Tuesday, June 27, 2023

When the journalism of child welfare fails, part one: The Boston Globe’s flying donkey

● In what is presented as a news story, the Globe finally acknowledges there’s a controversy over whether mandatory child abuse reporting is a good idea – and then devotes itself largely to making the case for keeping it.   

● The story accepts the false claim that curbing racial bias somehow compromises child safety – and ignores the mass of readily-available evidence that mandatory reporting makes children less safe. 

● The state’s “child advocate” suggests that, under these circumstances, racial bias isn’t a problem at all. Indeed, she almost seems to be saying a little bias might be beneficial. 

● In a story dealing with racial bias, it appears that only one of those quoted – briefly - is nonwhite. (For the Globe, that’s actually an improvement.) 

During the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show Ted Baxter, the pompous not-very- bright anchorman, briefly tries to take a stand on principle and do the right thing.  He quickly caves. 

News writer Murray Slaughter says no one should be too hard on Ted.  As Murray puts it: “When a donkey flies, you don't blame him for not staying up that long." 

The most generous interpretation of a recent examination of mandatory child abuse reporting by The Boston Globe is that the story is a flying donkey.  Until now, you’d never so much as see mandatory reporting questioned in the Globe. With a few notable exceptions (generally written by nonwhite reporters), the Globe follows the party line of those whose 19th Century counterparts proudly called themselves “child savers” – that massive intervention into families is needed to keep children safe.  Decades of such coverage is part of the reason Massachusetts tears apart families at a rate more than 60% above the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.

So when a big story by Globe reporter Matthew Stout actually acknowledged that mandatory reporting is controversial, the donkey flew.  But it didn’t stay up long. 

Among the key facts the story left out: 

● The enormous harm to children from false allegations, constant surveillance, and needless removal. 

● The stunning number of expert individuals and organizations who once supported mandatory reporting but since had second thoughts.

● The enormous body of research showing that mandatory reporting backfires – making children less safe. 

● The particularly horrible impact of mandatory reporting on the children of battered women. 

Mass. "Child Advocate" - and Boston
Globe favorite -- Maria Mossaides
● The way the state’s child advocate, Maria Mossaides, (who gets the Globe’s usual reverential treatment in this story) misdirected her own commission on mandatory reporting to the point that commission members rebelled. 

The failure is all the more egregious since all of this information is readily available in the records of Mossaides’ commission, which studied mandatory reporting between 2019 and 2021.  A huge body of witness testimony includes citations to the studies documenting all the points noted above.  If the Globe pored through this testimony – or even glanced at it – it is not reflected in the story.  Our own analysis of the commission’s work, with links to all that information the Globe left out, is available here.  A selection of links to some of the key testimony and research is here.  (Citations for any statistic or study not otherwise linked in this post can be found in either of these two documents.) 


With that, let’s go through the story section by section. 

The donkey gets off the ground when it starts by profiling Kayla Ford, a mother who was victimized by repeated needless mandatory reports and investigations by the state family police agency, the Department of Children and Families.  (Oddly, for a story discussing racial bias, they chose a white mother.)  

The mother had an addiction to pills that turned into a heroin habit (A condition somewhat similar to that certain other Ford who, instead of being turned in, was treated by media as a hero – but I digress.) 

As soon as Kayla Ford learned she was pregnant she got treatment, including medication-assisted treatment – in this case Suboxone.  That is considered best practice – it is also often the subject of virulent prejudice among family police agencies.  And since this is Massachusetts, where the Puritan heritage remains strong, even medication used to prevent addiction makes you subject to automatic mandatory reporting.  That happened to Ms. Ford when her first child was born.  And her second. And her third, even though by then she’d been sober for six years. 

Even Mossaides concedes this goes a tad too far and is willing to see the state mandatory reporting law tweaked slightly for such cases. 

But while the story talks about how much strain all this put on the mother, it omits the most important part: The enormous harm needless investigation does to children.  

So it’s understandable that someone would write this in the comments section under the story: 

Sounds to me like in Ms. Ford’s case DCF involvement was not harmful in the end. Her kids were not taken from her and she is still sober. I’m struggling a bit to identify the problem mandatory reporting caused in her case. 

The commenter is struggling because: 

● The story didn’t explain that 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. If anyone else did that, it would be sexual abuse.  And if the family is put under “supervision” all this can happen over and over and over.  

As attorneys from The Children’s Law Center, a group that represents children in family policing cases - -  explain: 

children may experience “surprise, shock, [and] chaos” during a child welfare investigation, as well as a “loss of control,” “powerlessness, helplessness,” and a “sense of guilt or failure.” … Children involved in a child abuse or neglect investigation “may not know what’s going to happen in the examination or the interview,” which can be particularly traumatic because children are taught from a young age “not to talk to or trust strangers and not to let strangers touch their bodies; and these are strangers.” 

It’s no wonder parents of children who’ve been forced to endure these investigations sometimes speak of their children never wanting to let them out of their sight or diving under the bed when there’s a loud knock at the door.

● The story quotes Ford as saying “I remember toward the end of my third pregnancy being terrified that they’re going to bring DCF back into my life. I was thinking about that more than the delivery.” But the story does not mention the potential harm that can cause for a pregnancy – or for the siblings. 

● The story didn’t explain that all the time and effort wasted traumatizing this family -- three separate times -- was, in effect stolen from finding some of the few children in real danger. 

More generally, the story fails to come to grips with the myths about substance use and the ability to raise a child; so it’s understandable that those myths crop up, repeatedly in the comments. 

Then the story turns – very briefly – to the issue of the effectiveness of mandatory reporting; and ignores the research.  The effectiveness issue is confined to this paragraph: 

A wide expansion of mandated reporting laws elsewhere has, in some cases, failed to uncover a rise in abuse. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers expanded the pool of who qualifies as a mandated reporter in the wake of the Penn State University child sex abuse scandal. The result, according to an NBC News and ProPublica investigation: Investigations soared, but the number of actual substantiated allegations remained flat. 

First of all, it speaks volumes about the Globe’s longstanding failure on these issues that a news organization of its size had to rely on ProPublica and NBC News – apparently the Globe had nothing at all on this in its own archives. 

More important, the harm is far greater than that single paragraph suggests.  There is now an overwhelming body of research showing that mandatory reporting makes children less safe. 

● It drives families away from seeking voluntary help with their problems before those problems become a crisis.  

● Research confirms that the deluge of false reports brought on by mandatory reporting distracts overloaded workers from finding children in real danger.  

● Mandatory reporting does particular harm to children of battered mothers – because when they are torn from mothers whose only crime is to, themselves, be victims of domestic violence, the harm to the children is especially great.  

Time for the token quote from a Black person 

Some reporters at the Globe seem to have a lot of trouble quoting Black people about child welfare.  Here’s a case in point from 2020.  Things haven’t changed much.  In this story, America’s foremost scholar on family policing and race, Prof. Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania gets exactly two sentences.  Here are the sentences: 

“It’s an extremely biased way of alerting the government to the risk of child maltreatment.  To say, ‘Let’s improve mandated reporting’ obscures what the problem is." 

That’s two more sentences than any other person of color got in the story.

And what is the problem?  You’d think the reporter would want to know.  And I’m sure Prof. Roberts, a member of NCCPR’s Board of Directors, would have been glad to tell him.  Either he never asked or he, or his editors, cut that part. 

So readers are left with no actual alternatives to “improving” mandatory reporting – only criticism of proposals to do away with it – again, with no explanation of the research behind those proposals. 

The Globe’s hero, state “child advocate” and fanatical proponent of mandatory reporting and polices that tear apart families, Maria Mossaides, gets far more attention:

“Since the pandemic, there has been a movement, both on the national and state level, to eliminate all mandatory reporting,” said Maria Mossaides, the state-appointed child advocate who believes the state mandated reporter law should be “cleaned up” but not thrown out. The movement has put a new focus on racial biases in reporting, which need to be addressed, she said, “but that doesn’t eliminate that there are certain children that need protection.”

Notice what Mossaides does. She equates mandatory reporting with child protection and suggests that abolishing mandatory reporting jeopardizes child protection.  But at no point, here or elsewhere, has Mossaides cited any research documenting that mandatory reporting actually improves child protection. Neither has the Globe.  In contrast, as noted above, there is a wealth of evidence that it makes children less safe.

Indeed, imagine for a moment the fury on the Left, including the Boston Globe, if any public official said we needed stop-and-frisk policing because even though it’s biased “there are certain people who need protection from crime.”

But Mossaides isn’t done.  She goes on to make statements that sound to this reader as though she thinks children might benefit from racial bias among mandatory reporters:

“Even when a reporter might be more suspicious of a Black family than the equivalent white family, that doesn’t mean that that child is not at risk,” she said. “There’s a discussion about what we do about racial bias that’s different from the obligation to protect children.”

By that logic, one should forget about waiting for reports altogether and simply investigate all Black families.  And again, imagine the fury on the Left if any politician said, “There’s a discussion about what we do about racial bias in policing that’s different from the obligation to stop crime.”

The idea that the two can be separated in family policing is enormously dangerous to children.

In Massachusetts, more than half of all Black children and more than half of all Hispanic children already are forced to endure a child abuse investigation.  But, for all racial groups, 69% of reports were false – that is, they did not even rise to the level that a caseworker would check a box on a form saying it might be slightly more likely than not that the allegation was true. (In Massachusetts the standard for checking the box is actually lower than the abysmally low “preponderance of the evidence” standard used in most states.)

Of those cases in which the worker did check that box on the form, 89% did not involve so much as an allegation of sexual abuse or any form of physical abuse.

Eleven percent of Black and Hispanic children in Massachusetts will be torn from their parents and
consigned to the chaos of Massachusetts foster care.  Even In those cases, again, 89% did not involve even an allegation of physical or sexual abuse.  Sixty-three percent did not include any allegation of substance abuse.

The only way to prevent this massive state-sanctioned assault on Black and Hispanic children is to understand that doing something about racial bias is absolutely essential in order to do something about child protection.

The mandatory reporting commission

Here’s how the Globe tells the story of the commission created to study mandatory reporting in 2019:

The state in 2019 created a first-of-its-kind commission, led by Mossaides, to examine the mandated reporter law. Its initial proposals were to greatly expand the number of people considered mandated reporters, as well as stiffen penalties for failing to report suspicions. Those recommendations drew heated criticism that the changes would only worsen a system that already disproportionately enters the lives of Black and Latino families.

The commission ultimately folded after two years without agreeing on any recommendations it could make to lawmakers.

But there’s so much more to it.

What actually happened was that Mossaides led the commissioners by the nose for more than a year, making sure they saw and heard only what she wanted them to see and hear.  Far into the process, Mossaides finally had to hold public hearings – and that’s when all hell broke loose.

Witness after witness cited that mass of evidence – and spoke movingly of the tremendous harm mandatory reporting has done to children and families.  To cite just one example, Jane Doe, Inc., The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Violence zeroed in on the enormous harm mandatory reporting can do to the children of battered mothers.  The Globe journalists either ignored this testimony or never read it.

Luckily, the commission members paid more attention. Having heard what Mossaides never wanted them to hear, commission members declared themselves “shocked,” “surprised” and “taken aback.”  So they rebelled – refusing to rubber-stamp Mossaides’ recommendations.

It was all summed up by a member of the commission, Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan:

I spent a lot of years thinking that [mandated reporting] gets us to a better place; I’m disheartened to hear maybe it really doesn’t – and even if it does, perception is reality.  A lot of well-credentialed, well-meaning experts think this doesn’t work. … I was taken aback to hear so much of that conversation. [Finding out if they’re right] should be Job One.

It’s been nearly a year since the commission issued its report. Wouldn’t a reporter with a modicum of curiosity want to get back to Ryan and other commissioners and ask what they think now?  Has anyone pursued Job One? How do they feel about how Mossaides handled the commission?  Did the commissioners feel misled when, for example, Mossaides falsely claimed that abolishing mandatory reporting would cost the state $400 million – and it turned out to be, maybe, $1.5 million at most?

But no; there is not one word in the story from anyone on the commission – except, of course, Mossaides.

So it’s no wonder another commenter on the Globe story would say this:

The director of the Massachusetts Office of Child Advocate, someone who lives these situations every day, says Massachusetts should keep the law but clean up its intent. Why would we listen to her? Experts, what do they know?????

Again, understandable. Because the story never tells readers that there are a huge number of experts who think Mossaides is flat wrong – and they have the research to back it up.  Nor are readers told that over the decades since mandatory reporting was instituted – with no study beforehand to figure out if it would actually work -- one former proponent after another has had second thoughts.

Among the first to express doubts is someone who was, for decades, one of the biggest names in Massachusetts child welfare (and no friend of family preservation) Dr. Eli Newberger.  In 1983 he wrote:

"Had professionals, like me, known then what we know now, we would never have urged on Congress, federal and state officials broadened concepts of child abuse as the basis for reporting legislation."

So apparently it was the Boston Globe that took the attitude: Experts, what do they know?????

A bizarre detour to Foxborough

Recall how the Globe story briefly acknowledges (by citing other news organizations) that when Pennsylvania vastly expanded mandatory reporting in the wake of a child sex abuse scandal (in which by the way, the perpetrator was a foster parent and group home operator) it didn’t work.

Yet at the end, the Globe suggests that somehow Foxborough, which did almost exactly the same thing for exactly the same reason, is some kind of model.

The Globe explains that after sexual abuse revelations in Foxborough

The town formed a so-called Child Sex Abuse Awareness Committee, and has now trained thousands of residents — including public works officials, town hall employees, and others who fall outside the mandated reporter law — in recognizing abuse or neglect.

“Our philosophy in Foxborough is, the more eyes aware and watching, the better. Why would we restrict that?” said Bill Dudley, a pastor at the Union Church of Foxboro and a member of the committee.

How about because turning everyone in town into a spy – free to enact their prejudices on anyone who is poor and/or nonwhite – will cause enormous harm to children?  Rev. Dudley doesn’t know that for a lot of reasons, not least because what is still probably the state’s most prominent news source has never told him.

The story goes on to quote the town’s state senator, who wants to further expand mandatory reporting:

“There’s a moral obligation [to report]. In my mind, this should be a statutory obligation.”

But notice what is missing in this entire section: any evidence that what they did in Foxborough actually reduced child abuse.  In fact, no evidence is offered to suggest things went any differently there than in Pennsylvania.

The story ends by noting that

Mossaides’ office, using a $200,000 legislative allocation, is preparing to launch a pilot course in all of the state’s public school systems in the fall that she said will both train teachers on how to spot signs of abuse and how to decide to actually file a report.

That’s like giving Donald Trump a $200,000 grant to teach proper handling of classified documents.

Maybe the donkey wasn’t supposed to fly

Perhaps my assumption that the story was a flying donkey is too generous.  There’s another possible explanation.

In 1983, former Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian wrote The Media Monopoly, among the finest works of media criticism in American history and certainly among the most prescient. When I taught journalism, I used it as a textbook.

One of Bagdikian's important observations is how newspaper editors who have strong feelings about a story deal with the side of that story they don't like:

They cover it. Prominently. Once.

That's just enough for the editors to say to critics "Oh, we covered that. We even put it on the front page!" – when they know full well that anything covered only once has almost no impact. It's what's repeated over and over that leaves an impression.

This was even worse: The editors can now say they “covered” the controversy over mandatory reporting and racial bias in child welfare when really, they just pretended to.  Now they can go back to the usual grind of horror story coverage, always with an inflammatory comment by Maria Mossaides.  So Massachusetts can keep on tearing apart families, especially nonwhite families, at one of the highest rates in America.

Future posts will look at other recent examples of how the journalism of "child welfare" fails.