Thursday, February 29, 2024

NCCPR in The Lexington Herald-Leader: From Ian Sousis to Dovia Pernell, Ky Cabinet’s failures lead to tragedy

A year-and-a-half ago on these pages, I wrote about the tragic deaths of two children who had been institutionalized by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, only to die while in the agency’s care. Here’s what I wrote about nine-year-old Ian Sousis, who drowned in the Ohio River after running away from a “residential treatment center.” 

His grandparents had custody since he was an infant. As a toddler, he was diagnosed with autism. No matter where he was, he ran away a lot. All the grandparents needed was therapy for the child and help to be sure he was never out of someone’s sight. Had they been rich they easily could have purchased both. But they’re not rich. So they had to turn to the Cabinet … which offered no alternatives except institutions – and took control of where Ian would live. 

Here’s how much Kentucky officials learned from that tragedy: 

Read the full column in the Herald-Leader

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending February 27, 2024

● Last week’s round-up began with the New York Times story about a landmark lawsuit against the New York City family police agency, the Administration for Children’s Services.  The lawsuit challenges what NCCPR President Prof. Martin Guggenheim calls “ACS’s widespread practice of engaging in lawless home invasions that terrorize parents and children.”  The lawsuit is so important (and so well-written) that there have since been at least ten other news stories.  I have links to all of them and an analysis of some of the news coverage in this NCCPR Blog post.  And in this post, I simply reprint the opening section of the lawsuit complaint – because it’s that well-written. 

Also in New York: 

The 19th takes an in-depth look at a case that is a prime example of how ACS abuses families.  

● The city’s family defense providers show, in a New York Daily News op-ed why all of this illustrates the urgency of passing “family Miranda” legislation. 

Elsewhere: 

On the EPPiC podcast Prof. Kelley Fong discusses her book, Investigating Families, including how families learn to “play the game” and tell the family police what they want to hear. 

● In The Grio, Shereen White, director of advocacy and policy at Children’s Rights, and Prof. Shanta Trivedi, faculty director of the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts at the University of Baltimore School of Law, write about the need to repeal the law that did so much to get us into this mess, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. 

As we honor Black history this February, we look back at a decades-old law that remains, to this day, a blight on generations of Black families. … One of the consequences of [CAPTA’s requirement for] mandated reporting is that it can discourage a family or parent from seeking help or punish them if they do. 

Consider a parent who is facing violence in the home, is struggling to afford food for their children, or, like many in this country, is unable to find affordable, livable housing. Often, when these parents reach out — going to the hospital for example or seeking therapy — that nurse or therapist whose trusted expertise they desperately need, is required under law to report suspected abuse or neglect in the home. That report can then lead to intervention by Child Protective Services (CPS), invasive interviews, threats of child removals and potentially, and most devastatingly, removal of a child from a caring parent. 

● Here’s the good news: 31 states have taken advantage of a change in federal funding rules that provides some reimbursement for lawyers for children and families.  Here’s the bad news: 19 states and Washington, D.C. have not.  This story in The Imprint has a chart so you can see where your state stands. 

As the story explains: 

Jey Rajaraman, a longtime parent defender who’s now an associate director of the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law, sees the new funding as part of a larger shift nationwide in the approach to high-stakes child welfare cases. There is an increasing understanding in the field that accusations of poverty-related neglect drives the majority of foster care removals — not severe physical or sexual abuse — and that children are best served with added supportive services within their families. 

● In Massachusetts, the Boston Globe reports, former foster youth who were harmed when they were torn from their homes protested at the State Capitol.  They are demanding a say in choosing the next leader of the state’s family police agency, the Department of Children and Families. 

The protest was led by Family Matters First.  The group’s executive director is Tatiana Rodriguez.  As the story explains: 

Rodriguez’s passion for reforming DCF stems from her own experience in foster care. As a child, she reported drug use in her home to the child welfare agency with the hope it would improve her situation. Instead, she said, she was placed with a foster family. The process, she said, eventually severed her not just from her birth family but also from her culture and community for most of her teenage years. 

“I was with a white family,” she said. “I missed my Spanish food, my traditions.” 

● When Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley exposed abuses by a local “child abuse pediatrician” officials seemed far more interested in silencing him than in doing anything about what he exposed.  Now, the Allentown Morning Call reports, he’s seeking an independent investigation.  NCCPR agrees and is cited in the story. 

● The Family Justice Resource Center specializes in exposing the abuses of these doctors and helping families fight back.  They’ve just issued this comprehensive toolkit.

● Perhaps you remember the tragic death of Ma’Khia Bryant, taken from family in Columbus, Ohio because they lacked adequate housing, only to be killed by a police officer after a fight at her group home.  Now, with comment from NCCPR, the Columbus Dispatch reports on another tragedy with some disturbing echoes of what happened to Bryant.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

“They’re not your children anymore.” Notes on news coverage of a landmark lawsuit


Yesterday’s post
was, in effect, a guest blog.  The Complaint filed by the Family Justice Law Center, the New York University School of Law Family Defense Clinic and two private law firms – especially the introductory section – reads like great journalism.  So I reprinted that part, in full.

Given its pitch-perfect portrayal of how the New York City Administration for Children’s Services treats children and families, it’s no wonder it generated at least nine ten 11 news stories, including: 

 The New York TimesNew York Daily NewsNY1 News (a video interview), WNYC Public Radio (an audio interview),  GothamistMother JonesThe ImprintCourthouse News Service, Scripps News, the New York Law Journal, and Reason 

Here’s a closer look at some of the coverage. 

The New York Times 

In what was, mostly, a very good storythe Times not only offered an excellent overview, it zeroed in on something it’s neglected before: how much what the lawsuit appropriately calls ACS’ “Coercive Tactics” harm the children ACS is supposed to protect. 

So the Times tells us that one plaintiff 

Ms. Gould, who is Black, said her family has been permanently affected by its experience with A.C.S. All three of her children are now in therapy.  She said one investigator asked her 6-year-old daughter if she was suicidal. Her daughter had not previously known the word. “From that day on, she started saying — when they would come — she felt suicidal.” 

Another couple told the Times that 

Their daughter, once outgoing and cheerful, has been in therapy … and blames herself for the investigations. Ms. Azar explained that her daughter, Y.A. … had been asked to write a story about the home investigations. In the story, Ms. Azar said, Y.A. had written, “I am a bad kid” and “I need to behave at school or Mommy and Daddy will be arrested.” 

Ms. Azar … said she often wondered while investigators were in her home, “What was happening with all the kids that actually needed your attention?” 

But old journalistic habits die hard.  In spite of all that, the Times couldn’t resist framing the issue the way family police agencies always want it framed, claiming that ACS 

has the difficult task of weighing the civil rights of families against the safety of children. 

Indeed, that’s the framing ACS used in its boilerplate statement in response to the suit. 

But really, New York Times?  How did what happened to Ms. Gould’s child make that child safer?  How is Y.A. safer?  And why didn’t that question Ms. Azar asked, “What was happening with all the kids that actually needed your attention?” make you wonder if inundating the system with false reports and poverty cases makes all children less safe? 

The Times then offers ACS a ready-made excuse: 

When tragedies happen, A.C.S. is frequently blamed for not having stepped in more aggressively. Those rare cases where children have died after investigators intervened minimally or not at all can make it difficult to dial back the agency’s powers. 

Blamed by whom?  Demagogic politicians, sure.  Bu for decades their false framing was amplified by media who minimized or ignored dissenting voices.  At worst, media are the ones who lead demands for agencies like ACS to “step[] in more aggressively.”  The Times is a lot better about this than it used to be – though it still hasn’t apologized for stoking groundless fears that COVID would cause a “pandemic of child abuse.”  Maybe if all journalists stopped doing things like that, it wouldn’t be quite so hard for agencies like ACS to do the right thing.  (Not that the fact that doing the right thing is hard is any excuse.) 

The Times also makes sure to convey ACS’ standard excuse that they have to investigate every report they receive from the state hotline.  But has any reporter for the Times or anywhere else ever asked ACS if it has sought a change in state law to allow it to screen out reports?  Or does ACS prefer a system that allows it to engage in maximum feasible buck-passing? 

The Brian Lehrer Show 

On WNYC Public Radio’s Brian Lehrer Show, David Shalleck-Klein of the Family Justice Law Center emphasized the point about who is hurt by this kind of family policing: 

ACS creates a false construction, which is they put child safety on one side of the ledger and families' rights on the other. That is false and it's actually dangerous for children because it fosters and perpetuates a culture of ACS using these invasive and distressing and degrading tactics. 

You can listen to the full interview with Shalleck-Klein and one of the plaintiffs, Shalonda Curtis-Hackett here: 


 

They also were interviewed on Inside City Hall on NY1. 

And for this story from Scripps News:


The Imprint 

UPDATE, March 5, 2024: Children's Rights has just brought some very good, constructive litigation.  I have a post about it here.

The Imprint also has a good story, one that avoids the trap the Times fell into.  Instead, the story quotes Prof. Dorothy Roberts, who explains: 

“A promising trend that this lawsuit is part of is recognizing that enforcing parents’ constitutional rights is critical to an approach to child welfare that truly benefits children. You cannot support children by terrorizing their families.” 

The Imprint story added some useful context – but not quite enough.  So the story rightly points out that

For decades, class-action lawsuits have been a major vehicle for reform in child welfare systems nationwide. But typically, they aim to fix poor conditions for children living in foster care. Legal experts say it is particularly rare for groups of parents, such as those in the Gould case, to seek systemic changes to the investigation and surveillance process, asserting their rights before a foster care removal. 

But then things get a little weird.  They quote one of the people most responsible for the fact that these suits have been so rare: Ira Lustbader, litigation director for the group that calls itself Children’s Rights.  For reasons discussed below, he gets the award for sheer chutzpah for this comment: 

“As with any landmark case like this, in an issue area that’s appropriately emerging as truly urgent, I think you’re going to see a lot of people take notice of this legal attack — and quite frankly because it’s deserved.  This is the time.” 

The story goes on to point out that 

The national nonprofit pioneered class-action lawsuits on behalf of foster children, and now has open litigation in more than 20 states on behalf of children poorly served by the government, including those in other systems, such as juvenile justice. 

What the story does not say is that not one of those suits, nor any other Children’s Rights has ever brought addresses the harm done by needless investigations and needless removals.  On the contrary, in state after state they’ve largely brought essentially the same old McLawsuit in an effort to “fix” foster care.  This almost never makes systems better, sometimes makes them worse and makes everything worse by distorting the entire national debate on “child welfare.”  Their approach to litigation is so awful that the foremost family defense attorney in Michigan, Prof. Vivek Sankaran, told the Detroit News the best thing Children’s Rights could do in that state, where it has a longstanding consent decree, is to get the hell out

The two people most responsible for failure after failure, year after year, are Ira Lustbader and his former boss, Marcia Lowry, who founded Children’s Rights, then left to form A Better Childhood, a group that brings McLawsuits that are as bad or worse. 

Year after year, over and over, they told us that a lawsuit like the one that these better lawyers just brought was impossible.  They claimed you can only sue for children already in the system. 

This was never true.  The settlements in R.C. v. Hormsby, which, for a while, successfully rebuilt the Alabama system to safely emphasize family preservation and Nicholson v. Scoppetta, which curbed the practice of taking children from survivors of domestic violence prove that. (NCCPR Board Members served as co-counsel for plaintiffs in both those suits.)  But while CR now does outstanding public policy work, its litigation is the same-old same-old.  

Of course, CR could argue that bringing a suit is no guarantee you will win.  But failing to bring a suit is a guarantee that you will lose. 

“Now is the time” for this better litigation, says Lustader.  Well, yes.  But last year also was the time.  And the year before.  And the year before that, going back decades.  But Ira and Marcia Lowery stood in the way.  All of which prompts one question: Since you say “now is the time,” Ira, and now that other lawyers have shown you how it’s done, when are you going to start bringing lawsuits like this? 

UPDATE: Turns out he has a pretty good answer.  Check out the update here.

Other stories 

Courthouse News Service  cited two other key passages from the lawsuit complaint.  During the course of one of many investigations, without any court hearing or any approval from a judge, Curtayasia Tayor said an ACS caseworker told her the children were  “no longer your children.”  Instead, she was told, they had become “clients of ACS to whom she could not talk without ACS’s permission.” 

The story also noted another part of the complaint, in which an ACS caseworker, cited in an internal ACS report, likened the two-month investigation process to “being stopped and frisked for sixty days.” 

● Still don’t think ACS workers should be called the family police?  Maybe that’s too kind.  In an interview with Gothamist, Shalleck-Klein points out that “ACS falls short of what even the NYPD is doing when searching New Yorkers’ homes.”

In the New York Law Journal, the founder of the Family Defense Clinic (and President of NCCPR) Prof.-emeritus Martin Guggenheim calls this litigation potentially 

one of the most important lawsuits in the field in the last fifty years.  This civil rights case is unprecedented and has the potential to end ACS’s widespread practice of engaging in lawless home invasions that terrorize parents and children.

● And Mother Jones explains that 

The indicators of poverty overlap with the indicators of neglect, putting poor families at greater risk. The system also allows abusive ex-partners to weaponize the hotline by making false reports. 

Sunday, February 25, 2024

“ACS MADE IT CLEAR—EITHER I LET THEM SEARCH MY HOME OR THEY WERE TAKING MY KIDS.”

The New York City Administration for Children's Services Uses Highly Coercive Tactics to Illegally Search Tens of Thousands of Families’ Homes Every Year. 

I didn’t write the headline and subhead above.  Rather they are the headline and subhead that begin a lawsuit against New York City’s family police agency, the Administration for Children’s Services.  The lawsuit was filed by the Family Justice Law Center, the New York University School of Law Family Defense Clinic and two private firms. 

But unlike most legal documents, this one reads like a good magazine article.  So I’ve reprinted the overview that begins the lawsuit, known as a “preliminary statement” in full, except for footnotes and paragraph numbers.  If that whets your appetite for more, you can read the entire document here. 

You can read news accounts about the lawsuit in The New York Times, New York Daily News, NY1 News (a video interview), Gothamist, Mother Jones, The Imprint, Courthouse News Service, and Reason

  Ebony Gould, et. al., v. The City of New York, 
Preliminary Statement

             One night, without warning, a mother in New York City hears a knock on the door. Her children are home with her. The family is cooking. or playing, or sleeping. 

            When the mother opens the door, two government investigators are standing outside, loudly demanding to be let inside. She is surprised and confused. She asks what this is about. The investigators command the mother. You have to let us in.  We need to look in your home. 

            The mother has no choice, it seems. Terrified, she reluctantly opens the door and steps aside, and the investigators walk into her home. It is clear that there is no present danger to anyone in the home, but still the investigators search the home top to bottom. They look inside medicine cabinets, under beds, in closets and dresser drawers, in the refrigerator, and in cupboards.  The mother does not know why this is happening. The children are scared by these strangers combing through their home.  

              

The investigators demand to see the children's bodies under their clothes. They tell the mother to leave them alone in a room with her children. The investigators command the children. Lift up your shirt.  Pull down your pants.  I need to see your chest, your legs, your back. The children are afraid, but they comply. Their mother cannot protect them from these strangers. The mother fears that if she does not acquiesce to the investigators' demands, they will take her children at any moment. Her fear is reasonable; the investigators are telling her that might happen. 

            The investigators leave as abruptly as they arrived. They have threatened to return, even though they found no evidence that the children are in danger. There seem to be no rules and no laws to protect the mother and her children from this intrusion. 

            The City of New York’s Administration for Children's Services (”ACS”) conducts this kind of invasive and traumatic entry and search inside families’ homes more than 50,000 times a year. That means every day, well over 100 New York City families experience this harrowing violation. 

            As part of its routine investigations into families, ACS has a widespread custom, policy, and practice of entering and searching families’ homes by using coercive tactics (the "Coercive Tactics") to make parents feel that they have no choice but to allow caseworkers to enter and search their homes. For example, ACS caseworkers lie to parents about their rights, threaten to call the police, and even threaten to take the parents’ children away if the caseworkers are not permitted to enter and search the home. ACS conducts the overwhelming majority of these entries and searches without a court order, without voluntary consent, and in the absence of any emergency. 

            Duiring these searches, ACS routinely rummages through entire homes and conducts untrammeled inspections of families’ most private spaces. ACS performs these sprawling searches irrespective of whether these intimate spaces have any connection to whatever allegations have been made about that particular family. 

            These coerced searches rarely result in determinations that the children require any protection. Less than 7% of investigations lead ACS to file petitions in Family Court alleging that parents committed wrongdoing of any kind. 

            Nor do these coerced searches enhance child safety. As ACS has acknowledged, data from the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic show that there is no increase in child maltreatment when ACS drastically reduces the number of home entries and searches.            

            The trauma inflicted by ACS predominantly and disproportionately falls on Black and Hispanic families. More than 80% of the parents and children subjected to ACS investigations are Black or Hispanic. One out of every two Black children in New York City has been subjected to an ACS investigation by the time they reach the age of 18. ACS has acknowledged the racial impact of its investigations—an ACS-commissioned report describes a “predatory system that specifically targets Black and Brown parents.”

             ACS's widespread use of the Coercive Tactics to enter and search families’ homes violates the Fourth Amendment. There are three ways caseworkers may search a family’s home to conduct investigations consistent with the Fourth Amendment: (1 ) obtain a court order, (2) act upon exigent circumstances that require an immediate search of the home, or (3) obtain voluntary consent. Warrantless home searches like those ACS conducts tens of thousands of times a year are “presumptively unreasonable.” Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 559 (2004) (internal quotation marks omitted). 

            Under the New York Family Court Act, ACS has the ability “at all hours” to obtain court orders to enter and search families’ homes. These orders must be supported by “probable cause” and “specify which action may be taken and by whom.” 

            ACS chooses to almost never seek these court orders. Across the nearly 53,000 investigations ACS conducted last year, it sought only 222 court orders to search families’ homes. Even assuming ACS completed only one home search during each investigation (it typically conducts several), ACS sought court orders for just 0.4% of home entries. This means over 99.5% of home searches that ACS conducts are 'presumptively unreasonable” under the Fourth Amendment. 

            ACS rarely attempts to justify its warrantless home searches by relying on exigent
circumstances. Of course, ACS can enter families’ homes without a court order or consent when it has grounds to believe a child is in imminent danger. But this case is not about the thankfully infrequent emergencies when warrantless searches are necessary to protect a child's safety. This case is about the overwhelming majority of ACS's more than 50,000 warrantless home searches every year—affecting more than 90,000 children and 70,000 caretakers—where no emergency 
grounds exist, even assuming the allegations under investigation are true. These allegations are typically non-urgent and frequently involve common occurrences, such as a child missing school without a doctor's note, a child seen playing in a hallway, or a parent disagreeing with a school's recommendation for special education services.

             In the absence of exigent circumstances, rather than seeking court orders, ACS caseworkers frequently gain entry into and search families’ homes through coercion, untruths, and threats. For instance, ACS caseworkers misrepresent and withhold information from parents about their rights, threaten to involve the police (i.e., government agents with the ability to use force), and even directly threaten to take parents' children away in order to improperly enter and search families’ homes. Caseworkers routinely employ these Coercive Tactics multiple times during the same investigation. 


            ACS's rampant use of the Coercive Tactics to conduct warrantless home searches is well known to Defendant City of New York. These practices have been meticulously documented by ACS's own internal reports, the agency’s staff and the informational materials ACS provides to parents, as well as by academics, reports and testimony of advocates and investigated parents, and in several prior lawsuits. 

            Nonetheless, ACS fails to provide anything close to adequate training to its caseworkers about families’ Fourth Amendment rights during home searches. Instead of ensuring that its staff follows the law, ACS has created and continues to foster a regime of coerced acquiescence by using tactics that inculcate fear in parents that unless they cede to ACS’s demands, their children will be taken. Indeed, an ACS internal report describes how the agency creates pernicious incentives for caseworkers to “be invasive and not tell parents their rights." 

            Plaintiffs are nine parents who were subjected to ACS's Coercive Tactics. These Coercive Tactics misled and intimidated Plaintiffs into believing they had no choice but to permit ACS's warrantless home entries and searches in non-exigent circumstances. ACS deployed an array of Coercive Tactics over the course of the numerous home searches experienced by Plaintiffs: ACS threatened to take Plaintiffs' children away if they did not let ACS into their homes; ACS threatened to call the police if Plaintiffs refused consent to entry; ACS told Plaintiffs the searches were required” or that ACS “needed” to search their homes; ACS abused and misrepresented its authority; ACS did not meaningfully inform Plaintiffs of their rights to refuse, limit, or revoke consent for ACS's home searches; and ACS made public scenes at Plaintiffs' front doors to intimidate Plaintiffs into letting them in. 

Plaintiff's’ experiences are not isolated or unusual. They are consistent with and indicative of ACS’s widespread and customary practice of deploying highly Coercive Tactics to conduct warrantless searches of families’ homes in non-exigent circumstances in violation of the Fourth Amendment. 

            Plaintiffs, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, bring this lawsuit to end these unconstitutional and unconscionable wrongs.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

NCCPR news and commentary roundup, week ending February 20, 2024

● We begin with this from The New York Times

A sweeping class-action lawsuit filed against New York City on Tuesday argues that the agency that investigates child abuse and neglect routinely engages in unconstitutional practices that traumatize the families it is charged with protecting. 

The lawsuit says that investigators for the Administration for Children’s Services deceive and bully their way into people’s homes, where they rifle through families’ most private spaces, strip-search children and humiliate parents. 

The story zeroes in on how much these practices hurt the children ACS claims it is protecting, such as a child known in the lawsuit as Y.A.:

 once outgoing and cheerful, [Y.A.] has been in therapy, her parents said, and blames herself for the investigations. 

Y.A. … had been asked to write a story about the home investigations. In the story, [her mother] Ms. Azar said, Y.A. had written, “I am a bad kid” and “I need to behave at school or Mommy and Daddy will be arrested.” 

 Ms. Azar … said she often wondered while investigators were in her home, “What was happening with all the kids that actually needed your attention?”

Another parent said: 

one investigator asked her 6-year-old daughter if she was suicidal. Her daughter had not previously known the word. “From that day on, she started saying — when they would come — she felt suicidal.”

The story includes a link to the full lawsuit complaint.  As you read it please keep in mind that New York City’s system actually is less horrible than most others.  So wherever you are, it’s probably worse. 

● Some of the issues in the New York class action also arise in three individual lawsuits in South Carolina.  Kaiser Health News reports that the lawsuits

accuse the state of forcing boys and girls to undergo traumatic genital exams during child abuse investigations, even when no allegations of sexual abuse have been raised. 

In one case

a 16-year-old girl claims she was subjected to painful vaginal exams against her will, even after she denied being sexually abused. She felt as if she was “being raped” during the forensic medical exam, her complaint asserts. … 

Claims that the exams are comparable to normal pediatric checkups are “garbage,” said Donnie Cox, a civil rights attorney in Carlsbad, Calif. 

“At the time they’re happening, they’re scary as hell and it really does traumatize children on top of the trauma of being removed from their homes,” said Cox, who has represented plaintiffs in similar lawsuits. “They’re using these kids, basically, as pieces of evidence, and you can’t do that.” 

The state family police agency has an interesting defense.  It says such exams are “standard procedure.”  And the head of a trade association for “children’s advocacy centers,” where many such exams are performed, says the real problem is agencies aren’t doing enough of them. 

● The child never needed to be taken. The Philadelphia family police agency had to know even a Philadelphia juvenile court judge wouldn’t rubber-stamp such a flimsy case. So they used a blackmail placement – aka hidden foster care.  Resolve Philly and The Philadelphia Inquirer report on the tragic result. 

In The New York Review of Books, Kristen Martin reviews Investigating Families, Prof. Kelley Fong’s outstanding examination of how family policing really works. Martin writes:

Investigating Families humanizes [the] data by focusing on the everyday horror of CPS involvement, reconstructing and analyzing several women’s experiences of having their parenting scrutinized and threatened by a state agency that has the power to take their children away. CPS may see these investigations as routine, but for mothers, Fong writes, “the experience can’t be pushed aside so easily, precisely because CPS represents the agency poised to brand them bad mothers, to take away what they treasure most.” … 

We would do well to examine why we continue to ignore the horror that is unfolding for millions of families in America each year, why we are reluctant to listen when women like Helen, Jazmine, Tatiana, and Sabrina tell us what things are like. 

● When a report alleging “child abuse” is “substantiated” it typically means only that a caseworker decided, entirely on her or his own authority, that it was slightly more likely than not that the “abuse” or “neglect” occurred and the subject of the investigation did it.  So it’s no surprise that in state after state, as soon as the accused has a chance to tell their side of the story before even a quasi-neutral hearing officer, large proportions of those findings are overturned.  The latest example: Massachusetts.  The Boston Globe reports that when the process was made minimally less unfair, the proportion of successful appeals rose from 5% to 40% -- even though the deck still is stacked against the accused. 

One example of a successful appeal: A mother is slammed to the ground by her boyfriend.  She takes the kids, goes to the police and gets a restraining order.  But because the boyfriend slammed her to the ground so hard the children could hear it in another room, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families said she was guilty of neglect.  Oh, and if you’re wondering who called in the complaint to DCF – it was the abusive boyfriend. 

● There’s still another study out documenting racial bias in family policing.  In this case: which families doctors report as potential child abusers and which they don’t.  Even when you factor in poverty the results are exactly what you’d expect – or at least what you should expect by now.  Unfortunately, the study authors have a solution that may well make things worse.  But in a commentary about the study for MedPage Today called “Child Protective Services Is Being Weaponized Against Our Black Patients” Dr. Onyi Okeke has better ideas. 

● The Montana Free Press has more about the bias against Native American families in a state that is always a contender for Child Removal Capital of America.  

● An anti-ransom bill has been introduced in New York.  The legislation would bar family police agencies from forcing parents to pay part of the cost of their children’s foster care.  States call it “child support.”  But when someone takes your child and forces you to pay money to get the child back, the right term for that payment is ransom.  In the Albany Times Union leaders of an adoptive and foster parents group explain why ransom should be abolished. 

The Imprint reports that another New York bill would increase funding for the state’s family courts.  A lot of advocates have strong reservations about anything that makes the system bigger, but the bill also would bolster funding for family defense. 

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

Honolulu Civil Beat has more details on horrifying abuse in foster/adoptive home, and a demand that the state family police agency tell what it knows about the case, including not only what happened to the child who died, but also what happened to another child “mistreated in almost unimaginable ways” in the same home.  Meanwhile, a public interest law firm is suing to get records from a tragically similar case of a child allegedly murdered by her adoptive parents. 

WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge, La., tells the story of the children of Diamon Bell: 

Bell first came to WAFB last year when her daughter was molested by another child at a different foster home, all while she’s been fighting to get all of her children back. She believes because she came forward to report what’s been happening, she’s faced retaliation from the DCFS case worker on her case. [A source inside DCFS]… confirms the mother’s story. The source says they have also witnessed the DCFS worker threatening to “never let her get her kids back.” … 

That child finally was returned – after being abused in still another foster home.  But other children remain in foster care: 

The source … says it is past time this mother got her kids back because they believe the children have been harmed far more in the state’s care than they ever have in their mother’s care. The source says the children have faced sexual, physical, and mental abuse and everything in between. 

● And in West Virginia, which rushes to terminate parental rights more quickly than any other state, West Virginia Watch reports that 

A federal judge says Child Protective Services failed to respond and perform an adequate investigation in a high-profile case where Kanawha County children were found last fall locked in a shed without access to water or a toilet. 

“As a result, the children were left to suffer at the hands of their adoptive parents for months, until law enforcement officers eventually found the children locked in their house or in a detached shed, deprived of food, water, bathroom facilities, hygiene products and beds,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Cheryl Eifert wrote in an order.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending February 13, 2024

● There was excellent reporting this week on two states that destroy astounding numbers of Native American families every year, and the state officials who don’t give a damn about itI have a short blog post about it, including links to excellent reporting from the Montana Free Press, South Dakota Searchlight and the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader. 

● Remember the children who were torn from their parents and thrown into foster care because the parents committed the crime of Driving While Black?  Now, Tennessee Lookout reports, the mother is suing.  And with the lawsuit come new details about what the family endured: 

According to the lawsuit, before the children were taken, even a state trooper showed more humanity than “child welfare” agency caseworkers: 

“Trooper Clark told (DCS caseworkers) Pelham and Medina that Clayborne was a good mother, that she should be released so that she would not be separated from her children, that the kids were not being neglected or abused, and that it would be best for everyone for Clayborne to stay with the children,” the lawsuit said. 

The caseworkers took the children anyway.  And after the family was reunited: 

Even after they were returned, the kids have displayed signs of trauma: the couple’s now-six-year-old son begs his mother “please don’t them come back and take us.” He experiences nightmares and wets the bed. Another child “has a visceral reaction to seeing police."

The Imprint has a useful state-by-state guide to laws that curb the practice of family police agencies swiping foster youth's Social Security benefits.  

KUSA-TV Denver has more about a case of a now former family police caseworker, Robin Niceta. Niceta took advantage of anonymous child abuse reporting (but did a poor job covering her tracks) to falsely accuse a member of the Aurora City Council, Danielle Jurinsky, of child abuse. Sentencing has been delayed because Niceta’s lawyer is ill.  That illness is real.  Less real, it appears, was a previous request by Niceta to delay her trial because she supposedly had a brain tumor.  She’s now been charged with falsifying the medical records. (If the charges are true, she apparently wasn’t good at that, either). 

What was not delayed were victim impact statements in the original false allegation case.  Jurinsky’s father told the court: 

"Your Honor, every lie and every evil criminal action committed by this defendant against Danielle and our family was planned, not random, spur-of-the-moment decisions, but planned and researched. She hoped it would it would succeed in removing a son from his home and destroy a family. This is why this person should not receive leniency from the court." 

The whole ordeal never could have started if not for the fact that, like 48 other states, Colorado allows anonymous reporting. They should do what Texas did and largely replace it with confidential reporting, in which the accused still doesn’t know the name of the accuser, but the family police do. 

In the Virginia Mercury, Valerie L’Herrou, deputy director of the Center for Family Advocacy, urges support for legislation that would bolster the quality of family defense in that state. She writes: 

In Virginia, one issue that contributes to poor outcomes for children in foster care is the extremely poor system of legal representation for parents of children in foster care. Multiple other states have vastly improved the quality of legal representation for parents, because this has been shown to improve outcomes for children in the system. 

● In Rhode Island, state officials have given a whole new, unfortunate, and stunningly na├»ve meaning to the concept of “passing the smell test.” I have a blog post about it. 

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

Hawaii, 2021: six-year-old Ariel Sellers was allegedly adopted to death.  Though relatives wanted to take her in, she was placed with strangers.  Ultimately, they adopted her and changed her name to Isabella Kalua.  The foster/adoptive parents have been charged with murdering the child.  She allegedly died trapped in a dog cage with duct tape covering her mouth and nose. 

Hawaii: 2024: Because the family police agency is stonewalling, a lot still is unknown, but as Honolulu Civil Beat reports, ten-year-old Geanna Bradley appears to have been a foster child.  The presumed foster parents obtained guardianship status – and were paid $1,961 per month to “care” for her.  Then, police allege they “restrained her with duct tape [and] confined her to a tiny space while they collected money for her care”  and ultimately killed her. According to Hawaii News Now  Prosecutors say Geanna’s death was “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity.” KHON-TV reports she suffered “multiple injuries to her face including her ears, eyes, forehead, cheeks, lips and a road rash-type of injury on her chin. Part of her nose bridge was missing.” 

Another child, this one known to have been adopted, also was found abused in the same home. 

Hawaii Public Radio got comment on the case from Prof. Dorothy Roberts, author of Shattered Bonds and Torn Apart and a member of NCCPR's Board of Directors who said:

"This is just one example of a child who was harmed after the system took her from her home. As far as I could tell from the father who was interviewed, she would have been better off in his care than in the care of these people who abused her." 

One other thing to know about Hawaii: The state takes away children at a rate more than 40% above the national average.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Officials in two states that routinely destroy Native American families make their position clear: We don’t care, we don’t have to.

South Dakota tears apart families at a rate well above the national average. Native American children are 13% of the child population and 74% of the foster child population.  But hey, a slogan is a slogan, right?

There were two important news stories last week from states that destroy astounding numbers of Native American families every year.  The stories make one thing clear: State officials and many state lawmakers don’t give a damn about it. 

● Montana continually vies with West Virginia for the title Child Removal Capital of America.  In Montana that’s partly because the state family police agency tears apart so many Native families.  The Montana Free Press reports that Native children are 10% of the state’s child population and one-third of the foster child population.  The Free Press story is filled with such data – and filled with bland, boilerplate, buck-passing responses from state officials like this one from the head of the state family police agency: “I think it’s really about continuing to have the conversation.”  The closest thing she has to a concrete solution is no solution at all – making it easier to place Native children in hidden foster care

● It’s even worse in South Dakota, another state that takes away children at a rate well above the national average.  In South Dakota, Native Americans are 13 percent of the child population and nearly three-quarters of the foster-child population, an issue first exposed in 2010 by NPR.  South Dakota Searchlight and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader returned to the subject with an excellent series last year, documenting how the state cuts a swath of destruction through Native families.  Now they’ve followed up with a story about legislative proposals for change.  

One of those proposals is one that most state legislatures would routinely approve, since it delays actually doing anything: creating a task force.  But those who want to see change are having trouble getting the South Dakota Legislature to do even that much. 

More substantive legislation already has been defeated.  Under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, states are supposed to make “active efforts” to keep families together, a higher standard than the “reasonable efforts” required un federal law (but almost universally ignored) for other families.  A bill to require active efforts for all South Dakota children – and to explain exactly what that term means – was defeated yesterday.  

Even the head of a local Court-Appointed Special Advocates program, herself a Native American, favored the bill.  As the Argus-Leader reported: 

For example, if a parent needs to overcome substance abuse, an active effort would be helping that parent with a ride to a treatment class, said Kehala Two Bulls, the executive director of the 7th Circuit Court CASA program. A reasonable effort would be giving that parent a list of treatment programs. 

I would disagree that a list of treatment programs is anywhere near reasonable as an effort – it’s pretty typical of the failure to make reasonable efforts -- but you get the idea.  Getting the parent to the program is a reasonable effort.  Bringing home-based drug treatment to the parent, as Connecticut does in some cases, is an active effort. 

But the head of South Dakota’s family police agency, Matt Althoff said, presumably with a straight face, that they’re already making “active efforts” in the cases of Native American children who, again, make up 74% of the state’s foster care population.

An opponent of the bill said: “How do we put something in into law when everybody is interpreting this differently?”  And here I’d been operating under what is, apparently, the absurd notion that this is why you put things into law in the first place.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Residential treatment: Can the scent of Pine Sol cover up the stench of abuse?

Rhode Island State Rep. Patricia Serpa says she can tell things are soooo much better
at a residential treatment center because "I could smell the Pine-Sol"

Ever wonder why “residential treatment centers” almost always look so good?  It’s amazing how much these places, which always claim to need even more money, lavish on making sure the grounds are gorgeous the “cottages” are nicely painted and the lawns are mowed.  Then they invite public officials on a carefully guided tour.  

The amazing thing isn’t that these places keep pulling this stunt, the amazing thing is that it works! 

The latest to be snookered is Rhode Island State Rep. Patricia Serpa, who chairs that state’s House of Representatives Oversight Committee.  She and other officials got the full guided tour of St. Mary’s Home for Children in North Providence. 

Here’s what’s been happening at the place they are so anxious to save, according to news accounts summarizing a 119-page report from the state’s child advocate. 

“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.” 

From just the beginning 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. 

That’s just the start.  The Boston Globe did its own investigation and found that, at an institution with only 39 beds: 

The North Providence police were called to St. Mary's more than 300 times in the past two years, mainly for children as young as 8 running away, according to 317 pages of police call logs obtained by the Globe through a public records request. … 

North Providence Police Chief Alfredo Ruggiero Jr. told the Globe things are so bad that when runaways are found by police “there’s a part of us that our hearts are breaking” as they bring them back.

Neighbors such as Andrew Marsalli and his partner Ken Richey said they would often hear children screaming.  Marsalli recalled 

the boy with cuts and bruises who showed up at his door asking for help. 

"The boy would say, 'Please don't let me go with them. Don't let them find me,' " Marsalli said. "He would just come knock on my door to talk. But . . . they would know where to find him." … One time, Marsalli and Richey said, they watched in horror when two staff members tackled the boy in their yard and hauled him away. They said an ambulance was called because the boy's arm had been yanked back. 

Then there was the girl placed at St. Mary’s by Rhode Island’s family police agency, the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), because she’d been sexually assaulted and was at high risk of being sexually exploited.  She ran away several times.  Twice she was raped.  When her mother sued, St. Mary’s said the child “had assumed the risk of injury.” (The suit was settled.)  St. Mary’s is not the only residential treatment center to make that horrifying claim

And then there was the whole matter of the institution bringing in a bunch of bikers to help patrol the place. 

The head of DCYF, Ashley Deckert, admitted St. Mary’s was awful, but in a comment stunning for both its callousness and its candor, she said that because Rhode Island doesn’t have enough places to put kids, St. Mary’s is a “too big to fail situation.” 

As I pointed out when I wrote about St. Mary’s for Rhode Island Current, what she did not say is that the lack of places to put kids is because Rhode Island tears apart so many families needlessly – at a rate 80% above the national average. 

Pine-Sol to the rescue! 

But great news everyone!  After her definitely-not-a-surprise inspection, Rep. Serpa says things are soooooo much better now!  How does she know?  She told WPRI-TV: 

“What I saw today was encouraging.  The facility is clean. I could smell the Pine-Sol, I could smell the fresh paint. The kids’ rooms were kids’ rooms — they were messy, but an organized messy.” 

Of course!  Everyone knows children are never abused in rooms that smell of Pine-Sol!  And who would ever want to run from a room that was freshly painted?   (Where was Serpa expecting to see kids stay – in dungeons?)  

Deckert took the tour too.  Deckert, more than any other individual, has a vested interest in downplaying any problems at the places where her agency institutionalizes children.  And sure enough, she called the progress “tremendous.” She, too, made a point of saying the place “smells nice.”

 No wonder DCYF is moving full speed ahead on a plan to spend $11 million in taxpayer funds to expand St. Mary’s.

Fool me once … 

This isn’t even the first group of Rhode Island officials to buy into this routine.  As we discussed in our 2010 report on Rhode Island child welfare, the chief family court judge for many years, Jeremiah S. Jeremiah, fell in love with an institution in Pennsylvania; the Glen Mills School.  As we explained in our report: 

[I]n late January of this year, Jeremiah suggested that Andrew J. Johnson, a lawyer and director of the Rhode Island Court Appointed Special Advocate’s office, visit Glen Mills to see what their program has to offer. Johnson flew to Philadelphia, at the school’s expense, where a school van drove him the 22 miles to the school in Concordville, Pa. He met with admissions officials, toured the campus and talked to students.  “It’s a remarkable place,” Johnson said after he returned. “Step on the campus and it’s like a prep school or a university ... .” 

Again, that was 2010. 

It will probably not surprise readers who have gotten this far to know that the Glen Mills School was closed.  After the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed rampant, horrific abuse, the state of Pennsylvania shut the place down.  Unfortunately, they’ve now allowed the place to reopen on a (for now) much smaller scale.  The place has a brand new name.  It’s run by a new corporation headed by a former Glen Mills executive.  

And presumably, it has a good supply of Pine-Sol.