! Even nonwhite families are less likely to be targeted if they aren’t poor. So if a state is investigating, say, three-quarters of all Black or Native American families regardless of income,  it is likely that in that state family police investigations of impoverished Black or Native families approaches 100%. 

The results 

And what have we gotten by creating a system that almost certainly has traumatized tens of millions of children? 

Not a system that makes children safer. On the contrary, rates of what family police agencies call abuse have changed so little that some advocates had to literally make numbers up to suggest a sharp drop that doesn’t really exist. Indeed, during the giant expansion of the child welfare surveillance state from 2000 to 2019, rates of “substantiated” child abuse barely changed. But in 2021, after COVID forced the family police to step back, community-run community-based mutual aid organizations stepped up, and the federal government stepped in with cash – cases labeled  child abuse or neglect by family police  agencies reached a record low. 

But what about the horror stories that have driven the exponential growth of family policing, child abuse fatalities?  Relying on an estimate from Prevent Child Abuse America, the federal government reported that in 1992 there were 1,261 such fatalities. In 2021, there were 1,753. 

Of course, some of the difference may be due to better detection – but at a minimum there is no evidence that a system built on horror stories did a damn thing to stop the horror stories. 

More than two decades of inflicting ever more misery upon ever more impoverished families, especially impoverished families of color, did nothing to make children safer. 

For decades the family policing establishment and its acolytes in academia and advocacy falsely claimed child safety was at odds with family preservation. Politicians bought it – and children wound up with neither. 

It’s not hard to figure out why. The cases we think of when we hear the words “child abuse” are as rare as they are horrific – they are needles in a haystack. Decade after decade we’ve made the haystack bigger – deluging caseworkers with false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. That’s only made it harder to find the relatively few cases in which, without intervention, children will suffer horrific abuse. 

How, then, can anyone seriously make a case for more of the same?  

The burden of proof 

No, the current system doesn’t fail every child. Some families genuinely need to be investigated and some children really do need to be taken from their parents. But we’ve built a monstrous system that eats up $33 billion a year, in some states surveils nearly all Black or Native families, and still overlooks children in real danger.  

Yet somehow, the burden of proof constantly is shifted to opponents of the status quo of child welfare to prove that anything they propose — from reform, to non-reformist reform (changes that reduce the power of the system but don’t eliminate it), to  abolition — is better.  Even the extremely modest changes in federal funding brought by the Family First Prevention Services Act require that, ultimately, any new “prevention” program dot every i and cross every t on randomized controlled trials to “prove” they work. No such standard has ever been applied to mandatory reporting laws, foster care, or residential treatment. If it were, the results would be the ultimate case for abolition. 

And yet  any suggestion to, say, take most of that $33 billion and do what was proven to work during the pandemic — give it to community-run organizations to provide concrete help to families, is greeted with a regurgitation of the usual horror stories — even though the horror stories are a product of the system we have now. 

Or worse, the horror stories are invoked to give this failed system a high-tech sheen by letting algorithms “advise” caseworkers concerning whom to investigate. And sure enough, the algorithms are proving to at best replicate, at worst, magnify all those human biases.  That has not stopped their proponents from suggesting that the current, failed, surveillance system metastasize to the point of stamping a risk score on every child at birth, with race used as an explicit risk factor.  (Don’t worry, proponents say, we promise we’ll only use those algorithms for “prevention.)

Before another generation of Black children and Native children has to endure the almost-guaranteed trauma of an almost-guaranteed investigation by the family police, shouldn’t we shift the burden of proof from the reformers and the abolitionists to the defenders of the status quo? Shouldn’t we demand that the opponents of real change have to prove that what they have given us for decades is better than the alternative? 

Sunday, May 7, 2023

The NCCPR Index of Family Police Oppression

An important new study estimates the chances of children encountering the family police (a more accurate term than “child protective services”) during their childhoods. I first learned about the study when Prof. Robert Latham, Associate Director of the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami linked to it on his excellent blog.  

The study measures the likelihood of being subjected to a child abuse investigation, the likelihood of being forced into foster care and the likelihood children will have their parents taken from them forever, through termination of parental rights. 

The study illustrates the horrifying ubiquity of family policing.  We have a full discussion of the findingson this blog here.  This is a Harper’s-style index of some of the study findings:


13 – The percentage of Native American children in Minnesota whose parents will be taken from them forever. 

14 – The percentage of Black children in West Virginia whose parents will be taken from them forever. 

15 – The percentage of Hispanic children in Maine whose parents will be taken from them forever. 

28 – The percentage of Hispanic children in Maine who will be forced into foster care at some point during their childhoods. 

32 – The percentage of Black children in West Virginia who will be forced into foster care at some point during their childhoods. 

47 – The percentage of Native American children in Minnesota who will be forced into foster care at some point during their childhoods. 

54 – The percentage of white children in Indiana who will be subjected to the trauma of a child abuse investigation at some point during their childhoods.

54 – The percentage of Hispanic children in Indiana who will be subjected to the trauma of a child abuse investigation at some point during their childhoods.

64 -- The percentage of Native American children in Minnesota who will be subjected to the trauma of a child abuse investigation at some point during their childhoods.

67 – The percentage of Black children in Arizona who will be subjected to the trauma of a child abuse investigation at some point during their childhoods. 

73 – The percentage of Native Alaska children who will be subjected to the trauma of a child abuse investigation at some point during their childhoods. 

73 – The percentage of Black children in Kentucky who will be subjected to the trauma of a child abuse investigation at some point during their childhoods. 

74 – The percentage of Black children in Montana who will be subjected to the trauma of a child abuse investigation at some point during their childhoods. 

79 – The percentage of Black children in Indiana who will be subjected to the trauma of a child abuse investigation at some point during their childhoods. 

Source: Youngmin Yi, Frank Edwards et. al., State-level variation in the cumulative prevalence of child welfare system contact, 2015 – 2019 (Children and Youth Services Review 147 (2023) 

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending May 2, 2023

Not a lot of news this week, but one story is stunning:

● Back in 2020 the Albany Times Union reported on how, after New York State reopened the right to sue for child sexual abuse, officials were stunned by how often the accused were not priests – but foster parents and staff at group homes and institutions.  Now, the Los Angeles Times reports, California is making the same discovery:

County officials predicted that they may be forced to spend between $1.6 billion and $3 billion to resolve roughly 3,000 claims of sexual abuse that allegedly took place in the county's foster homes, children shelters, and probation camps and halls dating to the 1950s. ... Veteran sex abuse attorneys are calling for an outside investigation, saying that not even they realized the full scope of the alleged abuse taking place in county facilities. 

Experts say the volume is unlike anything they've heard of in local government. … “[I]f it's true, it would be the most massive sex abuse scandal imaginable," said Stewart Mollrich, an attorney with Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, one of the law firms specializing in sex abuse claims that is suing the county. 

So remember, when the fearmongers say that anything that curbs the vast power of the family police will endanger children – this is the system we have now; this is the system they say we need to keep in order to keep children “safe.” 

● And if anyone is tempted to say: Oh, but those cases were in the past, take a look at what KCRA-TV in Sacramento reports is happening right now. 

● With the case of a Black child torn from her parents almost at birth because the mother was guilty of Giving Birth While Black, Yahoo News examines pervasive racial bias in family policing.

● Why wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to, possibly, eviscerate the Indian Child Welfare Act when you can do it yourself? That seems to be the philosophy of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which has come up with a bizarre way to undermine tribal sovereignty.

● NCPR's take on the harm of predictive analytics in child welfare was featured on KPFA Pacifica Radio's Evening News.  You can hear the interview starting at 25:09 in.

● The federal government report that compiles data on rates of child abuse specifically warns against trying to use those data to compare states.  Of course, the fearmongers in the child welfare establishment regularly ignore this, and children pay the price.  I have a blog post about the latest case in point.

Monday, May 1, 2023

No, Maine almost certainly is NOT the child abuse capital of America – and the group making that claim ought to know better

Maine State Capitol

One thing data really do show: the Maine family police seem to have an abiding hatred of Hispanic families

The Maine Children’s Alliance sure captured a lot of headlines with a claim that is almost certainly false; a claim that will only hasten the state’s retreat from reform and endanger more children.  It’s the same false claim, ignoring the same caveats from the same data source, that misled Kentucky media for years: The “We’re #1 in child abuse!” claim. 

If anything, this kind of misuse of data is even worse in Maine.  That state’s child welfare “ombudsman” and a former lawmaker with a particularly ugly track record have been fueling a foster-care panic, leading an effort to tear apart a system that once, briefly was, relatively speaking, a national model.  

It’s not out of the question that Maine is the state with the highest rate of child abuse.  The odds are roughly 1 in 52.  But no one knows which state has the most “child abuse” – because the data actually measure only the subjective, sometimes biased judgments of individual caseworkers, judgments that can vary enormously from state to state and year to year.  

In Maine, for example, a lot of caseworkers apparently loathe Hispanic families.  Though there are not very many of them, a new study – a real one – shows that more than one-quarter of Hispanic children in Maine will be forced into foster care at some point during their childhoods.  Worse, 15% of Hispanic families in Maine will have their children torn from them forever.  And that really is the highest rate in the nation.  So does Maine really attract Hispanic child abusers at an astounding rate – or is there a whole lot of racism in the system? Are those Maine data revealing the extent of child abuse or the extent of racial and class bias in general and anti-Hispanic racism in particular? 

A deeper dive

Now, let’s dig deeper into the data.  Where does that “worst-in-the-nation” claim come from?  The Maine Children’s Alliance relies on the KidsCount database maintained by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  Casey, in turn, gets the data from the federal government’s National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS).  That’s the same source used by the federal government to compile its annual “Child Maltreatment” reports.

As a group supposedly as savvy as the Maine Children’s Alliance should know, that same report (right upfront on page 5) comes with a crucial warning:

[R]eaders should exercise caution in making state-to-state comparisons. Each state defines child abuse and neglect in its own statutes and policies and the child welfare agencies determine the appropriate response for the alleged maltreatment based on those statutes and policies. 

But, hey, why spoil a great narrative that will “raise awareness” of child abuse, with inconvenient facts?

Here's why:

What the NCANDS data actually measure is the percentage of the child population for whom family police caseworkers (a more accurate term than child protective services workers) check a box on a form saying they think it’s at least slightly more likely than not that a parent or caretaker abused or neglected a child.  This can be little more than a caseworker’s guess.  The data about Hispanic families in Maine suggest how subjective these judgments can be.

Now, let’s unpack this further:

For starters, headlines claiming that these data measure “child abuse” are flat-out false.  The figure is for alleged abuse and alleged neglect combined.  And it’s mostly neglect.  In Maine,  more than two-thirds of cases deemed by workers to be “maltreatment” involved neither physical abuse nor sexual abuse.  Sometimes neglect is extremely serious; more often it means the family is poor – (or as we’ve seen in Maine, sometimes it may just mean the family is Hispanic).        

Defining “substantiation”

As we’ve also seen, the federal data on which the Maine Children’s Alliance report relies do not, in fact, measure child abuse or neglect. Rather they count the number of times caseworkers allege abuse or neglect.

The allegation does not mean there was a comprehensive investigation followed by a decision from a neutral arbiter.  Rather, it means only that an often overwhelmed, underprepared caseworker checked a box on a form.  In Maine, as in 38 other jurisdictions, workers can check the box when they believe only that it is slightly more likely than not that what the state defines as abuse or “neglect” occurred.  Seven jurisdictions have a higher standard, six have a lower standard (D.C. and Puerto Rico bring the total to 52). This is still another reason states can’t be compared. Similarly, Maine’s family policing agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, claims that the Maine data include a category DHHS calls “indicated” for less serious cases that other states don’t include at all.

A trend or a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The Maine Children’s Alliance report includes a graphic purporting to show that the rate of “child maltreatment” doubled in Maine even as it’s declined nationwide.  In fact, the sharpest increases occurred after Maine’s former “Trump-before-Trump” governor, Paul LePage, demanded a more aggressive approach to tearing apart families and then, again, after child abuse fatalities made headlines.  So what actually is being measured is the extent to which caseworkers run scared because they don’t want one of their cases to incite the wrath of politicians and/or media. 

Reports like the one issued by the Maine Children’s Alliance create a vicious cycle.  Fearmongering by politicians prompts caseworkers to needlessly “substantiate” cases and needlessly take away children they otherwise wouldn’t.  Then the supposed “increase” in “child maltreatment” provides more fodder for the fearmongers.  That leads to another vicious cycle: All those additional needless investigations and removals further overload caseworkers, so they have even less time to find the few children in real danger

I’m sure the folks at the Maine Children’s Alliance would insist they really, truly don’t want any of that.  They’re just offering up these numbers in the name of promoting “prevention.”  After all, their report mentions prevention a lot and even says that taking away children can be bad for them.

But fearmongering and misuse of data in the name of a good cause are what created the wretched mess that is the American system of family policing in the first place.  You may be sure that the ombudsman and the former legislator will cite this report over and over as they insist there is no such thing as needless removal of children in Maine and, if anything, we need to take away even more. 

Actually, we DO need to “quibble about numbers

When those pushing for more policing of overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite families, more massive surveillance and more removal of children to foster care – or even those who say they’re just doing it to “raise awareness” and promote “prevention” -- get caught with their data down, they have a standard response. Usually, it’s some variation of: “How dare you quibble about numbers! Children are dying!  Even one case is too many!

The second two sentences are, of course, correct.  But we’ve been suckered by fearmongering, hype and hysteria for decades.  At least one organization responsible for a lot of it effectively admitted as much. They even have a name for it: “health terrorism.”   As a result, we’ve spent those decades embracing “solutions” that only make things worse.

The horror stories represent a tiny fraction of the cases seen by workers for Maine’s family police.  To move closer to geting that tiny fraction down to the only acceptable number -- zero -- requires a vastly different approach than an ever-expanding child welfare surveillance state.  It requires the approach Maine once embraced, when it embraced family preservation and made all children safer.

We damn well do need to “quibble about numbers.” The Maine Children’s Alliance should have done a lot more quibbling before putting out its misleading report.

So, does Maine have more “child abuse” than any other state?  Since there’s a 1 in 52 chance,  I don’t know.  And, Maine Children’s Alliance,  neither do you.