Sunday, July 23, 2023

Massachusetts pilots the most promising reform in child welfare. Guess who’s trying to undercut it.

 The Massachusetts Legislature needs to step in and provide the funding to make the approach taken by the Family Preservation Project available in every case.  That will require finally standing up to the state’s Fearmonger-in-Chief 

There’s a new program underway that is exactly what children need in a state where they are torn from their families at a rate 60% percent above the national average. 

In Springfield, Mass. the Family Preservation Project provides high-quality interdisciplinary family defense.  Families facing investigation by the state family policing agency, the Department of Children and Families, get a lawyer, a social worker who can come up with alternatives to the cookie-cutter “service plans” issued by DCF, and a parent advocate, usually someone who’s been through the system himself or herself. 

This is the model that’s proven so successful in New York City – where a comprehensive evaluation found that it reduced time in foster care with no compromise of safety.  It’s one reason New York City’s rate of removal is well under one-third the rate of Massachusetts, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.   

New England Public Media reports that the Western Massachusetts program is the first of five to be overseen by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute with a two-year federal grant. Even DCF says it favors the program (perhaps because they don’t have to pay for it). 

What kind of cases does the program see?  Here’s how the NEPM story begins: 

On an afternoon last January, a 49-year-old artist and mother named Cara was working a warehouse shift, one of two jobs she held to support her family. She was still sharing a house in Greenfield, Massachusetts, with her ex-partner and had left their 4-year-old daughter in his care.  But he got drunk, and Cara — not sure what to do — ended up calling the police. 

Cara, who asked to keep her last name private, said she had already been in touch with a domestic violence organization about her ex. After the drinking incident, she said, that organization called [DCF]. 

“I thought that when DCF stepped in, that it would be an outside authority that could put this situation in control,” she said. “And it did the opposite.” 

The state opened an investigation against Cara for child neglect, saying she should have known her ex might get drunk. That meant she could lose custody of her daughter.  

(Let’s pause here to consider: By that standard President Gerald R. Ford should have been charged with neglect – repeatedly – because his partner got drunk – a lot. She also abused prescription opioids and had mental health issues.  Yet, because the Ford family had money, Gerald’s partner – Betty – could raise their children.) 

In Cara’s case, DCF never should have come to the door.  But at least the agency itself referred the family to the Family Preservation Project, which found a way to keep the family together, sparing a four-year-old from all the trauma of foster care – and the high risk of abuse in foster care itself. 

Enter the Fearmonger-in-Chief 

Mass. "Child Advocate"
Maria Mossaides
Who in the world could be against something like that?  If you’ve followed Massachusetts child welfare at all, you know exactly who:  Massachusetts’ Fearmonger-in-Chief, state “child advocate” Maria Mossaides. 

● Mossaides is the one who led – and misled – a commission on mandatory reporting for a year; making sure the other members of the commission heard only what she wanted them to hear.  When they finally heard the other side of the story, commission members said they were “shocked,” “surprised” and “taken aback.” 

● Mossaides is the one who told the commission that repealing mandatory reporting would cost the state $400 million.  The actual figure would be, at most, more like $1.5 million.  

Mossaides is the one who has suggested that racial justice is at odds with child safety and racial bias isn’t a problem. Indeed, she seems to think a little racial bias might be good. 

So, keep Cara in mind as you consider what Mossaides told NEPM, and as we parse her comments. 

“I know that the advocacy community conflates neglect with poverty," Mossaides said. "That is not what the Office of the Child Advocate sees. What we see is actual risk to children or imminent risk to children.” 

That’s exactly what she told her mandatory reporting commission when she was misleading it.  As we explained at the time:

But, Ms. Mossaides, you don’t see a typical cross-section of cases – you focus on the most horrible cases.  If you really wanted to know what DCF does in typical cases, you would do what your former counterpart in New Jersey, Kevin Ryan, did when he was that state’s child advocate in 2005.  Not only did he look at a random sample of cases, he made sure the casereading would be objective by having the cases read by two groups with opposite views of the extent to which the state should intervene in families. 

Even DCF’s own annual report makes clear that the neglect cases OCA sees are rare exceptions.  Of all the reports alleging neglect – a total of 63,101, 16 were fatalities.  Another 1,121 involved a substantiated allegation of a substance-exposed newborn – and contrary to the fearmongering from the foster care establishment – and Mossaides --  not every such case by a longshot involves a parent endangering her child. The remainder, 14,345 cases, are labeled simply as “neglect.”  

In her interview with NEPM Mossaides made clear she prefers 

“another new program, based at the nonprofit agency Plummer Youth Promise, that provides mediators to work with parents and the child welfare agency.” 

That program sounds like a warmed-over version of family team meetings / team decision-making – which always put families at a disadvantage.  And, according to its own brochure, the Plummer program encourages something called “concurrent planning” which further stacks the deck against families and in favor of foster parents who want to adopt.* 

The program Mossaides prefers to the Family Preservation Project returns families to the status of supplicants. 

Then it was back to the fearmongering.  Mossaides told NEPM 

most of the cases her office reviews involve parents with substance use problems. She’s concerned the advocates could be too aggressive in siding with those parents and downplaying the risk to children. 

Well, for starters once again we have the problem of Mossaides seeing only what she chooses to see – or in this case “review.”  Of all the cases of children forced into Massachusetts foster care in 2021, 63% did not even involve an allegation of substance use.  And not every case of substance use endangers children – just ask all the parents in “pot smoking mom” Facebook groups.  

And here’s a news flash: It’s a lawyer’s job to be aggressive on behalf of her or his client.  But that doesn’t mean they get to decide what happens, and, indeed, the deck is stacked against lawyers for families at every turn.  Only when all sides have aggressive advocacy can judges get the information they need to make the right decisions. 

And then Mossaides says: 

“What I don't want is, it's just going to get more adversarial.” 

Actually that’s exactly what the system needs.  The non-adversarial approach dates back to the first juvenile court in 1899.  Then, juveniles accused of crime were denied all rights because supposedly everyone was just there to help them.  The U.S. Supreme Court put an end to that, at least in theory, in 1967 with its landmark decision In re: Gault.  As Justice Abe Fortas wrote: 

“[A] child receives the worst of both worlds:…he gets neither the protections accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children. … Under our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court." 

Unfortunately, much of child welfare operates with a pre-Gault mentality.  That boils down to: Just let us at DCF exercise our untrammeled power – after all, we’re only there to “help.” So families should bow and scrape, and jump through all the pointless hoops we set up for them.  They should beg forgiveness for their sins and, if we deign to return the children, thank us profusely for our benevolence. 

This is the world Mossaides is desperate to maintain – or make worse, since she seems to think DCF doesn’t tear apart enough families.  She is so desperate that not only does she want to undermine legal representation for parents she even wants to undermine it for children. 

But wait, there’s more. Mossaides then claims that she’s the one who doesn’t want more kids taken away and it’s those awful lawyers with their “adversarial” mindset that might cause more removals: 

“And what will happen is less cooperation, less willingness of a family to work with the department, which will inevitably lead to more children coming into custody.” 

Except it hasn’t.  As noted earlier, the New York City model significantly reduced foster care.  The program on which the Family Preservation Project is based, the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy handled hundreds of cases before it had to close because it couldn’t get funding.  None of the children in those cases had to be placed in foster care. 

And, as NEPM points out “At the Springfield location, out of 50 clients so far, all but one has kept custody of their children.” 

And yet, Maria Mossaides apparently wants us to believe that she is just trying to keep kids out of foster care while high-quality family defense will result in more children taken away.  

Persecuting survivors of domestic violence 

The two cases profiled in the NEPM story also illustrate another tragedy Mossaides seems keen to perpetuate: the persecution of mothers who are survivors of domestic violence. 

In Cara’s case, she had sought help from a domestic violence organization – and they’re the ones who called DCF.  I hope that’s only because they felt that, as mandated reporters, they had to.  

These cases can be among the most tragic – because the emotional trauma of child removal is actually worse for a child when the child is being taken because the mother “allowed” him to “witness domestic violence.”  One expert said taking a child in such circumstances is “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”  

Yet when proposals were made to the mandatory reporter commission to exempt people who help domestic violence victims from mandatory reporting, Mossaides opposed them.  Her approach to this issue can be boiled down to “Please pass the salt.” 

Fortunately, in both Cara’s case and the other discussed in the story, the Family Preservation Project kept the children with their mothers. 

But the project is small.  Even when there are four more of them, they can deal with only a small fraction of the families into which DCF intrudes every year.  So the Massachusetts Legislature needs to step in and provide the funding to make this kind of representation possible in every case.  And, by the way, because foster care is so expensive, and because in many cases the federal government will reimburse half the cost, the program is likely to be cost-neutral or even save the state some money.  

But step one is to stop being fooled by Maria Mossaides. 

Mossaides consistently ignores research and best practice in favor of what she “sees.”  But she sees only what she wants to see. 

The children of Massachusetts will be a whole lot safer when, at long last, politicians catch on and say to Maria Mossaides: We don’t give a damn what you “see” – because you are willfully blind. 

* -- Under concurrent planning, people who desperately want to adopt a child – and the child welfare agencies that desperately want those people to adopt -- are told, in effect: “Now remember, your first goal is to work with the birth parents and do everything you can to help them get the child back – but if, by some chance, you fail at this then you get what you really want – someone else’s child for your very own.” 

One parent in New Jersey was honest enough to tell The New York Times what she called “the mantra” of parents in this kind of program, which is: “I’m on the next plane to South America if they think they’re getting this baby back.” 

Meanwhile, the caseworkers are supposed to work equally hard to get the child adopted by people they like and can identify with – typically middle-class foster parents - as they do to try to reunite the child with people they often can’t stand, overwhelmingly poor disproportionately minority birth parents.