Thursday, November 30, 2023

NCCPR in the Kentucky Lantern: The only way to end abuse in children’s institutions is to end the institutions

Recent news stories illustrate both the terrible harm Kentucky’s “child welfare” system inflicts upon its most vulnerable children and the root cause. Until the findings in these stories are examined together the harm will never stop. 

The ultimate harm can be seen in the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s expose of how the state systematically ignores abuse of children institutionalized in “residential treatment.”  Over and over children’s stories of vicious abuse were not believed. In more than half the “unsubstantiated” cases the children were not even interviewed before the cases were closed and their claims dismissed. The story also revealed that, remarkably often, the places where young people alleged abuse occurred were places where video cameras were not present or mysteriously didn’t work. 

The reason for this is no mystery. … 

Read the full column in the Kentucky Lantern

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

NCCPR in the Albany Times Union: Yes, for most children, there is a 'better alternative' to foster care

Imagine that you run a small software firm. One of your engineers just stopped by for his annual performance review. You ask what he accomplished in the past year and he says: “My new software crashed the systems of half our clients. They lost millions and they’re considering suing us! But you can’t fire me because anyone else you hire would be worse. So you have to keep me. What is the better alternative?” 

Now consider what happened during a New York State Senate hearing on the child welfare system and Family Court. … 

Read the full column in the Albany Times Union

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, weeks ending Nov. 29, 2023

Through the story of a mother whose children were torn from her after she did the right thing -- fleeing an abusive partner and going, with her children to a shelter -- and through the work of a former family police caseworker turned whistleblower, WBTV in Charlotte, NC and the online magazine The Assembly tell the story of how family policing really works. 

From the story: 

About 11,000 North Carolina children … were in DSS custody at the end of September. … And despite federal and state laws requiring “reasonable efforts” to reunify families, most will never go home.  Their parents are disproportionately Black and overwhelmingly poor, and often lack the resources to battle a powerful system that operates with little scrutiny. 

This side of the child welfare story - what happens to mothers like Alexis after their children enter the system - is seldom seen. It plays out in courtrooms where records are sealed, journalists’ notes are seized, and observers can be ejected on a judge’s whim - even as families are ripped apart. 

There’s no question that some children live in dangerous environments, and it’s in their best interest to be removed from their homes. At least 45 kids died of abuse or neglect in North Carolina in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. When that happens, social services officials come under fire. But there are few consequences for wrongly removing children from their homes. 

You can see for yourself here 

And here (The image looks the same, but it's another part of the story):

 ● In Florida, it’s a grandmother waging a prolonged fight for custody of her grandchild as the state’s family police agency throws one obstacle after another in her way.  WFTS-TV’s story includes comment from NCCPR

● If anyone still doubts the need to replace anonymous reporting of alleged child abuse with confidential reporting, check out this story from ProPublica.  Here’s how it begins: 

It was 5:30 a.m. Flashlights beamed in through the windows of the ground-floor apartment in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Police officers and child welfare caseworkers were ordering a woman to open her front door. 

When she did, the first thing she saw was that the police had their guns drawn. Her hands flew up into the “don’t shoot” position; she was well aware of the recent stories of cops “shooting first and asking later.” She prayed that her 7-year-old son was still asleep in his room. 

The Imprint also has an excellent story about this case.  The story includes this quote from the mother: 

“I wasn’t able to protect him like a mother.  Especially when he had to come home and cry to me that the kids were teasing him, saying: ‘ACS are gonna come and take you.’ 

“I just felt like I failed him.”

And I have a blog post about the two questions anyone covering stories like this in New York always should ask. 

● More than a decade ago I first wrote about how states use federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds – which are supposed to help poor people become self-sufficient – to investigate those same poor people and take away their children.  In 2021 ProPublica published a superb expose of this practice.  One of those two things probably is part of the reason why the Biden Administration is proposing regulations to curb this practice.  ProPublica reports that 

The new rules would also restrict states from spending TANF funds on child protective services investigations, foster care or any other programs that don’t meet the fundamental purposes of welfare: strengthening poor families and keeping them together. ProPublica found that in Arizona and elsewhere, money meant to help parents struggling to raise their children is instead used to investigate them for alleged child maltreatment — which often stems from the very financial circumstances that they needed help with in the first place. 

Under the Biden plan, Arizona would likely have to find other ways of funding its aggressive child protective services investigations of poor parents and use welfare dollars to help families stay together rather than removing their kids into foster care. 

But we're going to have to pore over the fine print to see how much of a change this is.  There may be at least one loophole.

● Back in April I wrote about another of those appalling extremist statements that come from Penn State Prof. Sarah Font.  As I noted at the time: 

According to Font, what has long been viewed as the worst option of all – “aging out,” in which a young person exits at age 18 or age 21 with no family whatsoever, and for which it’s well-documented the results are dismal, may be better not just than reunification with those birth parents for whom Font has such contempt; it also may be better than guardianship with extended family, better than loving grandparents or aunts or uncles.  Why?  Because aging out might provide the foster youth with financial benefits. 

I don’t know if Font thinks that’s especially true for Native American children. I do know that Font, who is part of the “Scooby Gang” that denies there is racism in family policing, wants to get rid of the Indian Child Welfare Act.  

All of this is by way of introducing a story from Youth Today and Crosscut, centered around the life of a Black and Native American foster youth forced to make exactly the choice Font describes.  Check out how it worked out for her.  And check out all the other times she was failed, from the very beginning.  Here’s how the story starts: 

One day in second grade, Janell Braxton’s teacher told her, unexpectedly, that her mom had come to pick her up for a dentist appointment. Janell, thrilled to avoid reading time, trotted off to the school office. But she did not see her mother. 

Instead, a social worker told Janell that the adults had lied about the dentist. She would move into foster care, which Janell’s young mind imagined as a form of jail. Why had this happened? she wondered. Because she hadn’t eaten her vegetables? She worried about her younger brother, and volunteered to “do time” for him. 

“Oh honey, that’s not how it works,” the social worker told Janell.

● Speaking of Native American children: South Dakota Searchlight and the Argus Leader continue their series about what the state of South Dakota has done to these children, with stories on how the system severs cultural connections and what’s being done about this.  When it comes to the state itself, the answer is what you’d expect: Not much. 

● After one witness after another at a New York State Senate hearing described the trauma of the child welfare surveillance state and needless foster care, one lawmaker asked “What is the better alternative?” In the Albany Times Union, NCCPR offers some answers

● We all know about usually white, male law enforcement officers and prosecutors stretching laws to persecute pregnant women – especially nonwhite pregnant women -- for using drugs, something that only endangers children by driving mothers away from prenatal care.  But Mississippi Today and The Marshall Project report that in Mississippi they’re taking it an ugly step further. 

● Among the enormous harms of the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act is a dramatic escalation in the number of times children’s rights to their parents are terminated. (That’s a more accurate term than termination of parental rights.)  ASFA makes it easy since it allows termination if enough time has passed even if the child was wrongly taken in the first place. Some states compound the injustice by making a prior termination automatic grounds to terminate again without even trying to keep the family together. In the journal Social Work, Professors Mical Raz and Frank Edwards argue that 

TPR is not a rare event that universally serves as proxy for parental unfitness.  Rather, it demonstrates how harsh child welfare policies target certain marginalized communities, often faulting parents for their circumstances, and place their healing and recovery on a strict timeline. Thus, a history of a prior TPR should not be the sole reason to deny a parent reunification services.  

In this week’s edition of The Horrors go in All Directions: 

● It is horrific, it is pervasive, and authorities repeatedly look the other way.  That’s what Louisville Public Media and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found when they took a close look at abuse in that state’s residential treatment centers in a story including NCCPR’s perspective.  As the story explains: 

The system that promises to monitor these facilities and protect children from abuse often devalues the child’s perspective of what happened — communicating to them time and time again that they are untrustworthy and unbelievable. 

More than half the time the child who disclosed the abuse was not even interviewed by those charged with investigating the allegation.   I have an op-ed column in the Kentucky Lantern on the root cause of this massive failure. (Yes, it's what you think.)

WKRN-TV in Nashville reports that 

The homes sheltering some of Tennessee’s most at-risk children as they await foster care placement comes with its own dangers and issues, according to logs of calls made to Metro Nashville Police. 

News 2 obtained the logs for more than 500 calls made to two neighboring Department of Children’s Services (DCS) transitional homes in Davidson County between Jan. 1 and Oct. 27 of this year. 

The reports show multiple instances where police were called to the homes for fights, criminal activity, theft, and reports of a person with a weapon.

Monday, November 27, 2023

The two questions reporters covering child welfare in NYC should always ask

Even these two excellent stories leave two key questions unanswered - as almost always
happens when reporters write about family policing in New York

Brooklyn Defender Services has filed a lawsuit against the New York City family police agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, on behalf of a family that has been subjected to repeated, traumatic investigations as a result of false anonymous reports alleging child abuse. 

ProPublica broke the story. The Imprint also has an excellent account. 

The family has been harassed with false reports more than 24 times.  Over and over, ACS would show up at the home at all hours and pound on the door. At least once they were accompanied by police, guns drawn.  Here’s how ProPublica describes one encounter: 

It was 5:30 a.m. Flashlights beamed in through the windows of the ground-floor apartment in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Police officers and child welfare caseworkers were ordering a woman to open her front door. 

When she did, the first thing she saw was that the police had their guns drawn. Her hands flew up into the “don’t shoot” position; she was well aware of the recent stories of cops “shooting first and asking later.” She prayed that her 7-year-old son was still asleep in his room. 

Or they’d interrogate the child at school.  As his mother told The Imprint: 

“I wasn’t able to protect him like a mother.  Especially when he had to come home and cry to me that the kids were teasing him, saying: ‘ACS are gonna come and take you.’ 

“I just felt like I failed him.”

Ultimately two different judges had to intervene to curb ACS’ harassment of the family.  One of them even ordered ACS to refer the matter to the Brooklyn District Attorney to investigate the caller – but, of course, since the calls were anonymous that won't be easy. 

How did ACS respond to media queries about the case?  By hauling out its standard playbook of lies and misdirection – the one that works almost every time. 

ACS’ outright lie 

For starters, there was their standard out-and-out lie. 

When ProPublica asked about the specifics of the case and the agency's response, ACS just ignored those questions.  But when The Imprint asked, out came the standard-issue lie: 

A spokesperson for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services told The Imprint that her agency is unable to publicly discuss individual cases. 

They say that over and over and over.  And except for one New York Times story, no reporter ever seems to have checked to see if it’s true. 

It’s not. 

The failure to check is, in some ways, understandable.  Reporters are used to the extent to which various laws allow family police agencies to cover up the harm they do to families.  So they just assume it must always be true. 

But while it is true that family police agencies can’t comment on individual cases in most states,  it’s not true in New York. 

Nearly 30 years ago, New York State law was changed to specifically allow family police agencies to comment on individual cases under certain circumstances.  

This is a link to the law.  Have a look. 

Did you spot it?  It’s the part where it says circumstances in which family police agencies can comment include where 

there has been a prior knowing, voluntary, public disclosure by an individual concerning a report of child abuse or maltreatment in which such individual is named as the subject of the report … 

I’d say a case in which the accused is doing interviews and filed a civil lawsuit qualifies. 

This clause is included in a law commonly known as “Elisa’s Law,” after Elisa Izquierdo, a child known-to-the-system who died in 1995. 

So the first question any reporter in New York should ask whenever a family police agency claims it can’t comment is: “What about Elisa’s Law?” 

By the way, Arizona law is even more generous in allowing its state family police agency to comment, but that agency pulls the same stunt – and always gets away with it. 

As for other states: The laws that stop them from commenting were not handed down on tablets from Mount Sinai.  If family police agencies in these other states wanted the right to comment, they could persuade lawmakers to give it to them.  But, of course, they’d rather hide. 

ACS’ game of misdirection 

New York is one of 13 states in which local governments run family policing systems with some sort of state supervision.  The nature of this supervision varies, but in New York, the state runs the child abuse “hotline.”  If the state screens in a report – and the criteria for screening-in are extremely low – the local family police agency, in this case ACS, has to investigate. 

UPDATE: For this post about the need to ask more questions, I didn't ask enough questions.  Nora McCarthy, director of the New York City Family Policy Project, points out something I didn't know: ACS and its counterparts across the state have the right to ask the state hotline to reconsider any report it screens in. In fact, they're required to do this if they think the report doesn't meet the legal criteria for screening-in.  The hotline still has the ultimate authority.  It sure would be interesting to know how often ACS has exercised what amounts to right to appeal - if ever.

And sure enough, that was ACS’ copout here.  To read what ACS told The Imprint you’d think they were the real victims – dragged kicking and screaming by the state to gently knock on the door of this family.  So ACS passes the buck by saying: 

“The State should conduct a full review and assessment of [State hotline] practice and policies, as well as mandated reporter laws, and then take actions (legislative or otherwise) to address.” 

There are a couple of problems with this. The first is that, once you’ve investigated the same family over and over and found nothing, you don’t need to go in with guns drawn and otherwise make the process as traumatic as possible. For some reason, in this case it took two separate judges to explain this to ACS.  [UPDATE: In fact, once you know a family is being harassed this way you could appeal the hotline decision to keep screening-in these anonymous, harassing calls.] 

But also, notice what’s missing in the list of things ACS wants the state to do.  There is no request that the state simply allow ACS and its counterparts do to their own screening. 

That’s how it’s done in most cases in Pennsylvania.  The state runs the hotline, but for the overwhelming majority of calls, counties are allowed to do their own screening.  Decades ago, in New York, metropolitan Rochester and Syracuse did it all themselves, running their own hotlines. 

Why doesn’t ACS want the power to screen calls referred by the state hotline?  Probably because they like having no choice.  Because choices come with accountability.  The status quo is perfect for ACS.  They can do anything they want to tens of thousands of families and then pass the buck to the state.   But if they had screening power, they would be unambiguously responsible whenever they harass a family by investigating multiple false reports. 

But there’s another reason: If ACS had screening authority and it wrongly screened out a legitimate call and tragedy followed, they’d be the ones at the other end of headlines screaming “Who let this baby die?”  

Conversely, the state has an incentive to screen in all sorts of cases it shouldn’t because the burden will fall on the localities they overload with all those false reports.  But if the state hotline wrongly screens out a case then state officials are on the receiving end of those headlines. 

So the second question any reporter in New York should ask is the one they should ask when ACS (or its counterparts in the rest of the state) say: “The state made us do it”: Have you asked the Legislature to let you screen reports after the state passes them on? [UPDATE: And also: How often do you exercise your right to appeal a hotline decision to screen-in a call?]

The third question, of course, is: Why not?

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Is this family police agency leader really bragging about misleading the public?

Perhaps if we all say it often enough we can stop
family police agencies from misleading us about this.

Last week, Virginia’s Director of Social Services, Danny Avula, gave a presentation to the state Commission on Youth.  According to Virginia Public Media

Avula noted Virginia’s rate of placement with relatives is less than half of the national average — a statistic he said is skewed by the fact that local social services departments in the state prioritize informal placements with relatives before sending a child into the foster care system. 

“The upside of that is that it keeps our overall numbers of kids in formal foster care low,” Avula said. [Emphasis added.] 

The practice Avula seems to be bragging about, and the hoodwinking of the public that goes with it is, in fact, shameful. 

On the surface, Virginia appears to have a low rate of tearing apart families.  But that’s only because Virginia hides a whole lot of its foster care placements – by not calling them foster care.  

There’s a term for these kinds of placements – “hidden foster care” (of course).  But I prefer “blackmail placements” because that’s how they usually work. 

The family police agency decides to remove a child from the home.  To make the process easier, for the agency, not the family, they essentially blackmail the parent: Give us the child and let us place him “informally” with a relative -- without involving the court, without having to deal with a family defense attorney and without even the minimal due process rights you normally have -- or we’ll go to court and throw your child into the home of a stranger, or worse, a group home or institution. 

By some estimates, nationwide, there may be as many children in hidden foster care/blackmail placements as there are in the kind where the numbers are officially reported to the federal government and the public.  That means that instead of tearing apart families 206,000 times per year, it’s more like 412,000.  

When they fail to report these placements, states are, at best, exploiting a loophole in federal regulations.  At worst, they are ignoring those regulations and the federal Administration for Children and Families chooses to look the other way. 

The deception is compounded when family police agencies deny that these placements are foster care – calling them kinship placements or worse “kinship diversion.” 

Though kinship care is almost always the least harmful form of foster care, kinship care is still foster care.  

There’s nothing unusual about family police hoodwinking the public by keeping hidden foster care hidden and calling it something else.  What is unusual is when they seem to brag about it. 

That sure sounds like what Avula was doing when he said that when it comes to all those blackmail placements “The upside of that is that it keeps our overall numbers of kids in formal foster care low.” 

Upside for whom?

The children still have been torn from their families.  And while they are in kinship foster care with a relative, that could have been done through the formal system with the state forced to report that they did it and at least some minimal due process rights for the families. 

When state officials say blackmail placements are better because the child is being placed with relatives, once again they’re trying to hoodwink you.  Going to court does not deny a child placement with kin instead of strangers – unless that’s what the family police always wanted in the first place. 

There’s no “upside” for the children, and there’s no upside for the families.  It’s only an upside for the state of Virginia, which can pretend to be tearing apart fewer families and for local family police agencies (in Virginia these systems are county-run) which don’t have to deal with those pesky family defense lawyers, can save money on court costs and never have to pay the relatives the way they pay strangers.  (Formal placement doesn’t guarantee relatives will get such placements, but informal placement guarantees they won’t.)

 The families know this.  As Virginia Public Media pointed out: 

[A] 2022 report from the newly created Office of the Children’s Ombudsman found issues with Virginia’s practice of informally placing children with relatives. It included comments from parents who felt they’d been coerced into giving up their children for an unspecified amount of time, without representation from an attorney. 

“My children were kidnapped,” the report quotes one anonymous parent. “There was no court order.”

Friday, November 17, 2023

Our annual call to end child welfare’s public celebration of family executions

Tomorrow, on “National Adoption Day, who will stop to remember that for some children and some young adults every mass adoption ceremony, every treacly feature story on the local news is an act of cruelty – ripping the scab off a wound that never fully heals?


Termination of parental rights is child welfare's "death penalty."  So why do
some of the very judges who order a family "executed" preside over
public celebrations of the aftermath?   

This post originally was published on November 15, 2020

             There was a time when, as a people, we were so uncivilized that executions were a form of entertainment – a public spectacle to be celebrated. 

In Canada, for example, 

Before they were banned in 1870, executions in public places could draw thousands of spectators, including families and young children. Boisterous behavior and a less-than-solemn attitude marked these macabre gatherings.  “When the day of a public execution arrived, the businessmen closed their factories and their stores and the people put on their holiday dresses,” noted an 1894 article in the Evening Star about hangings in early Toronto.   

The last official state-sanctioned public hanging in the United States drew a crowd of 20,000.  Even then, reporters condemned it as a “carnival.” (I probably don’t even need to mention that the man they hanged was Black.) 

Fortunately, nearly a century later, we have, of course, outgrown such practices. 

Except in "child welfare." 

Termination of parental rights (or, as it should be called, termination of children’s rights to their parents) often is described as child welfare’s death penalty.  It is the prerequisite to any adoption of a child from foster care. 

And every year, all over America, we celebrate these family executions with a joyous public spectacle.  It’s called National Adoption Day.  This year it’s happening on Nov. 18. 

You know the drill. Open the court on a Saturday, bring in ice cream, cake and balloons, finalize foster-child adoptions en masse – and reinforce every stereotype about how the system supposedly “rescues” children from horrible birth parents and places them with vastly superior adoptive parents.  The same judges who are supposed to decide impartially on termination cases often lead these celebrations.

            In 2020, when celebrations still often were virtual due to COVID, organizers of the Los Angeles County event added a particularly macabre 21st Century touch:  “A pool camera will be permitted at a pre-selected adoptive family’s home for coverage as the family’s virtual adoption ceremony takes place.”

  The whole spectacle also gets the courts and the local family policing agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare agency”) a guaranteed puff piece in the local newspaper celebrating what is, in reality, the aftermath of an execution.  And, of course, as with those other public executions, a disproportionate share of the families “executed” are Black. 

I’ve previously written that this day should be called National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day – since while "child welfare" systems always piously proclaim that their first goal is to reunify a family they’ve torn apart, the outcome that brings them true joy, the one they celebrate, is when that child, overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite, is adopted by someone who often is neither. 

Unlike some of my friends in the family preservation movement, I am not opposed to all involuntary adoptions of children taken from their parents.  I am not opposed to all terminations of parental rights.  On those very rare occasions where this is appropriate, I am not opposed to an adoptive family having a private, quiet celebration.  But each of these things should take place far less often than they do now.

 So in that sense, my previous column was too kind.  It said adoption was sometimes an appropriate second choice after reunification and sometimes the appropriate first choice.  In fact, adoption should be farther down on the list, after not only reunification but also guardianship and perhaps other options as well, such as tribal customary adoption, a practice used by some Native American tribes that might well be adaptable elsewhere.  And while a private celebration is one thing, it should never be a mass public spectacle – it rubs salt into too many open wounds, and not just for parents. 

Prof. Christopher Church, senior director of strategic consulting at Casey Family Programs, has argued that using the term “civil death penalty” to describe the terminations that come before the cake, ice cream and balloons actually understates the trauma to the child.  Horrible as it is to lose a parent to physical death, losing a parent to termination of parental rights can be worse. 

“When a child knows somebody is out there but they have no way of connecting to them, that is ‘ambiguous loss,’” Church said at a recent conference.  “That is a more complex trauma for children than death loss.  … Death is finality and [children] can comprehend that better.” 

Church also reminds us that before the joyous public spectacle there’s sometimes another ceremony, if you can call it that.  It’s called the “goodbye visit.”  Children are told they will never, ever see their parents again, and now they all must say goodbye.  No cake and balloons here; just tears and anguish. 

The children are not always saying goodbye just to their parents.  If one child is adopted and the others are not, the sibling bond is severed forever.  If a parent later has another child whom s/he is allowed to keep, the child who was adopted amid the ice cream and cake may never know that sibling – unless, when they are adults, they find some way to find each other. 

But hey, don’t let that spoil the party. 

I can imagine some readers thinking: But wait. We have to do this, don’t we?  After all, if a case goes to termination of parental rights, the parents must have been the worst of the worst, right? 

Wrong. The termination phase is as arbitrary, capricious and cruel as every other decision-point in child welfare.  As Prof. Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University of Michigan, has written: 

[C]ourts seem to terminate parental rights out of a sense of convenience. A child has been in foster care for 15 months, so let’s terminate. A foster parent prefers to adopt a child, so let’s terminate. A parent hasn’t fully complied with services, so let’s terminate. 

            Still another indication of what’s really behind termination cases can be seen in how different the outcomes are by age.  Among children torn from their parents during their first year of life, only 36% are reunified; 46% are adopted.  Then, year after year, reunification rates inch up almost every year until age 14. Nearly 54% of children taken at age 14 were reunified. 

            So are parents of infants vastly worse than parents of 14-year-olds?  Or do caseworkers have their own rescue fantasies triggered by a child about whom they can gush, “Awwww, he’s so cute!” 

            No, we don’t need adoption and the attendant spectacle of mass public family execution to give children “permanence.”  In fact, we don’t know how often adoption does that.  Child welfare systems don’t like to ask questions to which they don’t want to know the answers, so we don’t know how often, when, say, that cute baby becomes a teenager, the adoptive parents change their minds.  

            But even when the adoption doesn’t fall apart, and even when a child really can’t live safely with her or his own parents, the obsession with adoption still hurts children.  As Prof. Sankaran explains: 

Families, and the relationships within them, are far more enduring and resilient than we want to acknowledge. In our quest for legal permanence, we forget about a child’s need for relational permanence, often defined as a child’s lifelong connection with caring adults. For example, too often, we ratify adoptions with the hope of providing a child with a legally permanent home. But in doing so, we cut off the child’s ability to have permanent relationships with those who have – and will always – matter to him. A mother. A sibling. A grandparent. Hence the countless number of stories of adopted children searching for their kin.

           Other options, such a guardianship, don’t require a child to sacrifice any relationships. 

So this time, when National Adoption Day rolls around, remember that for some children and some young adults every mass adoption ceremony, every treacly feature story on the local news is an act of cruelty – ripping the scab off a wound that never fully heals. 

Again, that doesn’t mean adoption by strangers and termination of parental rights are always wrong.  But it needs to be moved much farther down on the list of options for children.  And while, on rare occasions, we still need to impose child welfare’s death penalty, can’t we at least have the decency to stop celebrating it? 

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending Nov. 14, 2023

● It’s hard to believe that family police agencies still go around “training” mandated reporters of “child abuse” to report anything and everything because if they’re wrong, it won’t do any harm.  In this essay, Prof. Kelley Fong, author of Investigating Families explains why they are so wrong. 

● Another key theme of Prof. Fong’s book is that mandatory reporting drives families away from seeking help.  Case in point: Stephanie Land, author of Maid and Class.  In an essay for The Washington Post called “The biggest fear of a parent in poverty: Being seen as neglectful” she writes: 

I couldn’t admit to her teacher or the principal that we sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. I was scared someone might report me to child protective services and I might lose custody. … Those times that we really struggled — when I went to bed exhausted, cold and hungry — I feared that someone would find out about us living in that awful studio apartment. I was scared they’d find out about the peanut butter sandwiches, or the mold in the walls that made us sick, and come and take my daughter away from me. And so we continued to struggle. 

● And yet, when a jury awarded the family in what is widely known as the “Take Care of Maya” case $261 million in damages for what a Florida hospital did to them, the hospital said it will appeal because it was simply doing what it was required to do – as mandated reporters!  If so, then it’s hard to imagine a better case for abolishing mandatory reporting.   Here’s the story from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which was the first to cover the case.  That story puts the damages at $211 million.  Those were the compensatory damages. Later the jury added $50 million in punitive damages.  And now, Maya Kowalski has filed a criminal complaint alleging that she was sexually assaulted while she was in the hospital.

For those unfamiliar with the case: 

● The best defense against these abuses is high-quality family defense for all families – from the moment the family police show up at the door.  Jey Rajaraman, now associate director of litigation, children and the law for the American Bar Association, talks about the pioneering “pre-petition” family defense program she led at Legal Services of New Jersey on The Imprint podcast. 

● A few years ago one community was so resistant to this kind of defense that after family defenders won a state grant to cover 100% of the cost, the politicians stepped in and turned it down.  Fortunately, Monroe County (metropolitan Rochester) New York, now has a better class of politician.  As a family defender told The Imprint, this time “county officials did not allow ‘fear-mongering to carry the day.’” 

● Public opinion about family policing is changing too – even when the people framing the questions for a public opinion poll don’t want it to.  I have a blog post about it. 

● The outstanding series of stories about what the family police in South Dakota are doing to Native American families continues in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and South Dakota Searchlight – with stories about how hard the family police make it for extended families to take in children and the strains on tribal child welfare. 

● Ever wonder why official figures for abuse in foster care are so much lower than what independent researchers find? This week’s installment of The Horror Stories Go in All Directions offers a clue.  WTVF-TV in Nashville reports that: 

Two whistleblowers at the Tennessee Department of Children's Services said top leaders within DCS ordered them to cover up dangerous conditions at homes where abused and neglected children are staying. 

A former and current DCS employee told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that Commissioner Margie Quin did not want written inspections of the homes because she was concerned about reports falling into the hands of the media.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Pushing back on a child welfare poll full of loaded questions

A new poll reveals that even when the questions are rigged, Americans are less likely to buy the snake oil the family police establishment has been selling.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and the Adoption and Safe Families Act
 have destroyed the lives of millions of children and families. 
But the "Bipartisan Policy Center" thinks they're models of a glorious era of bipartisanship.

Two new polls, one of them with questions that appear rigged to produce answers favorable to family policing, are bringing some good news to families, and some bad news to the family police. 

The polls make clear that even after growing up on decades of “health terrorism” – the exploitation of horror stories to misinform the public about who typically gets caught up in the system and why – the reality of family policing is starting to break through in the public mind. 

In this post I’ll look at the results, and at the group behind the poll with the loaded questions. 

The poll that wasn’t rigged 

Back in the 19th Century, the white racists who stole Native American children and forced them into hideous boarding schools, and tore apart impoverished immigrant families and forced the children onto so-called “orphan trains” grandly called themselves “child savers.”  So it’s hard to imagine that in the 21st Century there could be a group that actually calls itself “Kidsave.”  But there is.  And they commissioned a poll from Gallup, which appears to have been geared toward encouraging more Black families to foster and adopt. 

But the questions appear to be unbiased.  The results are broken down by Black adults and adults of all other races.  

It found that a majority of people of all races now recognize that the system is profoundly biased and doesn’t even try to keep families together.  And of course, the recognition is greater among those who, as a group, have had far more personal experience with that system.  Have a look:

The only good news for the family police came from the fact that, apparently, only a minority of respondents agreed with the statement “Overall, the foster care system harms more than helps the children in its care.”  But while Gallup reveals how many agreed with the statement, it doesn’t say how many disagreed.  Did the majority disagree or did the majority say some equivalent of no opinion / I don’t know. 

The poll that was rigged 

In politics they’re called “push polls” – polls in which the true objective is to sway voters using loaded or manipulative questions. 

Was that the intent of this poll done by Harris for a group calling itself the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) as part of its new child welfare initiative?  I don’t know.  But some of the questions sure sound like push polling. 

The poll was conducted as part of a BPC initiative that appears intended to thwart real change.  Indeed, the initiative’s home page explicitly states that they want to recreate the same bipartisanship that prompted Congress to pass two of the most hideous anti-family “child welfare” laws now on the books: the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and the Adoption and Safe Families Act.  

These laws have destroyed millions of lives.  

These laws have formed the foundation for a child welfare surveillance state that will subject more than one-third of all children, and more than half of Black children to the trauma of a child abuse investigation before they turn 18.  And almost always, it will be in response to a false report.  These laws have channeled millions into the lifelong emotional trauma inflicted by needless foster care.  One-quarter to one-third of them, and probably many more, will be subjected to abuse in foster care itself

And these laws have so overwhelmed the system with false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect that the system has little time to find the relatively few children in real danger. 

Equally revealing: The one excellent anti-racist law passed by Congress in the past 50 years is not celebrated by BPC. There is no mention of seeking to recapture the spirit of the Indian Child Welfare Act.  Even the current Supreme Court recognized the importance of ICWA, and the vote to uphold it was bipartisan! 

The bipartisanship of CAPTA and ASFA is the bipartisanship for which the Bipartisan Policy Center is nostalgic.  So of course they wring their hands about “polarization.”  But in this case, opposition to their agenda is not polarization – it’s families fighting back.  It’s foster youth refusing to be shut out and silenced.  It’s a refusal to label repression as consensus. 

The BPC’s initiative is an attempt to hold back the tide of change.  It is led by Rob Geen, who was a longtime apparatchik at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  His arrival coincided with a significant turn for the worse at Casey as it largely abandoned any concern about needless removal of children. (In contrast there already is a real bipartisan initiative pressing for real changes in family policing that would make all children safer.  It’s called United Family Advocates.

BPC is kicking off its initiative with what sure seems like a push poll.  It’s got lots of questions that stack the deck and encourage particular answers.  In question after question, they do this by embracing the Big Lie of American child welfare – the false claim that child safety and family preservation are opposites that need to be “balanced.”  According to the Big Lie, when the system falsely accuses families, traumatizes children with needless interrogations and stripsearches and forces them needlessly into foster care somehow only adults are harmed. 

Indeed, BPC’s publication releasing the poll results explicitly characterizes support for massive overinvestigation of families as “err[ing] on the safe side.”  On the contrary, the massive child welfare surveillance state built on the very laws BPC loves has made all children less safe. 

In spite of the rigged wording, discussed in detail below, the poll produced some extraordinary numbers: 

● By a wide majority, respondents believe children’s well-being is best ensured by “heavily favor[ing] parents' authority” rather than “heavily favoring the government’s interest in ensuring children’s well-being.”  (Notice the subtle stacking of the deck: The question is not balanced. It does not repeat the line about children’s well-being in the part favoring parents, only in the part favoring government.) 

● Americans are realizing that racial and class bias permeate family policing.  Sixty percent agree that “Too often, decisions on whether the child welfare system should intervene in families are influenced by racial biases.”  (That’s the figure for all of those surveyed.  So far, BPC has not  released any results broken down by race.)  And 73% agree that “Too often, decisions on whether the child welfare system should intervene in families are influenced by socioeconomic/poverty biases.” 

● And despite the best efforts of the pollsters and the Bipartisan Policy Center, Americans understand how harmful it is for children to be consigned to the chaos of foster care. 

The poll found that 39% of respondents “Heavily favor the system removing the child from their home, even if removal might not be absolutely necessary”   But 53% “Heavily favor the system keeping the child with their family, even if the risk of future harm is unclear.” 

Now, let’s consider the more flagrant examples of loaded questions: 

● Consider this muddled mess of a question that led to seemingly contradictory responses 

In your opinion, which of the following statements most closely reflects your position on how the U.S. child welfare system should work when deciding whether to investigate reports of abuse or neglect in these scenarios?

-- Investigate every report, even if that means that some parents might be investigated unnecessarily. 

-- Only investigate reports where there is compelling evidence that abuse or neglect has occurred, or is occurring, even if some legitimate reports aren't investigated.

 The question is framed to leave the false impression that only parents might be harmed by unnecessary investigations.  So, not surprisingly, when questioned this way, a strong majority favors investigating every report.   

But what would happen if the options were phrased this way? 

-- Investigate every report even if it leaves some children emotionally traumatized for life after being interrogated about the most intimate aspects of their lives – and then being stripsearched – while also overloading workers so they have less time to find children in real danger. 

-- Only investigate reports where there is compelling evidence that abuse and neglect has occurred or is occurring in order to spare children needless trauma and increase the odds that workers will find children in real danger before it’s too late. 

And here’s where it gets weird.  In spite of the stacked deck nature of the actual poll question, the BPC publication discussing the poll also notes what apparently was a response to another question.  Before the family police begin an investigation 

60% of Americans think that authorities should need reports detailing first-hand knowledge or a strong reason to suspect a child has been or is being harmed.

So according to this poll, before the family police launch an investigation, a  majority of Americans oppose requiring “compelling evidence that abuse or neglect has occurred” but favor requiring “first-hand knowledge or a strong reason to suspect a child has been or is being harmed.”  (And by the way, either of those would be a higher standard than child abuse hotlines apply today.) 

Another question once again tries to stack the deck: 

In an ideal world, which of the following statements most closely reflects your position on what the primary purpose of the child welfare system in this country should be?

They were given two options: 

44% said: 

Primarily protecting children at risk of abuse or neglect by their families. 

But 51% said: 

Primarily strengthening families' ability to care for their children.

So despite the false framing in which “protecting children” and “strengthening families” are presented as opposites, a majority wasn’t fooled.  A majority apparently understood that the primary way to protect children is strengthening families. 

But imagine how much greater the margin would be had the options been phrased honestly, and respondents had been asked if the system’s role should be 

Primarily protecting children at risk of abuse or neglect by investigating their families and removing the children 


Primarily protecting children at risk of abuse or neglect by strengthening their families. 

Why were the results here so different from the very similar question about investigations?  Perhaps because people don’t realize how traumatic investigations, in and of themselves, are for children.  In contrast, this question speaks of the entire “child welfare system,” which might conjure up visions of the harm of child removal. 

The question that was really about ASFA 

As you read about this next question, keep in mind that BPC specifically cites the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) as the kind of glorious achievement their new initiative hopes to replicate. 

● Another example of pushback against the push polling comes in a question about timelines.  With certain exceptions, ASFA requires states to seek termination of children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights) if they have been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months – no matter what the reason.  Even if the child never should have been taken in the first place.  Even if the family police agency did nothing real to help the family reunify.  

Congress was persuaded to pass this thanks to another Big Lie: the false claim that a vast family preservation conspiracy was forcing children to languish in foster care while the same agencies that took them away in the first place lavished chance after chance on horrible parents.  Impose strict timelines, they said, and all these children would be “freed” for adoption, taken in immediately by hordes of couples desperate to receive them and all would live happily ever after. 

None of it was true.  The primary purpose of ASFA was to encourage taking away more children.  One of those who claimed responsibility for writing ASFA, the late Richard Gelles, couldn’t resist gloating about this. In 2000 he told the New York City publication Child Welfare Watch: 

"Initially, this was just supposed to be a safe families bill, not really an adoption bill at all. The adoption component was a way of sanitizing the bill, to make it more appealing to a broader group of people. Adoption is a very popular concept in the country right now." 

In fact, not only was ASFA not responsible for reducing length of stay in foster care it may have impeded it.  ASFA also led to an increase in children aging out of foster care with no home at all, many of them legal orphans with no ties to their birth families and no magical adoptive home either. 

The best way to reduce time in foster care is to reduce it to zero by not taking children needlessly in the first place.  The next best way is to finally get serious about providing families with the concrete help they need to reunite.  

But BPC’s push poll-type question offers a false choice in keeping with the ASFA false narrative.  Respondents were asked: 

In your opinion, which of the following statements most closely reflects your position on how the U.S. foster care system should work when deciding how long parents should be given to address challenges? 

Heavily favor the system giving parents more time to address challenges and reunify with their children, even if it means that children spend more time in foster care. 

Heavily favor the system minimizing the amount of time that children remain in foster care, even if it means that parents and children are less likely to be reunited. 

Despite this loaded language, respondents weren’t hoodwinked.  By a remarkably strong majority 55 to 36% they favored “giving parents more time.” 

And what might have happened had the question been framed more honestly, with the options presented as: 

Heavily favor the system giving parents more time to address challenges and reunify with their children, because research shows children do best when they maintain ties to their families. 

Heavily favor the system minimizing the amount of time until termination of parental rights, even if it means children may become legal orphans with no ties to any family. 

They’re not evil, but they sure are sick! 

A key defense used by family policing agencies boils down to: You don’t understand.  We’re not police, we’re helpers!  We don’t think parents are evil (even though we gladly use horror stories about extremely rare cases where they are evil to stampede you into supporting us). No, we don’t think they’re evil, but they’re sick! Sick! Sick!  So we must be free to bestow upon them our counseling and parent education while we hold their children in foster care. 

This ugly, patronizing narrative pervades BPC’s and Harris’ discussion of the poll results.  And it’s straight out of the health terrorists’ playbook.  Compare: 

In the 1980s Prevent Child Abuse America, the group that admits to having practiced health terrorism – they even used the phrase – said this about neglect: 

“Whatever the causes of physical child neglect – and they are multiple – the heart of the problem is always an emotional lacking in the parents … The community and the caseworkers see parental behavior as the problem and they are, of course, right …

In 2023, here’s how BPC and Harris sum up the answers to one of their poll questions: 

While child abuse is largely seen as an outcome of parents who want to harm their child, there is more room for redemption and second chances for neglectful parents. 

Given this kind of framing, it’s amazing that, in another question, “parents lack of financial resources” makes it to #5 in the top five “contributors to child neglect.”  At no point are respondents asked if poverty is confused with neglect.  

The work still to be done 

After all those years of health terrorism, it’s remarkable that we’ve come so far.  But the poll still reveals how much work there is to be done.  Respondents believe the #1 contributor to neglect is “Parents who don’t want to care for their child” – almost exactly the message the health terrorists at PCAA were selling decades ago.  Number three, which will be music to the ears of the family policing establishment, is “Parents who are uninformed or uneducated about how to parent.”  

Majorities support family police investigation of almost anything bad that might happen to a child. But I’m betting all those respondents who said the family police should investigate “evidence of a child’s parent(s) abusing substances” weren’t thinking of the “cannamoms” of Massachusetts

Would they be so quick to call for investigation of any parent with substance use issues or mental health problems if they were told first that Betty Ford suffered from both

And would they be so quick to call for investigating any instance of domestic violence in the home if they knew that the threat of just such an investigation drives domestic violence victims away from seeking help and keeps them, and their children, trapped with the abuser? 

The only good news in this part of the poll is that a majority did not think homelessness was cause for a family police investigation. 

So if we really want to keep children safe, safe from abuse, safe from neglect, safe from needless investigation and safe from the enormous harm of needless foster care, we still have our work cut out for us – including fighting the misdirection from Rob Geen’s project at BPC and supporting the real bipartisan solutions coming from United Family Advocates

But I am heartened to see how far we have come.