Tuesday, January 30, 2024

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending January 30, 2024

● Twenty years ago, Youth Today revealed the stunning results of a study of Court-Appointed Special Advocates commissioned by the National CASA Association itself.  The study found that the program didn’t work.  The story concluded that National CASA’s desperate efforts to spin the findings “can border on duplicity.” 

Now, The Imprint has surveyed the research on CASA.  It finds no evidence that CASA works – and the most rigorous study finds it actually does harm.  And it does this harm at a cost of $477 million per year, most of it taxpayer funds.  Think of it: $477 million thrown away on a program that fails at best, does harm at worst.  That’s more than double total federal spending on the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. 

As for how CASA and its various chapters spin these findings – well, read the story for yourself. 

And we have more on CASA in our 2021 presentation to the Kempe Center international conference.

● Despite this dismal track record, CASA is explicitly included as an option for "representation" of children in court under the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.  Another egregious practice encouraged by CAPTA is mandatory reporting.  On this 50th Anniversary of the law's enactment, Dr. Mical Raz, author of Abusive Policies: How the American Child Welfare System Lost its Wayexplains in Time magazine why that should be repealed.

● In Rhode Island they just said the quiet part out loud.  If you’re still wondering why rampant abuse in residential treatment centers is allowed to continue year after year after year in state after state after state, check out what the Providence Journal reports the head of Rhode Island’s family police agency said when confronted about such abuse at St. Mary’s Home for Children: 

“We can’t lose this [bed] capacity,” she told members of the House Oversight Committee on Tuesday. It’s almost “like a too-big-to-fail situation.” 

The state Child Advocate, who exposed the huge problems, agrees!  

Here’s what’s been happening at the place they are so anxious to save: 

“Staff-on-child physical assault, youth stealing the program van, overdoses, a high number of AWOLs, neglect and an overwhelming number of responses by the North Providence Police Department.”
 Boston.com has more.  From the start of April through May 8, 2023: 

There were more than 20 calls to the CPS hotline, they found, including allegations of drug overdoses, sexual contact among the children, staff assaulting children, runaway children, and an overwhelming amount of police responses, the [Office of Child Advocate] said. 

One thing more about Rhode Island:  The reason they have a “bed capacity problem” is that they tear apart families at a rate 80% above the national average. 

● Remember when the county controller in Lehigh County, PA issued a scathing report on the misdiagnosis of child abuse by the local child abuse pediatrician?  Here’s a reminder from The Philadelphia Inquirer: 

Willow Feeney said she and her sister were placed in foster care after her mother was accused of falsifying their medical conditions. She told officials that her family is still traumatized by their experience. 

 “Growing up medically complex is a challenge in itself,” she said. “I was suddenly told that everything I felt wasn’t valid anymore. No matter how much I explained, I was told that I was wrong  and I was brainwashed.”

Now the update: Instead of action, the Morning Call reports, county officials and lawmakers have crawled into a bunker, retaliating against the controller and stalling any action.  I don’t know if she had Ms. Feeney in mind when one county lawmaker complained that “It all became emotional.” 

In Vital City, Prof. Jane Spinak, author of The End of Family Court, discusses why we need to end family court.  She has a blunt assessment of the arrogance at the heart of the notion that courts should not be real courts, from the original juvenile court in 1899 to the “problem-solving courts” of today: 

As long as family court judges continue to argue that only they can provide justice to families, we will continue to fail children and their families. 

In this week’s edition of The Horror Stories Go in All Directions.  

KOLD-TV Tucson reports that 

A man was sentenced to more than 200 years in prison for the sexual abuse of a child in his care. That is in addition to a current sentence 53-year-old Francisco Medina is serving from different cases.  Medina is a former foster parent who was convicted of six counts of sexual conduct with a minor under the age of 15, all class two felonies.  He was also convicted of molestation of a child, also a class two felony and a dangerous crime against children.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Backers of a bill that tries to legitimize hidden foster care in Virginia say it creates guardrails. On the contrary; it sends the rights of children and families careening off a cliff.

A judge in neighboring North Carolina says the same approach is unconstitutional, one county alone has paid more than $53 million to settle lawsuits and there even have been criminal charges.

There are two very important things to know about the process by which a child welfare agency removes a child from a parent and places that child with some other kinship caregiver.

  1. This process, known as kinship foster care, is usually the least harmful form of foster care.  
  2. But it’s still foster care.  Let me repeat that: 

Kinship care is foster care.

Kinship care is foster care.

Kinship care is foster care.

For a child, a journey that begins by being suddenly yanked out of the home, torn from parents and familiar surroundings and carried off, often in the middle of the night is severely traumatic – no matter where that journey ends.  Kinship foster care cushions the blow, but the harm of removal is still present.  

This bears repeating since the child welfare establishment here in Virginia has been doing a great job of hoodwinking lawmakers into thinking kinship foster care isn’t foster care.  They’re rushing to support a bill (HB 27/SB 39) that would, in fact, make things worse for children, parents and kinship caregivers alike.  The bill even has the Orwellian name Kinship as Foster Care Prevention Program. 

Even without the bill, this sleight-of-hand already exists in Virginia.  Virginia, like many states, has a shadow system of hidden foster care. Parents are coerced into “voluntarily” giving up the few due process protections they have and surrendering their children to the hidden foster care system. 

Essentially, these are blackmail placements.  The caseworker says: We want to take away your child.  You could fight us in court, where you’re entitled to free legal counsel if you’re indigent,  where federal law requires us to make reasonable efforts to keep your family together and where an actual judge decides if we can take your children away.  But if you do that and you lose – and you probably will - we’ll throw the kids in with total strangers and maybe split them up while we’re at it.   On the other hand, if you give up all those rights and let us do whatever we damn well please, we promise that we’ll place them with Grandma.   

Nationwide, there may well be as many children in these blackmail placements as there are in official foster care.  In Virginia, the proportion in hidden foster care is probably even higher 

The Virginia bill changes almost nothing – except to try to give the whole practice a patina of legitimacy.  Proponents say over and over that the law adds “guardrails” to the hidden foster care process.  On the contrary, the law would send the rights of children, families, and kinship foster caregivers careening over a cliff. 

Under the terms of HB 27/SB 39: 

● Child welfare agencies remain free to bypass even the most minimal due process protections.  They don’t have to make “reasonable efforts” – in fact, the bill as written fails to require these agencies to make any effort – to prevent placement or to reunify the family.  No lawyer gets to fight the decision, no judge gets to review it. 

● The bill says families must be notified of their right to consult a lawyer.  But there is no funding to pay for those lawyers if the family is indigent – and they’re almost always indigent.  (Proponents point to a separate bill to provide such counsel – but there’s no guarantee it will pass, it’s not clear when it would take effect if it does pass, or whether there would  be enough funding to cover the entire state.) 

● Proponents say the placements are “voluntary.”  It’s claims like that which explain why I so often
invoke Orwell in these blog posts, though in this case, The Godfather seems more appropriate: It’s the ultimate example of an offer you can’t refuse.

● Proponents point to time limits: The placements can last 90 days – oh, wait, that’s 90 days and then, if we feel like it, we’ll add another 90 days – “voluntarily,” of course.  But for young children, time passes far more slowly than for adults – six months can be agony.  For a newborn taken at birth – it’s a lifetime. In fact, 180 days actually is longer than 21% of Virginia placements made through the formal court process.   

And that assumes the child will even come home.  After those 180 days, the child welfare agency still can go to court and demand an official placement – they even can point to the fact that the child was out of the home all that time as evidence of supposed “unfitness.” And all of that time, 3-6 months can be tacked on as a fast track to termination of parental rights.  

● Proponents say the bill would make kinship foster care placements easier.  Easier than what?  It’s just as easy to make a kinship foster care placement by going to the judge and saying: “Your honor, we want to place this child with grandma.”  That Virginia may have close to the worst record in America for doing it this way –  at best, only 12% of official foster care placements are with kin -- simply reflects Virginia’s addiction to hidden foster care.  Other states and localities have no problem. 

Nationwide 35% of foster children are placed with relatives – the formal, legal, on-the-books way.  In Montana, it’s 40%.  In Illinois 45%.  In Arizona 53%.  The County-run systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh place more than half their foster children with relatives – without sacrificing due process or taking any other shortcuts.  This bill only makes foster care placements easier than not taking children needlessly in the first place; because there is no lawyer fighting for the family and no requirement to make reasonable efforts. 

● The bill confers no benefits on kinship caregivers and it may cost them.  They won’t be paid any additional funds.  But they will be subjected to additional, often onerous surveillance by child protective services agencies.  Depending on the specific case, kinship caregivers may lose out on benefits to which they might be entitled if a placement is court-ordered. 

Oh, and two things more: 

● Hidden foster care is unconstitutional.  A judge ruled it unconstitutional in North Carolina.  One county alone in that state has had to pay $53 million in damages to settle dozens of lawsuits.  There even have been criminal charges.  The Virginia bill won’t fix these issues. You can’t make an unconstitutional practice constitutional by passing a law. 

So why push for a law that doesn’t benefit children, doesn’t benefit families, and doesn’t benefit kinship care providers?  Because of the one group it does benefit: The Virginia Department of Social Services and county child welfare agencies.  With hidden foster care, they don’t have to deal with all that pesky due process, and they can mislead the public about the true extent to which they take away children.

Indeed, Virginia’s Commissioner of Social Services, Danny Avula, seemed to brag about doing just that. 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.] 

And finally, one last point: 

Foster care is traumatic.  Kinship care is foster care.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending January 23, 2024

Before the news, check out this big event on January 31.  There's an in-person and a virtual option for the Congressional Briefing and you can register here: bit.ly/50YearsRepealCapta 

And now the news:

The Imprint has a story that covers both the good California Supreme Court decision I wrote about for WitnessLA and a terrible bill proposed in Washington State that is essentially a throwback to the “crack baby” hysteria of the 1980s. The good news: Until recently, such a bill would have sailed through almost any state legislature in America nearly unanimously.  But people are learning, and this time, there’s some real opposition. 

Westword examines Colorado’s task force studying mandatory child abuse reporting laws – including NCCPR’s perspective, that while the Task Force has done far better than any other or it’s kind, that’s a low bar.  I have more about that here.  The story confirms that the Task Force is not even considering the one recommendation that would make a huge difference: abolishing mandatory reporting entirely.

WitnessLA perfectly sums up the harm of mandatory reporting laws in a story that begins this way: 

Mandated reporting laws have led to a flood of calls to report suspected child abuse and neglect, burying calls about kids who are in critical danger, while subjecting many more families whose children are safe to unnecessary surveillance and separation. 

Gothamist has real news about what should be called fake Miranda rights – the notices that New York City’s family police agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, will give parents when ACS caseworkers pound on their doors. Among other problems, unlike proposed state legislation, ACS’s misleading notices will tell families some of their rights – but not all of them.  

But my favorite part of the story is where ACS Commissioner Jess Dannhauser objects to a provision in the state bill which would require his caseworkers to inform families, Miranda-style that “anything can be used against you in a court of law” because that “might increase fear.” 

Right. Because there’s nothing to fear from a government agency that can march into your home, stripsearch your kids and take them away from you on-the-spot!

Sunday, January 21, 2024

NCCPR in the Arizona Mirror: No, sex-trafficking satanists have not infested DCS. The real problems are way worse.

Here’s the good news: Contrary to what one state legislator seems to believe, the Arizona Department of Child Safety is not in the grip of a global satanic sex trafficking cabal. Here’s the bad news: The real problems at DCS are way worse. 

If it were just a few satanists in high places, all we’d have to do is weed them out.  But the real problems at DCS are rooted in a culture that has plagued the mostly well-meaning people working in Arizona child welfare for decades: the false assumption that child removal equals child safety.  The result is a system that makes all Arizona children less safe. … 

Read the full column in the Arizona Mirror

Thursday, January 18, 2024

NCCPR news and commentary roundup week ending January 18, 2024

You hear it from family police agencies all the time: We never take children because of poverty alone.  This investigative report from WABE Public Radio in Atlanta and ProPublica could have been called: Like hell they don’t!  It documents hundreds of cases in which Georgia family police tore apart families for lack of housing – and nothing else.  Read it and watch how, paragraph after paragraph, the madness of the system unfolds. 

There’s the caseworker who probably didn’t even know she was admitting her agency routinely violates federal law requiring “reasonable efforts” to keep families together, when she seemed to be telling the mother at the center of the story that the agency isn’t obligated to do a damn thing. 

Or the judge who wouldn’t return the children because “these children have lived in unstable living arrangements long enough” – dooming the children to be split from each other into separate foster homes, moved from placement to placement to the point that two of them had to spend a night in a family police agency office. 

Or if the harm to children isn’t enough, there’s the fact that taxpayers are spending vastly more on foster care than it would cost to just provide the housing.  And not just Georgia taxpayers.  If the case is eligible for federal aid, and it probably is, we all paid to wreak havoc on this family. 

● Hope this isn’t a spoiler, but the best part of a Texas Monthly story about that long-running McLawsuit against the state’s horrific foster care system comes at the end.  The plaintiffs want to put the Texas system into receivership.  That almost never happens, so the Texas Monthly reporter thought it would be a good idea to check with a family law expert who’s actually seen one.  From the story: 

Matthew Fraidin, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, watched receivership play out in the Washington, D.C., foster care system, following a lawsuit similar to the one in Texas. Six years of federal oversight there produced scandal and mixed results. Many argued that the foster care system was in no better shape after the federal takeover. The case ended in 2021, after more than thirty years. The only real change came, Fraidin argues, once the district focused on removing fewer children from their homes to limit the size of the foster care system. About a decade ago, his law students represented parents whose children were removed to foster care, he says, “and in sixty percent of the cases they were returned home without ever being found abused or neglected.” 

In Texas, that hasn’t been part of the reforms Jack has ordered, but Fraidin says it may be the only way out of the quagmire. Lawsuits like the one before Jack “are doomed to leave agencies as bureaucracies that are focused on the wrong thing.” 

● In Arizona, NCCPR explains in the AZ Mirror, it’s a good news, bad news story: 

Here’s the good news: Contrary to what one state legislator seems to believe, the Arizona Department of Child Safety is not in the grip of a global satanic sex trafficking cabal. Here’s the bad news: The real problems at DCS are way worse. 

● NCCPR has released a new Issue Paper.  It’s all about the enormous harm of mandatory child abuse reporting laws. 

● Last week’s round-up included a news story about a surprising report from a commission studying those laws.  I have a blog post about it. 

● And private foster care agencies in New York are trying to sucker the State Legislature into giving them a $200 million bailout.  No clickbait here; you absolutely will believe why they say they need it.  It’s in this blog post. 

In this week’s edition of The Horror Stories Go in All Directions: 

The Sacramento Bee has an update on the tragic death of a child in an Arizona group home. 

And WJAR-TV in Providence has an update on that scathing report on conditions at a residential treatment center in Rhode Island.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

NY foster care agencies are being sued by survivors of horrific abuse. Their response: Taxpayers should bail us out!

Agencies that have failed kids for more than 100 years say they’re too big to fail. 

And why did the CEO of the agency that runs the notorious Pleasantville Cottage School get nearly $700,000 in compensation in 2022? 

It's been nearly 50 years since the New York Daily News series "Big Money, Little Victims"
exposed the power and the greed of private "child welfare" agencies, and abuse in their foster homes
and institutions.  Now, those "Little Victims" are all grown up - and some of them are suing.

George Orwell had a term for the ability to simultaneously accept two conflicting beliefs as truth.  He called it “doublethink.”  Here’s a perfect example: 

Our private foster care agencies are so wonderful, so essential to the public good that we absolutely must get a taxpayer bailout – so we can pay damages to the huge numbers of children abused for decades in our foster homes and institutions! 

Private agencies in New York State are trying to sucker the State Legislature into believing just that.  Not content with sponging off taxpayers for decades, to the tune of, on average, 90% of their income, now they’re demanding even more, in order to avoid true accountability for decades of horrific abuse. 

It’s all come about because, like other states, New York extended the statute of limitations for victims of child abuse to sue their abusers.  The primary target was predator priests, but lo’ and behold, more than 1,500 suits have been brought against the private agencies that run the group homes and institutions and, especially in New York City, oversee private foster homes as well.  

Their power is diminished from their heyday when, with boards of directors drawn from deep in the city’s business, civic and religious elite, they could say “Jump!” and public officials were expected to say “How high?” (For an excellent description of that heyday see Nina Bernstein’s masterpiece The Lost Children of Wilder.) But in the city, these agencies still are the foster care system.  They have been that system for more than 160 years – at least since Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1852. 

That so many lawsuits would be directed against these agencies should come as no surprise.  As I told the Albany Times Union, which first pointed this out in 2020, predators go where the prey is. 

New York is not alone.  After California passed similar legislation, the Los Angeles Times reported that in Los Angeles alone, 

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. 

But instead of responding by promising to clean up their acts once and for all (an impossible promise to keep in any event for reasons discussed below) the New York agencies are demanding that they be insulated from true accountability.  They say they’re not just too big, but too pure too noble and just too all-around-wonderful to fail and terrible things will happen if the rest of us don’t bail them out.  

In other words: We’re in danger of going out of business because we were the site of decades of horrendous child abuse, but we’re so wonderful we should get a taxpayer bailout so we don’t go out of business after being the site of decades of horrendous child abuse.  Doublethink. 

The agencies are demanding special help to get insurance, and $200 million from state taxpayers to pay what insurance doesn’t cover. (The fund also would be available for public school districts.) Where, then, is the incentive for these agencies to finally put a halt, or at least curb, all that abuse of children in their care?  

The New York agencies aren’t alone. Indiana agencies sought a law giving them immunity from most lawsuits by abuse survivors – and they almost got it, until the Indianapolis Star revealed what they were up to. 

“An industry-wide problem” 

It’s not as if the people running these agencies can say that, after all, the abuses were all in the past and we’ve fixed everything now.  On the contrary, not a week goes by without an expose of horrific abuse at some group home or residential treatment center somewhere in America. 

The Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer at the Devereux residential McTreatment chain accidentally gave away the game when speaking not decades ago but in 2020, after the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed rampant abuse in Devereux facilities.  Said Leah Yaw: 

“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." 

And like any other industry, the foster care industrial complex needs to be held fully accountable when children are abused in its homes and institutions. 

Want a New York example? Take Pleasantville Cottage School – please. 

The Times-Union story begins with a 13-year-old boy who says he was sexually abused by a teacher there in the early 1980s.  The abuser “told me that he had the power of whether I go home to my mother or not,” the survivor said.  His is one of at least 10 lawsuits just against Pleasantville, involving abuse dating back as far as 1973. 

Then there was that time in the 1990s, when a 13-year-old at Pleasantville strangled another child to death. 

Then in 2002, a counselor was horrendously beaten and tortured for an hour, and, as Newsweek reported, “four boys tried to sodomize a fellow resident with a cucumber, two boys stole a school car and caused two accidents during their joyride, and another boy was charged with sexual misconduct.”  

And that was just in a single week. 

So, how have things been going lately? The online news site The City reports that 

“In 2019 … a young man on campus was paralyzed after being restrained by program staff and died a year later, according to Mount Pleasant Police Chief Paul Oliva. … Residents also regularly get into fights, break windows, assault staff and threaten to hurt themselves or someone else, police records show.” 

It's always someone else's fault

Of course, the people who run Pleasantville Cottage School have an excuse for all this – because remember, nothing that goes wrong at a residential treatment center is ever the fault of the residential treatment center.  No, it’s the kids' fault! 

Before I explain, please keep something in mind: Over and over again the excuse RTCs offer up for their existence is that they take the most difficult children – the ones who are so very, very difficult that no family could possibly handle them so they have to be institutionalized. 

This is not true. There is nothing an RTC does that can’t be done better and at lower cost with Wrapraround services brought directly into a child’s own home or a foster home.  But I mention this now because, confronted with the huge problems at Pleasantville Cottage School the director of the institution’s parent agency, a former head of New York City’s family police agency, Ron Richter, says, wait for it: The kids are too difficult!  

You see, they claim, it’s all because in 2014 former Gov. Andrew Cuomo cut back on inpatient state psychiatric beds, so these too-difficult-to-handle young people wound up at Pleasantville and similar institutions. 

Sadly, The City, usually a savvy news organization, believed Richter’s whole party line. -- even though the same institution made the same excuse in 2002 – twelve years before the cutbacks they blame now. 

In fact, the Times Union reports, the Pleasantville Cottage School counselor who made precisely that excuse to the equally credulous New York Times in 2002 has now been named as an alleged sex abuser in a Child Victims Act lawsuit! The survivor alleges that the counselor, whom she says is now dead, repeatedly raped her during the 1970s.  When she eventually worked up the courage to tell the then-CEO of Pleasantville Cottage School in the 1990s, she says, “he swept it under the rug.” 

But, if Pleasantville and all the other New York agencies are to be believed, they are the real victims, and they need a taxpayer bailout. 

Their argument boils down to: If we don’t get the extra money we’ll go out of business, all our wonderful services will end and all our employees will be out of work.  

Only the first part might be true.  

The rest is just a testament to their own arrogance: the bizarre assumption that no one else can run a foster care agency.  Obviously, someone is going to have to oversee the foster homes and, if we insist on having them, group homes and institutions – though, one hopes, this will be seen as an opportunity to phase the latter out, since they are demonstrably unnecessary. 

The reason abusive institutions can’t be fixed is that abuse is baked into the model. To understand why, imagine if we were starting from scratch.  Suppose somebody said: I have a great idea!  Let’s take a whole bunch of children who have been traumatized, either by what happened to them in their homes, or by being removed from their homes or both, all of them strangers to each other, and put them all together 24/7 right at the age when they are most vulnerable to peer pressure – and to predators.  What could possibly go wrong?  

Yet that’s what we’ve done.  But now we have a chance to do better.  The prospect of these old-line agencies going out of business is not something to be feared; it’s an opportunity to be seized and a cause to rejoice: It’s a chance to start over and build a system that is not dependent on institutionalizing children. 

If, as a result, the well-paid leaders of these agencies have to leave, (Richter alone pulled down more than half a million dollars in compensation in 2021 – and then got more than 30% more -- nearly $700,000, in 2022!) the message to them should be: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.  

From ProPublica's Nonprofit Explorer

I’m not saying government actually will seize this opportunity.  I’m not saying they, or some new private entities would do it any better.  A large chunk of what Los Angeles may have to pay is thanks to that government-run hellhole MacLaren Hall, which closed in 2003. But it would be hard for anyone to do worse. 

And to the extent that there may be any visionaries willing to try, now’s a good chance. 

The harm done by New York’s big, old-line foster care agencies is nothing new.  In May 1975, the New York Daily News exposed them in a multi-part series.  It exposed not only the abuse but also how the agencies at that time were prolonging children’s time in foster care – because they were reimbursed for every day they held a child in their “care.”  I read that series a few months before starting Journalism school.  The stories started me on a nearly 50-year journey first as a reporter, now as an advocate. 

The series was called “Big Money, Little Victims.”  Today, some of the little victims are grown up.  Nothing can ever really compensate them for what they endured.  But they have a right to some of that big money.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Colorado shows how to get a task force on mandatory child abuse reporting – less wrong

The Colorado State Capitol

 In a surprising interim report, the task force says step one is narrowing definitions of abuse and neglect so they’re not conflated with poverty.


 The Task Force has agreed that it must first address Colorado’s current definition of child abuse and neglect. … Colorado’s current definition of abuse and neglect is too broad and conflates several circumstances – such as poverty – with child abuse. Without first addressing the definition of abuse and neglect, the Task Force cannot meaningfully recommend changes to the current mandatory reporting system or law.

--Interim Report of the Colorado Mandatory Reporting Task Force

 All over the country, there’s a knee-jerk response to a horror story that in any way may have involved a failure by someone to report child abuse: The state legislature rushes to expand which professionals are forced to report any suspicion of “child abuse” or “neglect.” (Except, of course, in the 18 states where these laws already apply to everyone.  In those states all lawmakers can do is further expand what must be reported.) 

As the research summarized in NCCPR’s new Issue Paper makes clear, this has backfired – creating a massive child welfare surveillance state that scares families away from seeking help, overloads the system with false reports, trivial cases and poverty cases, and leaves workers even less time to find the few children in real danger.  In other words, mandatory reporting makes all children less safe. 

When legislatures don’t actually expand mandatory reporting themselves, they create a committee/task force/commission or maybe even a blue ribbon commission to tell them how to do it.  The committee/task force/commission spends a year or two on a report that does just that. 

That was the original plan in Massachusetts.  The state’s most fanatical advocate for a take-the-child-and-run approach, state “Child Advocate” Maria Mossaides, was named to chair a commission on mandatory reporting.  She led the commission by the nose, let them hear only what she wanted them to hear, until, finally, she had to hold a public hearing.  Almost every witness told the Commission it was on the wrong track, and should recommend curbing or abolishing mandatory reporting instead of expanding it.  Having finally heard what Mossaides didn’t want them to hear, Commission members said they were “shocked” “surprised” and “taken aback.”  They wound up recommending nothing. 

Then it was Colorado’s turn.  It seems everyone in Colorado learned from Massachusetts’ mistakes – but no one learned quite enough. 

First, the good news 

The learning curve begins with the Colorado Legislature, which included in its charge to the Colorado Mandated Reporter Task Force a requirement to examine how implicit bias in mandatory reporting disproportionately affects families of color, people with disabilities and under-resourced communities. 

It continued with the chair of the Colorado Task Force, Mossaides’ Colorado counterpart, Stephane Villafuerte, the state’s “Child Protection Ombudsman.”  I’ve been quite critical of Villafuerte in the past, both concerning a different task force she chairs, on residential treatment, and her office’s previous work concerning mandatory reporting.  But this time, to her credit, she exposed the commission members to a full range of viewpoints. 

Yes, they heard from the usual suspects, such as Casey Family Programs and Colorado’s own Kempe Center.  But they also heard from Jerry Milner, once the federal government’s highest-ranking official overseeing child welfare, now co-founder of the Family Justice Group, and someone who has emerged as a leading opponent of the vast overreach of the current system.  They also heard from Prof. Kelley Fong, whose landmark book Investigating Families has quickly emerged as the gold standard for research in this field. 

Given that the Task Force heard from the full range of viewpoints, it shouldn’t have been a shock when
the Task Force concluded it would be a terrible idea to expand who must report and when they must report it until the Legislature first narrows down what it is they should report.  So the Task Force is actually going to put the horse before the cart and first address how to do that.  As the interim report explains: 

Colorado’s current definition of abuse and neglect is too broad and conflates several circumstances – such as poverty – with child abuse. This effectively requires mandatory reporters to report circumstances that may not involve the safety or well-being of children.

The Task Force also will be looking into two other areas that have the potential to lead to constructive recommendations: 

The development of warmlines and alternative reporting methods. 

This could be useful if these alternatives lead to places in no way connected with family police agencies, and if any mandated reporter who takes advantage of these alternatives is immune from any penalty for “failure to report.” (In other words, if these alternatives provide an off-ramp from the mandatory reporting expressway.) 

Consideration of possible exemptions for professionals working with legal representation teams and/or victims of domestic violence or sexual violence. 

Survivors of domestic violence are among those most adversely affected by mandatory reporting. Some survivors, usually mothers, are scared away from leaving their abusers for fear that their children will be taken away because they “failed to protect” the children from seeing them being beaten.  Yes, that really happens

And, obviously, the effectiveness of a social worker working with a family defense attorney to, say, craft an alternative to the cookie-cutter “service plans” typically issued by family police agencies is limited if they are, themselves, mandatory reporters. 

Now the bad news 

When it comes to mandatory reporting nibbling around the edges isn’t going to accomplish much.  Narrowing definitions is a good idea, but mandatory reporters are still going to be afraid not to report.  Exempting some professionals will still leave most professionals required to report and afraid to do anything else. 

When it comes to mandatory reporting, the most meaningful solution, by far, is to abolish it.  Abolishing mandatory reporting does not mean abolishing reporting; it would simply free professionals to exercise their professional judgment – and send a vital message that every family problem is not a family policing problem.  

Although the Colorado Legislature clearly didn’t contemplate this, the Task Force is free to give lawmakers whatever advice it pleases.  But, while not nearly as bad as Mossaides, Villafuerte appears to have foreclosed this option. 

The Legislature also appeared obsessed with promoting the least helpful solution of all – that all-purpose family policing establishment cop-out: more “training.”  But even if a few hours of “training” could magically cure a lifetime of biases, it still wouldn’t solve the problem of mandated reporters being afraid not to report.  

But at least the Colorado Task Force might get some people to think twice about mandatory reporting.  In most states, they’re not even thinking once.

For more on mandatory reporting in general, and the Colorado Task Force in particular, see this excellent story.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

NCCPR's new Issue Paper: The Failure of Mandatory Reporting

Last week NCCPR published its first entirely new Issue Paper in 15 years.  We pull together in summary form, with links to sources, the ugly history and enormous harm of mandatory "child abuse" reporting laws.  It's available on our website, or you can read it right here:


Before termination of children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than “termination of parental rights”), before children are torn from the arms of their families and consigned to the chaos of foster care, before someone from the family police agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agency) pounds on the door in the middle of the night, demands entry, interrogates and sometimes stripsearches the children as part of a traumatic investigation – before any of that, there is a call to a child abuse “hotline.” 

In rare cases there is good reason to make that call.  In many more cases, there is not.  And in some cases the people who make these calls know how much harm they will do, but feel they have no choice.  Because they are “mandated reporters.” 

Every state has a law requiring most professionals who work with children to report any suspicion of “child abuse” or “child neglect.”  In 18 states all adults are mandatory reporters.  

These laws are not evidence-based.  They were rushed into place more than 50 years ago, evidence-be-damned.  Nobody did any studies before putting them into place.  Mandatory reporting was a well-intended guess, born of hype and fearmongering.  We guessed wrong, with terrible consequences for children.  These are some of the consequences: 

● Even the original proponents of mandatory reporting didn’t call for what we have now. Rather they wanted a narrow requirement in which a few health professionals would be required to report suspicions of sexual abuse or abuse causing serious physical injuries.  But today, of every 100 calls to hotlines – most of which are made by mandated reporters – 97 turn out not to be “substantiated” cases of sexual abuse or any form of physical abuse.  

Instead of a way of targeting horrendous cases of abuse, mandatory reporting metastasized into the foundation of a giant child welfare surveillance state, with disastrous consequences.  Today more than one-third of all children, and more than half of Black children will be forced to endure the trauma of a child abuse investigation before they turn 18. 

● That has made all children less safe.  In addition to the trauma inflicted on children forced to undergo interrogations and stripsearches, caseworkers are drowning in false reports, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect, leaving them even less time to find the few children in real danger.  As one study explained:  “more reports made but without sufficient evidence can divert valuable but limited resources from endangered children who are actually in need of protection.” 

So it’s no wonder that in the years since mandatory reporting was enacted child abuse deaths have increased – and states in which the rate of reporting is lower have proportionately no more child abuse deaths than where the rate is higher.  As Dr. Richard Krugman, former director of the C. Henry Kempe National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect, said of this approach: “Doing the same thing for 40 years that doesn't seem (or can't be shown) to be working was someone's definition of insanity.” 

● Mandatory reporting laws terrify impoverished families, driving them away from seeking help.  As Stephane Land, author of Maid and Class writes about her years of poverty: 

“I couldn’t admit to [my child’s] 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.”
And rather than face clandestine drug testing and suspicion from medical professionals who are mandatory reporters, pregnant people stay away from prenatal care and giving birth in hospitals. 

● Mandatory reporting is where the racial bias that permeates family policing begins.  Mandatory reporters are more likely to suspect abuse or neglect if a family is nonwhite – even when everything else is identical.  

● Among those who suffer most: Children of domestic violence victims.  Terrified that their children will be taken under laws labeling them bad parents for “allowing” their children to see them being beaten, a national survey found that domestic violence survivors fear seeking help – often for good reason.  As one mother said, after exactly that happened: “I should have just let my ex-husband beat my ass.” 


● 1983: Dr. Eli Newberger of Children’s Hospital in Boston writes that "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." 

● 1998: The National Research Council concludes that “Mandatory reporting requirements were adopted without evidence of their effectiveness; no reliable study has yet demonstrated their positive or negative effects on the health and well-being of children at risk of maltreatment, their parents and caregivers and service providers.” (As we’ve seen, in the years since, studies have shown that the effects of mandatory reporting are overwhelmingly negative.)

● 2011: In the wake of the scandal involving former Penn State football coach (and former foster parent and group home operator) Jerry Sandusky, there are calls to vastly expand mandated reporting.  But another one-time proponent of these laws, Prof. David Finkelhor says: "Maybe it's better that people use discretion ... If everybody obeyed the letter of the law and reported a suspicion of abuse, the agencies would be completely overwhelmed with reports." 


First of all, “training” is not enough.  “More training” is the all-purpose cop-out the family police always propose to avoid real change.  True most existing training is horrendous – in fact, it’s not really training at all, just never-ending exhortations to report! Report! Report!  But even less awful training, as has been initiated in New York State, can accomplish very little.  That’s because, while there are no penalties for false reports if made in “good faith,” there are civil and criminal penalties for failure to report.  So mandated reporters make “CYA referrals.”  

Here's what should be done: 

● Abolish mandatory reporting.  Abolishing mandatory reporting does not mean abolishing reporting.  Professionals would remain free to exercise their professional judgment and report when they felt it was genuinely necessary.  

● Provide an “off-ramp.”  If states are unwilling to repeal mandatory reporting outright, they should at least provide an alternative to professionals who prefer to be what activist Joyce McMillan calls mandatory supporters instead of mandatory reporters.  So, for example, a teacher who made sure a hungry child got food, or a child without warm clothing in the winter got clothing would be relieved of any obligation to confuse that child’s poverty with neglect by calling a child abuse hotline. 

● At a minimum, exempt witnessing domestic violence from grounds to report “child abuse” or “neglect” and exempt professionals who primarily deal with domestic violence survivors from mandatory reporting requirements.