America loses champion for a child-centered child welfare system

GellesRichard Gelles, one of the nation’s leading child welfare experts, died late in June of brain cancer, as reported by the Chronicle of Social ChangeGelles’ death deprives the nation of one of its leading child welfare scholars, and one of the few remaining spokespersons for a child centered approach to child welfare.

Richard Gelles played an important role in the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1996 through the publication of  The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children’s Lives. This book told the  story of a 15-month old boy who was murdered by his abusive mother. David’s parents had an open child welfare case when he was born, due to their severe abuse of his sister Marie when she was six weeks old that left her with lifelong disabilities.  While Marie was still in foster care, the parents were reported to the child abuse hotline twice for abusing David. In closing their investigation without removing David or opening a case, agency workers ignored two huge red flags–the grievous injury to six-week-old Marie and the failure by her parents to comply with the agency’s reunification plan, resulting in the termination of their parental rights to their daughter. Three and a half months after the case was closed, David was dead.

According to Gelles, David’s death could be traced to the doctrine requiring that agencies make “reasonable efforts” to keep or reunite abused and neglected children with their parents. Without any definition or timeframe, efforts to keep children like David with their birth parents often cross the line separating reasonable from unreasonable. Gelles argued that David’s death could also be traced to “the larger ideology behind ‘reasonable efforts,’ ‘the sacrosanct belief that children always (or nearly always) are better off with their biological parents.”

In his testimony at a 1995 Congressional hearing, Gelles argued that the current obsession with family preservation should be replaced for a “child centered child welfare system” where abused and neglected children would longer remain for years in abusive homes, nor would they languish for years in foster care. Instead, the goal of a child-centered child welfare system would be “to terminate parental rights, when appropriate, quickly enough so that (1) children are not permanently harmed, physically or psychologically, and {2) make children available for adoption earlier enough in their lives so that they are ‘adoptable.'”

Gelles’ perspective was incorporated into several changes made by ASFA, as described by  former Hill staffer Cassie Statuto Bevan in an Urban Institute compilation on ASFA ten years after its passage. The requirement for “reasonable efforts” was moderated by requiring that such efforts must maintain the child’s health and safety as the “paramount concern.” Moreover, a  deadline was placed on reunification efforts, requiring a state to file for termination of parental rights after a child had been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months. ASFA also allowed states to bypass reasonable efforts altogether in extraordinary cases, such as when parents have committed a felony assault resulting in serious injury to the child or another child–clearly an exception that could have been applied in David’s case.

While it appears that ASFA has resulted in shorter stays in foster care as Gelles hoped, the impact of the provisions designed to protect children from dangerous parents appears to have been less than their authors hoped. Agencies make frequent use allowable exceptions to the 15-month time limit for termination of parental rights and rarely use the provisions that allow them to forego reunification plans. In order to make the system more child-centered, these provisions should be strengthened. Unfortunately, we seem to be going in the opposite direction.

There is a groundswell of attacks against ASFA,  with critics claiming that 15 months is not enough time for with problems like drug addiction to address them, especially if services are not immediately available. Some critics even denounce the law as racist because they say it penalizes black parents, ignoring the needs of black children for safety and permanency. Contrary to the child-centered perspective Gelles promoted, these advocates prioritize parents’ rights over children’s needs to be placed in a loving home quickly enough to avoid permanent damage and early enough in their lives to be likely to be adopted.

In The Book of David and in his testimony, Gelles also criticized the investment of a billion dollars in unproven “intensive family preservation programs” to keep families together. These new programs, such as the well-publicized Homebuilders, were intensive, short term, crisis intervention services designed to address parental behaviors that are putting their children at risk. Gelles pointed out that there was no research evidence to support the success of intensive family preservation programs at preventing foster care placements, let alone keeping children safe–which was not even evaluated. And from a theoretical perspective, Gelles pointed out that intensive family preservation programs would be effective for only those families with a low level of risk and a high level of readiness to change. To assume that these services could work for all maltreating families was unrealistic. 

Sadly, the same programs that were supported without evidence in the 1980’s are being supported again with more baseless claims of research support. As reported in a recent post, Homebuilders is once again being promoted as effective in keeping families together, although the research is no more convincing than that of the 1980s. Recently Homebuilders was approved as a best practice that can be funded by the Family First Act, based on only two studies. One of the studies focused on a program that did not follow the Homebuilders model and worked only to reunify families already separated by foster care—not prevent foster care placement which is the main purpose of Family first. The second was a study of Homebuilders family preservation programs and according to its authors failed to demonstrate any favorable program impacts. 

Why invest in a program that has failed to document success over several decades of research? The renewed push for family preservation has once again taken over the child welfare world. With the passage of the Family First Act, allowing billions in funding for programs that keep families together, there is a desperate need for programs to spend that money on. The federal clearinghouse established to approve programs for this purpose has demonstrated that its standards for calling a program “well-supported by the evidence” are low indeed. And that is not surprising, since there are few such programs that have been shown to be effective in helping abusive and neglectful parents change longstanding and often intergenerational patterns. And so the story starts again.

As we face increased backlash against ASFA and increased incentives to spend billions of dollars on unproven family preservation programs, Richard Gelles’ keen analysis and advocacy for children will be greatly missed.

 

 

Schools and agencies should reach out to at-risk children before schools close

COVID reportingThe COVID-19 pandemic is having a disastrous effect on the systems designed to protect children from abuse and neglect, as discussed in an earlier post. With children being isolated from teachers and others who might report suspicions of maltreatment, a  drastic decline in calls to child protection hotlines has been reported nationwide. This decline calls for equally drastic measures to identify at-risk children before schools close for the academic year.

The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis has given rise to widespread fears of increasing child abuse and neglect, as well as domestic violence. The stress imposed by job and income loss, unmet basic needs, school closures, and fear of sickness all are likely to lead to increases in child abuse and neglect. Older children who are too young to care for siblings safely may be nevertheless left in charge. Research suggests that child abuse increases during natural and economic disasters and the current crisis combines both.

Reports from emergency rooms suggest that the fears about increased child abuse are warranted. Hospitals in Texas, Florida, Philadelphia, Maryland and Washington DC have reported more children coming to emergency rooms with serious child abuse injuries, such as head trauma and fractures, that require hospitalization. A spokeswoman for the American College of Emergency Physicians told the Washington Post that members “nationwide have reported treating more serious injuries in a week than they are used to seeing in a month.”

At the same time as abuse and neglect appear to be increasing, social distancing is separating children from the professionals and others who might notice abuse or neglect and report it to authorities. As a result, calls to child abuse hotlines around the country have dropped drastically since the national lockdowns began. Child Welfare Monitor has collected reports of drops in the number of hotline calls from 37 states and the District of Columbia, most of which are reporting decreases of 50 percent or more.

The drop in child abuse and neglect reports is not a surprise. The largest source of such reports is education staff, who made 21 percent of such reports around the nation in 2018 according to federal data. With schools closed, some children are in contact with their teachers  through video apps, where signs of abuse or neglect are harder to spot than in person. But that is the best case. Not all schools are using video applications to run virtual classrooms (known as “synchronous” education) and relying instead on “asynchronous” teaching methods where teachers record lessons and post assignments, which students in turn email or upload.

Whatever the nature of online education, many children are participating sporadically or not at all. The New York Times heard from many teachers around the country that fewer than half of their students were participating. Not surprisingly, participation has been lowest in schools with many low-income students, who often lack access to computers and the internet. These are the same students who are most likely to be victims of abuse or neglect. Many systems, in conjunction with internet providers, have distributed computers and made free internet available to families that lacked these resources but it is not clear how successful these efforts have been in bridging the digital divide.

Despite the reduced access to students, many teachers are making special efforts to monitor their most vulnerable students.  The Washington Post reported on a teacher in Virginia who added a pop-up prompt to her power-points asking children how they are feeling on a scale from red (awful) to orange to yellow to blue (perfect). Staffers for Danville County Virginia public schools who are delivering meals to students try to take the opportunity to engage with families and lay eyes on the children.  Teachers are still making reports to hotlines, although certainly these reports are fewer in number. For example, as reported in Child Welfare Monitor DC, teachers made 30 percent of the 897 hotline calls received by the Child and Family Services Agency between March 16 and April 18 of this year, as compared to 52 percent of 2,356 hotline calls during the same period of 2019.

Aside from teachers and education personnel, other important reporting sources also have less access to children during this crisis situation. This includes medical personnel, who are seeing few children for routine appointments, as well as friends, family members, and neighbors.

Once schools close for the summer, the best opportunity to identify children at risk of maltreatment will be gone. Therefore, we urge schools and child welfare agencies to work together to identify these children before schools close for the summer.  School personnel could  make efforts to reach all students who has not been in regular contact with their teachers via telephone, text, email, or other means available.  Any student that they cannot reach even after several tries using more than one method could be referred to child protective services to be contacted through a home visit if necessary.

One official who has seen the need for action has been Sheriff Alex Villanueva of Los Angeles County, which has seen a 50% decline in calls to its child maltreatment hotline since the lockdown began. The county has been the site of numerous deaths of children known to the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), including the death of Gabriel Fernandez, which was the subject of a widely viewed documentary. Stating that “We do not want another Gabriel Fernandez,” Villanueva announced a plan to have patrol officers check up on high-risk children who  have not been in contact with their schools. Apparently the Sheriff was planning to reach out to schools reminding them of their mandatory reporting duties and announcing that deputies would be available to do welfare checks on children for whom schools express concern.

The Sheriff’s plan was rejected by DCFS on the grounds that sending uniformed officers to check on families without a specific allegation of abuse or neglect would only exacerbate their stress and not necessarily improve safety for children, as DCFS Director Bobby Cagle told the Los Angeles TimesChild Welfare Monitor agrees that police officers might not be the most appropriate professionals to do these welfare checks.  But instead of rejecting the idea of reaching out to these children and their families, DCFS could have worked with the schools to identify and reach out to these students, as suggested above.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. While child welfare agencies would not normally consider sending out workers to check on children with no specific allegation of abuse or neglect, it is crucial that we take advantage of the quickly disappearing window of opportunity to reach children that have not been in regular touch with their teachers during the societal lockdown. Child welfare agencies should work with schools to identify these children before schools close, leaving abused and neglected children completely at the mercy of their caregivers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Impact of coronavirus on child welfare: a one-sided federal view

afScreen Shot 2020-04-18 at 12.58.40 PM.pngThe coronavirus is affecting every aspects of the child welfare system and its ability to achieve its three major goals–safety, permanency and well-being. In our last post, Child Welfare Monitor discussed the threat posed by social distancing to the safety of abused and neglected children who are not involved with the child welfare system. For children in the system, especially those who are in foster care, the disruptions posed by the response to the coronavirus pandemic pose a great threat to their hopes for permanency. Two top officials of the federal Children’s Bureau have expressed great concern about the effects of the crisis on permanency and their hopes that the states will prioritize family reunification both during and after the period of social distancing. Unfortunately, their formulation of the issue reveals a one-sided analysis of the problem. Moreover, they seem to have no interest in the safety of children trapped in their homes with abusive or neglectful parents.

Federal officials have rightly expressed their concern that the coronavirus pandemic will extend some children’s stays in foster care. There are three major reasons this might happen, as described in an excellent article in the Chronicle of Social Change. Services to parents, such as mental health, drug treatment, and parenting skills programs, are threatened by the pandemic. Some may have shifted to virtual services, but not all parents have the technological wherewithal to participate. Other services might not be provided at all. Secondly, reunifications must be ordered by a court, and courts have been drastically affected by the crisis. Most court buildings are closed; many are conducting virtual hearings but only for hearings deemed essential and able to be conducted virtually.

Third and perhaps most important, most visits between children in foster care and their parents have become virtual, conducted through apps like Facetime or Skype. But virtual visits are difficult with infants and young children, and for older children they cannot substitute for extended visits. Moreover, virtual visitation does not allow the normal progression from shorter and supervised visits to longer unsupervised ones, culminating in reunification as parents are able to prove that they can manage the children for extended periods of time.

The timelines written into law by the Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA) could result in termination of the rights of parents who through no fault of their own were unable to comply with their court-ordered case plans. These timelines require that a state must file a petition for Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months, with certain exceptions. If these timelines were strictly interpreted, the COVID-19 crisis could result in the termination of many parents’ rights because they would have been unable to complete services or demonstrate appropriate parenting skills by the end of the 15 months.

It must be noted, however, that the ASFA timelines are often honored more in the breach than in the observance even in normal times. The law allows them to be exceeded if there are “compelling reasons” to determine that TPR is not in the best interests of the child. Under these auspices, many parents have been given much more time to work toward reunification. As a social worker in the District of Columbia, this writer saw numerous cases in which children were reunified with their families after much more than 15 months in foster care.

Last week, the Chronicle of Social Change published an impassioned column by Jerry Milner, associate commissioner of the U.S. Children’s Bureau and his special assistant, David Kelly. Milner and Kelly argue that the virus itself should not be a reason to keep parents and children apart.

Despite our strong preference that all measures be taken to continue in-person family time for children in foster care and their parents and siblings, there will undoubtedly be instances where such family time is not provided. In some instances that may be appropriate due to the presence of the virus in the resource family home or home of the parent. In many more instances, there will be no known safety threat.

It appears that Milner and Kelly are advocating for in-person visits whenever there is no virus in the home of the foster family or birth parent. Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia became the focus of ridicule when he claimed on April 1 to have just discovered that as much as 25 percent of those with coronavirus might have no symptoms but still transmit the virus to others. Perhaps Milner and Kelly not yet learned about that finding. Moreover, one wonders what they would suggest if their recommendation resulted in the wholesale desertion of foster parents afraid of the risks of exposing the children in their custody to one or more family members each week.

Down the road, when families begin to bump up against their ASFA time limits, Milner and Kelly urge states to make use of the statutory exception allowing them not to file for TPR if there is a compelling reason to believe such filing would not be in the best interests of the child. That may be a reasonable prescription in many cases, considering how often this justification is used even in normal times. However, Milner and Kelly go on to anticipate attempts by unnamed nefarious forces to “use the crisis to serve their own interests or those of their constituencies. There will be those whose implicit or even explicit biases are drawn out into the light.” Thus, Milner and Kelly continue the practice of calling anyone who prioritizes the rights of children over those of their parents as racist, as Child Welfare Monitor pointed out in an earlier post.

Milner and Kelly take the opportunity to argue against the ASFA permanency timeline, arguing that it was “more the result of negotiation than what we know about the importance of parent-child relationships, recovery and trauma.” Yes, the ASFA timeline was the result of political forces, but in the opposite way from that claimed by Milner and Kelly. The earlier drafts of AFSA contained shorter timelines for younger children based on what we know about child development. These shorter timelines were eliminated because they would have made the bill impossible to pass.  Milner and Kelly warn that “child development and bonding will be used in arguments not to return children to their parents and to expedite adoptions in instances where families did not have a fair chance.” By denying the importance of bonding instead of acknowledging there is a conflict between two important values, Milner and Kelly betray that their position is based on ideology, not analysis.

Despite their misguided recommendations and hyperbolic statements, Milner and Kelly are right about the threat to timely permanency posed by social distancing and its effects. But they ignore that the social distancing imposed by the coronavirus is having a very different effect on children who have been abused and neglected but are not involved with the foster care system. Although there are strong reasons to believe that abuse and neglect are increasing, reports to child abuse hotlines are down as much as 50 percent around the country because children are not seeing the adults who usually report concerns about child maltreatment, especially school and medical personnel.  This crisis has drawn considerable media attention, as Child Welfare Monitor has described, and states and nonprofits have taken action to publicize the signs of child abuse and urge teachers who see children online and other workers who see children in person to be alert for the signs and ready to report to child protective services hotlines. But even during Child Abuse Prevention Month, Milner and Kelly have nothing to say about this issue and have issued no guidance for states and counties.  It is obvious that their minds are elsewhere.

Two of the major goals of child welfare–safety and permanency–are often in conflict. It takes wise leadership to navigate the narrow channel between endangering and separating them from the parents they love. Sadly, we are not blessed with such leadership on the federal level in these troubled times.

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When social distancing can kill: child protection during a pandemic


NJbridgethegapSocial distancing is essential to break the back of  the coronavirus pandemic. But for children who are at risk of abuse and neglect, social distancing means social isolation and the loss of any hope of rescue from their desperate circumstances. It is important for child welfare agencies to reach out to the general public and those workers still seeing children with special messages about warning signs of maltreatment and how to get help.

For children living in abusive or neglectful homes, the pandemic is a perfect storm. On one hand, abuse and neglect are likely to increase due to parental stress and more time spent together in close quarters due to social distancing. Research suggests that child abuse increases in times of economic or natural disasters.

At the same time as families are under increased stress and spending more time together, children are not being seen by mandated reporters, especially teachers and school staff.  One in five reports comes from education personnel, according to the most recent federal data; hence the annual summer falloff in reports and the uptick every October. Today, almost every school building in the country is closed. While many schools are conducting online classes, the New York Times has reported that fewer than half of students are participating in some schools. Absence from virtual classrooms seems to be especially high in schools with many low-income students, who often lack access to computers and the internet. Some students and parents have completely fallen out of touch with their schools. And these are precisely the students who are more likely to be abused or neglected.

Reports about declines in hotline calls have appeared from almost every state, with calls in dropping by as much as 70 percent since schools shut their doors.1 School closures cannot explain this entire decline. Clearly other possible abuse reporters, such as law enforcement, health personnel, neighbors, and family members are seeing less of children as well.

At the same time, there is reason to think that child abuse is increasing during the pandemic.  A three-year-old Fort Worth boy who died from “severe child abuse” on Easter morning was the third child in less than a month to die at Cook Children’s Hospital, according to the hospital. Since March 13, eight children have been admitted to the hospital for severe child abuse and three have died. The hospital normally sees six child abuse deaths in an entire year. The Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital in Orlando, has seen a spike in child abuse cases. According to the medical director, the hospital normally sees one or two trauma cases a month. But in the last few weeks, eight children were brought to the hospital with severe injuries due to abuse. At Children’s National Medical Center in Washington DC, 86 percent of children coming to the Emergency Room with injuries suggesting child abuse between March 15 and April 20 had to be hospitalized compared to 50 percent in the same period of last year.

Ironically, April is Child Abuse Prevention month, when government and nonprofit agencies work to increase public awareness about child abuse and neglect and the need to report it. Unfortunately, a recent study casts doubt on the effectiveness of public education efforts to date. A nationwide survey conducted during the pandemic found that a large majority of Americans are not willing to report excessive physical punishment to the police or CPS. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC)  surveyed 1,004 adults nationwide on March 27 to 29, in the midst of the crisis. They found that only 19% of adults say they are “very likely” to report a parent who is “excessively spanking or physically punishing their child” to child protective services. Only 36 percent of adults say they are very likely to contact the police if they see a stranger doing the same thing. Among the reasons given for their unwillingness to report, 68 percent of respondents cite that it might make things worse for the child, 35 percent cite the risk to their own family, and 30 percent say it is “none of my business.”

These survey results, with or without a pandemic, are frightening.  As Mary Pulido of NYSPCC puts it, “If what you see in public is enough to even make you think about calling the authorities, think of what that child could be enduring at home, behind closed doors.” But these results should not be surprising to those who are aware of past cases of egregious child abuse which were not reported despite obvious red flags.  For example, the media has reported on the failure of family and neighbors to report major concerns about treatment of the 13 Turpin children, who were imprisoned, starved, and physically abused by their parents over many years. 

What we know about the reluctance of people to report their concerns about children’s treatment suggests the need for a much more concerted effort for the long-term. Such an effort should be led by the federal government and implemented at the state and local levels. It should aim to increase knowledge of the signs of child abuse and neglect and convince citizens that it is their obligation to report, as described in an earlier post. Such a campaign would be more powerful if all citizens were required to report when they fear that a child is being harmed.

For this time of pandemic, we cannot hope for an immediate sea-change in attitudes, but governments can integrate messaging about child abuse and neglect into their communications with the public about the pandemic. Special efforts should be made to encourage teachers who are interacting with students online and other essential workers who have contact with children and families. Sadly, the federal Children’s Bureau has not issued any guidance to states and and counties resources and suggestions for how to do this. Such leadership has been left to state and local governments and nonprofits.

In a Call to Action for State Governors, CHILD USA, a national think tank focused on child protection, suggests that Governors should add to all their COVID updates a reference to the need for all adults to be alert for signs of abuse and neglect, along with how to reach the child abuse hotline. Special campaigns such as  #bridgethegap in New Jersey, may be helpful as well. As shown in the poster above, the public is reminded that “It IS your business. Everyone in New Jersey is a mandated reporter.” Readers should reach out to their government executives to urge them to incorporate such messages into their communications with the public. 

Special materials targeted to teachers and other staff may be helpful as well. New Jersey has produced a special message for education personnel asking them to “try to get ‘eyes on’ every child at least once a week.” Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services, in partnership with the Department of Education, has also issued guidance for educators, health care providers and community members for spotting and responding to signs of child maltreatment.

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CHILD USA has issued a list of Tips for Teachers on Child Welfare and Online Safety during COVID-19. This helpful document lists questions to ask students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels to assess their physical safety, online safety, and whether they are getting enough to eat. It also lists key items for teachers to look for when seeing their students online, such as the appearance of the student and the home, and things that the student might say.  And it suggests special efforts to monitor students with issues with drug abuse, mental illness or domestic abuse in their families. All child welfare agencies should ensure that their local school systems distribute this checklist to their teachers.

The document from CHILD USA does not say what teachers should do when they are unable to reach a child and their family, which is probably the case for many of the children most at-risk of maltreatment. Jurisdictions should consider the possibility of treating the inability to reach a child and family after several tries over several days as grounds for a teacher to call the child abuse hotline.

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States and counties might also try to enlist the only people who are seeing children regularly other than their immediate families–grocery and pharmacy workers and mail carriers. A representative of the Allegheny County Department of Children Youth and Families told a reporter that the agency “plans to pivot its awareness campaign” to focus on these workers. They plan to make sure the workers get the message that “if you see something, say something.” A grassroots campaign run by former child welfare workers in Arizona is also trying to contact the people who are still seeing children, including grocery workers, delivery services, and food banks.

As Angelina Jolie wrote in Time Magazine, “We were underprepared for this moment because we have yet to take the protection of children seriously enough as a society.” This is a major problem which needs to be addressed for the long term, so that next time there is a crisis, we will have a society that is ready to keep its children safe in spite of physical isolation.

This post is being updated daily during the coronavirus crisis include new information.

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Homebuilders program, never proven effective for family preservation, approved regardless by Title IV-E Clearinghouse

Screen Shot 2020-04-06 at 5.48.54 PMThe federal Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse recently approved Homebuilders, a well-known family preservation program, for Title IV-E funding, giving it the highest rating of “well-supported.” This decision is sure to be lauded by many child welfare administrators looking for more program choices, including those in the fourteen states where it is currently being used as of 2018. Unfortunately, the Clearinghouse decision does not appear to be justified by the research it cites. Of the two studies cited as the basis of the rating, one worked to reunify rather than preserve families; the other study concluded that Homebuilders was not effective in preserving families.

As many readers know, the Family First Prevention Services Act expanded the use of Title IV-E funds, which were formerly used only for foster care, to pay for evidence-based practices to prevent the placement of children in foster care. “In-Home Parent Skill-based” services were one of the three groups of services authorized, and Homebuilders has been frequently cited as a likely member of this category. To be approved for funding, each practice must be approved by the Prevention Services Clearinghouse, which was also created by the Act, with a rating of “promising,” “supported” or “well-supported.” The Act establishes criteria for meeting each of these standards.

In order to be rated as “well-supported,” a practice must be shown to be superior to an “appropriate comparison practice using conventional standards of statistical significance” as demonstrated by improvements in “important child and parent outcomes, such as mental health, substance abuse and child safety and well-being.” This must be established by at least two studies that were determined by an independent review to be “well-designed and well-executed,” used random assignment or a quasi-experimental design, and “were carried out in a usual care or practice setting,” and at least one of which established a sustained effect lasting at least a year.

Homebuilders is the best-known family preservation program. Developed in 1974 by the Institute for Family Development, it provides “intensive, in-home crisis intervention, counseling, and life-skills education for families who have children at imminent risk of placement in state-funded care.” Its goal is to “prevent…unnecessary out-of-home placement … through intensive, on-site intervention, and to teach families new problem-solving skills to prevent future crises.”

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a movement in support of Homebuilders and other Intensive Family Preservation Services (IFPS) spread throughout the child welfare world, spearheaded wealthy foundations and advocacy groups, as described by Richard Gelles in his influential text, The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children’s Lives. This movement resulted in a rapid expansion of these programs around the country, culminating in federal legislation allocating $1 billion to these programs nationwide. However, a major study authorized by Congress and conducted between 1994 and 2002 cast doubt on the effectiveness of these programs at keeping children safe and reducing foster care placements. In recent years, that study seems to have been forgotten. Indeed it is common for supporters to express the belief that “research shows Homebuilders has been well-supported for decades,” as one advocate told the Chronicle of Social Change.

Therefore there were no expressions of surprise or consternation that the clearinghouse gave Homebuilders its highest rating as a “well-supported practice.” In its narrative, the Clearinghouse explains that Homebuilders meets the criteria laid out in the Family First Act for that rating. Specifically, “at least two studies with non-overlapping samples carried out in usual care or practice settings achieved a rating of moderate or high on design and execution and demonstrated favorable effects in a target outcome domain. At least one of the studies demonstrated a sustained favorable effect of at least 12 months beyond the end of treatment on at least one target outcome.”

The clearinghouse reviewed 17 studies for possible relevance to  the Homebuilders program. Of these studies, only three were determined eligible for inclusion as evidence of Homebuilders’ effectiveness. The others were ruled out because they were done before 1990, were not relevant, or did not meet basic quality standards. Of those three studies, two were determined to meet the clearinghouse design for “moderate” or “high” support of the causal evidence, and both met the “moderate” rather than the “high” standard. So  the Clearinghouse based its recommendation on two studies only–the minimum required for Clearinghouse approval–both of which the lowest acceptable standard for support of the evidence.

For each of these two studies, the Clearinghouse separated out each individual effect found at each site and date, resulting in separate listings for the same effect at different follow-up times and sites if the project had multiple sites. At the end of this process, the Clearinghouse cited 10 instances of “no effect” on child safety across the two programs, confirming what was already well-known. For child permanency, there were seven , two unfavorable outcomes, and 13 findings of no effect. For adult well-being, they found one favorable effect, 14 instances of no effect, and no unfavorable effects. Despite the preponderance of findings that Homebuilders had no effect, the eight  favorable outcomes were enough to give Homebuilders the coveted rating of well-supported.”

The aggregate data is already underwhelming but it becomes worse when considering that seven of the eight favorable effects came from one study, which should not have been included at all in the review. That study, described by Elaine Walton and others in reports published between 1993 and 1998, assessed an intensive family reunification program provided in Utah. The study involved 110 families divided between the program and control groups. There were many things that made this program a strange prototype for Homebuilders. First, the program was aimed at reunification of children in foster care with their families, not the prevention of foster care placement. While Homebuilders can be used for reunification as well as for family preservation, it is known predominantly as a family preservation program.  Similarly, while Title IV-E funds can be used for family reunification programs as well as family preservation (if a state chooses to define children existing foster care as “foster care candidates”) Family First has been described by its supporters almost exclusively as an initiative to prevent the placement of children in foster care.

A program that is successful in family reunification may not be successful for family preservation. A family facing the possible removal of a child is in a very different situation from a family with a child already in foster care. Children in the Walton study had been in out-of-home placements from one to 88 months, with an average of one year. Most of the parents had presumably already participated in court-ordered services such as therapy, drug treatment and parenting classes.

Further undermining the relevance of the Walton study is that it was not a study of the Homebuilders program. The model described by Walton et al, called Family Reunification Services (FRS) by the authors,  departed from Homebuilders in many respects. Services were less intensive and longer in duration. Workers spent an average of about three hours per week in direct contact with the families, and this contact could last up to 90 days. This is a very different model from Homebuilders, which typically provides at least 40 hours of face-to-face services or about seven to ten hours a week, over a period of only four to six weeks.  It is hard to understand how the Clearinghouse could use this study of a non-Homebuilders reunification program to affirm the success of Homebuilders in general.  Yet, the Clearinghouse drew six or seven of its eight or nine favorable results from this study.[^1]

The second study cited by the Clearinghouse was conducted by three well-known research firms, Westat, Chapin Hall, and James Bell & Associates. This was a congressionally mandated evaluation that was intended to overcome shortcomings of previous studies. It included three family preservation program sites using the Homebuilders model, although the Clearinghouse cites only the studies from New Jersey (343 families) and Kentucky (442 families).  The researchers studied one family reunification program in New York, but the Clearinghouse did not review that portion of the study.

In reviewing the Homebuilders family preservation program sites in the three states,  the Westat researchers found no impact on child safety or foster care placement. The researchers concluded that their results were consistent with other studies that “have failed to produce evidence that family preservation programs with varying approaches to service have placement prevention effects or have more than minimal benefits in improved family or child functioning.”

Not surprisingly, the Clearinghouse found only one “favorable effect” from the Westat study. That effect was not on child safety or permanency but on adult well-being. They found a favorable impact on adult (not child) receipt of WIC program benefits at the Kentucky site immediately after program participation–not surprisingly as one would hope the Homebuilders caseworker helped families sign up for WIC. This is a very weak hook upon which to hang a “well-supported” rating.

The authors of the Westat study suggest that “The extent to which the intensive, short-term, crisis approach fits the needs of child welfare clients should be reexamined. The lives of these families are often full of difficulties—externally imposed and internally generated—such that their problems are better characterized as chronic, rather than 24 crisis. Short-term, intensive services may be useful for families with chronic difficulties, but those services are unlikely to solve, or make much of a dent in the underlying problems. Of course, the hope is family preservation programs will be able to connect families with on-going services to treat more chronic problems. But, that appears to happen far less than needed.”

In sum, the Clearinghouse based its rating on Homebuilders on two studies of two different programs. One of the programs did not follow the Homebuilders model and worked only to reunify families already separated by foster care. The second was a study of Homebuilders family preservation programs and according to its authors failed to demonstrate any favorable program impacts. The clearinghouse found only one favorable effect from this study, and it pertained to adult well-being. It is hard to believe that any reasonable person would conclude that these two studies together provide “strong support” that Homebuilders is effective in meeting the goals of Family First.

The flaws in the Clearinghouse approach to Homebuilders raise issues that are broader than the effectiveness of this one program. While the Act’s criteria for approval of a program are often described as “rigorous,” the Homebuilders result show that they are anything but that. Requiring only two studies to show favorable results regardless of the number of studies that show no impact; reporting that two studies have found favorable effects even though the one relevant study had only one minor favorable effect that its authors did not mention in their conclusion; allowing the use of data from an evaluation of one program to support the effectiveness of another program; rating a program as “well-supported” without specifying the specific outcomes that it has been shown to achieve — all of these connote a lack of rigor. Regarding the last point in particular, if a program is found to work for only one goal (such as family reunification and not family preservation) the Clearinghouse should approve it only for that goal.

The initial wave of Homebuilders expansion was spurred by an onslaught of non-scientific “evaluations” funded by foundations intent on demonstrating its effectiveness, as Richard Gelles describes in his book cited above. Sadly, the same type of advocacy-based analysis was used to support the passage of Family First.  Supporters of the Act repeatedly stated that we know what works to preserve families and we just need to fund it.  Yet Child Welfare Monitor has found few or no programs with strong evidence of large favorable effects. It is likely that other practices approved by the Clearinghouse have equally skimpy support.

This post was updated on April 16, 2020 after the Clearinghouse responded to Child Welfare Monitor’s question, submitted on April 2, requesting an explanation on apparent internal inconsistencies in its table about favorable program effects for Homebuilders.

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When school is safer than home: school closures, home schooling and child abuse

takoda collins house
Takoda Collins’ home: WDTN.com

Among the many frightening consequences of the coronavirus epidemic is one that has received little attention from the media. The loss of school as a safe place and school staff as a second set of eyes on children means an  increase in unreported child abuse and neglect. For home-schooled children, however, this vulnerability is the normal state of affairs.

School closures have a double-edged effect on child maltreatment. First, children are spending more hours with their parents without the respite that the school day affords to both.  Second, these children are isolated from teachers and other school staff who might have noticed bruises or other signs of trauma. According to the latest federal data, one-fifth of calls to child abuse hotlines come from school staff, making education personnel the largest single report source. School staff are such important reporters of suspected child maltreatment that reports to child abuse hotlines typically go down every summer and increase when students return to school. During the coronavirus epidemic, we have already learned of drastic reductions in calls to the child abuse hotline in Los Angeles, Connecticut and Georgia.

As we worry about the impact of school closings on both child abuse and its reporting, it is important to note that one population of children never benefits from the protective role of schools. About 1.8 million children, or 3.4 percent of the school-aged population, were homeschooled in America in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available. Clearly most of their parents are not abusive and want to provide the best education for their children, often at great personal sacrifice.

Nevertheless, for a small proportion of these children, homeschooling provides an opportunity for their abusive parents to prevent their abuse from being detected. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education has collected 456 cases of severe or fatal child abuse in homeschool settings. Many of the families had a history of past child abuse reports and child protective services (CPS) involvement. All too often, the homeschooling began after the closure of a CPS case.

Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate, in a stunning report, revealed that 36% of the students withdrawn from six districts to be homeschooled between 2013 and 2016 lived in families that had least one prior accepted report of child abuse or neglect. The majority of these families had multiple prior reports. In a landmark 2014 study of child torture cases by pediatricians from five medical centers, 29 percent of the school-aged children studied were not allowed to attend school while another 47 percent were removed from school under the pretext of homeschooling, typically after the closure of a CPS case.

From time to time, an egregious case of abuse of a homeschool child makes headlines and and leads to public calls for monitoring or regulation of homeschooling families. One tragic example was the death of ten-year-old Takoda Collins, in Dayton, Ohio on December 13, 2019. Takoda was tortured, raped and murdered by his father. School officials stated that school staff reported their concerns over Takoda’s safety 17 times over several years.  It was only days after the last report that Takoda’s father pulled him out of school under the pretence of homeschooling.

As Takoda’s art teacher told the Dayton Daily News, “I think his father just got tired of us calling him and calling Children Services because people had been calling for years.”  Now Dayton teachers are asking their legislators to require some scrutiny for children who are pulled out of school after they have been the subject of abuse reports.

Raylee Browning died on December 26, 2018 in West Virginia of sepsis after drinking from the toilet after being deprived of water for three days. When Raylee died, she had bruising, burns and lacerations and a torn rectum. She had been removed from school after multiple reports by school staff expressing their concerns about physical abuse and starvation.  H.B. 4440, sponsored by Del. Shawn Flaherty, would prevent parents from withdrawing a child from school to homeschool them when there is a pending child abuse or neglect investigation, and when a parent has been convicted of domestic violence or child abuse or neglect.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, an organization that works to protect homeschooled children from educational neglect and maltreatment, has three recommendations to protect home-schooled children from abuse:

  • Forbid homeschooling by parents who have been previously convicted of any offense that would disqualify them from teaching or volunteering in a public school. Only Pennsylvania currently has such a provision.
  • Flag at risk children–such as those with a history of child-abuse reports–for additional protections and supports.
  • Require that homeschooled students have contact with mandatory reporters once a  year.

Sadly, such laws are often proposed in the wake of egregious cases but fail in the legislature due to vociferous opposition from the homeschool lobby. In Ohio, the death by abuse of another homeschooled boy led to introduction of  Teddy’s Law, which would have required annual interviews of homeschooled children and their parents with social workers, checks to see if homeschool applicants had pending investigations, and delays or denials of permission to homeschool under some circumstances. The bill produced a national outcry from homeschool advocates, including death threats to the sponsors. After entire nation was rocked by the rescue of the 13 Turpin children in California from their imprisonment in a house of horrors that was registered as a home school, two bills to institute protections for homeschooled children failed as well. Similar attempts to protect children after deaths, near-deaths and egregious abuse of homeschooled children failed in Iowa and Kentucky and doubtless many other jurisdictions.

As described in the Washington Post Magazine, the Home School Legal Defense Association is one of Washington’s most effective lobbying groups  – and the current political climate  is in their favor. State homeschooling advocates are vocal as well. The Homeschool Legal Defense Fund is fighting Raylee’s Law and calls it “unconstitutional, un-American, and unnecessary.”

The school closures will eventually end, and we can only hope that the repercussions will not be dire for many children. When they do end, let us not forget those children who remain isolated even after COVID-19 is a bad memory. All children must be protected from maltreatment, even if their parents elect to school them at home.

 

Kinship Diversion: A parallel system of foster care

KinshipDiversion
Image: WAMU.org

The development of a system of informal kinship care that is parallel to the foster care system has recently begun to receive attention among academics, advocates and policymakers. This second system includes relatives who are caring for children under an informal arrangement facilitated by child welfare agencies through a practice called kinship diversion. This system has been called America’s Hidden Foster Care System by Josh Gupta-Kagan, Associate Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina.  Because most states don’t collect data on this practice, we don’t know how many children are affected, but it appears to be the most prevalent placement for children investigated by child protective services (CPS) agencies and greatly dwarfs kinship care within in the foster care system.

An issue brief from the research organization ChildTrends states that there is no agreement on the definition of kinship diversion, but in general it refers to a situation where a child welfare agency decides a child cannot be safe in a home due to abuse or neglect. But instead of taking custody of the child and requesting court approval for this move, the agency facilitates the transfer of custody to a relative outside the foster care system. This transfer is often effected through a “safety plan” or agreement between the parents, the agency, and the relative to keep the children safe. Whether stated or implied, parents know that failure to agree to the plan may result in the removal of their child and court involvement. According to Marla Spindel of the DC Kincare Alliance, sometimes the agency transfers custody of a child without the agreement of the parent, and only the agreement of the kinship caregiver.

The only national data on the prevalence of kinship diversion appears to come from a study of children who had contact with child welfare services within a fifteen-month period starting in February 2008. The researcher, Wendy Walsh, found that informal kinship care was the most common out-of-home placement for children found to be abused or neglected, accounting for almost half of children placed out of home. But these data are over ten years old. The limited data suggest that states are using kinship diversion in many more cases than they are licensing kin as foster parents. According to the most recent national data, 32 percent of children in formal foster care were in a relative home as of September 30, 2018. Gupta-Kagan cites a number of more recent studies in individual states that suggest kinship diversion is being used “with roughly the same frequency” as formal foster care overall–including relative and non-relative caregivers.

Newer data on kinship diversion are greatly needed. ChildTrends used a social worker survey to estimate the rates of kinship diversion in “several” unnamed jurisdictions. The researchers reported that “[I]n some jurisdictions, for every [ten] children entering foster care, an additional [seven] were diverted, while in others there was an equal split—for every child entering foster care, another child was diverted.” Without knowing how many and what jurisdictions were studied, and whether these were the highest and lowest ratios, it is hard to know how to interpret these data.

In addition to information about the extent of kinship diversion, we know little to nothing about how informal kinship care arrangements initiated through kinship diversion differ from foster care. Among the questions raised by ChildTrends are: Do kinship caregivers undergo a background check? Are services and supports provided and to whom? How do the services and supports differ from those provided in foster care? How long do diversion arrangements last? In their studies of three jurisdictions, ChildTrends found that agencies usually initiated background checks but often failed to complete them; an official case is not always opened; and services and supports to children, parents and caregivers are “inconsistently provided” and differ by jurisdiction. The “greatest disparity in supports” was that diversion caregivers do not receive foster care stipends and usually have to rely on welfare assistance to support the children.

As Gupta-Kagan points out, kinship diversion has raised various concerns both ends of the child welfare ideological spectrum. Those who are concerned about parents’ rights worry about the state removing children without due process protections for their parents. Moreover, unlike with foster care, there is no requirement that the agency make reasonable efforts toward reunification or develop case plans prescribing what parents must do to get their children back. Those who are concerned about children’s safety and well-being worry that kin caregivers may return the children to their parent at any time, regardless of safety, or may allow unsupervised visits with dangerous parents. Child advocates also worry that there is no permanency for these children as they move back and forth between parents and caregivers. Moreover, informal kinship caregivers may not receive the same level of screening as potential foster parents. These caregivers and the children they raise do not usually receive the same supports as they would in foster care, including stipends, case management, and mental health, drug treatment and parenting services. If not granted custody in court, these caregivers have no legal rights to obtain medical care, enroll children in school, or approve services, and a parent can come back and take custody of the child at any time. 

Some stakeholders support kinship diversion because they think it is always better to keep children out of state custody and allow families to decide their own futures. In the jurisdictions that it studied, ChildTrends found a wide variety in opinion among stakeholders but widespread agreement (over 90 percent) in favor of kinship diversion among agency social workers in five states.

Gupta argues that the “hidden foster care system” enabled by kinship diversion is “likely growing and it is certainly becoming institutionalized through federal funding incentives, new federal funding which strengthen those incentives, and state policies which seek to codify the practice.” As Gupta points out, there is a strong financial incentive for states and other jurisdictions to use informal kinship care. They avoid expensive foster care payments as well as the expenses of case management and other services to children in foster care and their families. Gupta argues that the new Family First Act further incentives kinship diversion by allowing funding for services to children and their parents for a year or more while they remain in an informal kinship placement.

Gupta fails to mention another incentive for kinship diversion–reducing the foster care rolls–which has become increasingly viewed as a favorable outcome and even (somewhat paradoxically) as a goal of child welfare systems. For example, one of the four pillars by which the District of Columbia’s child welfare agency measures its performance is Narrowing the Front Door, or reducing entries into foster care. Casey Family Programs, the two-billion dollar private foundation with an oversize influence on child welfare policy around the county, still proclaims (somewhat anachronistically) on its website that one of its four primary goals is to “Safely reduce the need for foster care by 50 percent by the year 2020.”

Some kinship diversion critics, like Gupta-Kagan, argue for more regulation of the practice to require appointment of attorneys for parents, impose a maximum length of time for safety plans that change custody, and allow parents to seek court review of safety plans.  Others, like Marla Spindel of DC Kincare Alliance, believe that kinship diversion as currently practiced is both harmful and illegal under state and federal law.

There is a case to be made for an outright prohibition on kinship diversion to eliminate the possibility that an abused or neglected child be returned to the parents before a professional can assess that the child is safe. Custody changes involving CPS would have to take place through an official removal subject to court approval, leading to formal foster care, or through a time-limited Voluntary Placement Agreement (VPA, which is allowed by federal and state law). A VPA can be used to place a child with a relative for a limited time period (such as 90 or 180 days) with the requirement that court proceedings be brought if reunification with the birth parent is not achievable in that timespan.

DC Kincare Alliance (DKA) and the law firm Ropes & Gray has filed an unprecedented federal lawsuit against kinship diversion in the District of Columbia. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three relative caregivers and  three children they are raising. DKA argues that CFSA is violating the federal Social Security Act and several DC laws by using kinship diversion instead of removing these children formally and licensing their caregivers as foster parents. The case seeks a court ruling that kinship diversion is illegal and an order prohibiting CFSA from engaging in this practice. It also seeks damages for lost foster care payments “and other injuries.”

As policymakers debate restrictions on kinship diversion, not time should be lost in learning all we can about the extent and nature of the practice today. At a minimum, as proposed by Gupta, states should be required to track every case of kinship diversion to provide information about the total number of cases, the safety and well-being of the children, how long they remain in these arrangements, and how cases are resolved. We also need to know the policies and practices that states are following in terms of clearances, supports, monitoring, and other ways the arrangements may differ from foster care. The hidden foster care system must be brought out of the darkness and into the light of day.

 

 

 

 

 

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez: an all-too familiar story

TrialsofGabrielFernandez
Image: Facebook.com

On February 26, Netflix released a heartbreaking series, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez.  Directed by Ben Knappenberger, the series centers on  the horrific death of an eight-year-old boy in the Antelope Value of California on May 24, 2013. Gabriel Fernandez died after eight months of torture by his mother and her boyfriend. Despite repeated reports to the child abuse hotline and the Sheriff’s Office, multiple investigations, and even an open family services case, there was no rescue for Gabriel. It was only after his death that the story of his last eight months and the inexplicable failure of the police and social services were revealed.

I wrote about Gabriel’s story in November 2018 in a post entitled, Why No One Saved Gabriel Fernandez. But The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez uses the power of video to bring the case alive in a way that is difficult to do in writing. The unusually calm voice of a mother tells a 911 operator her son is not breathing. An ambulance flies through the late-night streets, carrying an eight-year-old who had been resuscitated by the EMT’s and again in the ambulance and will stop breathing twice more in the ER. A little boy with injuries to almost every part of his small body, which will, in spite of all the heroic efforts by doctors and nurses to save him, finally shut down.

So begins The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. In six excruciating but riveting episodes, The Trials tells the story of the Los Angeles Times investigation into Gabriel’s life and death, the trials of his murderers, and the unsuccessful attempt to hold accountable those professionals who failed him. Times reporter Garrett Therolf recounts learning of the eight-year-old’s death in a crime blog and wondering about the circumstances, being faced with self-protective wall secrecy and stonewalling imposed by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and hearing from  a whistleblower who risked his job to reveal the truth. The prosecutor wheels into court the shockingly small cabinet where Gabriel spent his nights bound and gagged. Isaurro Aguirre sits impassive as a parade of witnesses describe the sweetness of Gabriel and the unspeakable nature of his injuries. Gabriel’s teacher fights back tears as she tells how she contacted CPS every time Gabriel arrived in school with increasingly bizarre and severe injuries. The partner of Gabriel’s uncle tells of the three-day-old infant they took home from the hospital because his mother did not want him, his growth into a joyful four-year-old, who was then raised by his grandparents for the next four years until he was returned to his mother for the welfare money. A bewildered social worker sheds tears of fear for her own future, claiming she had no idea anything was wrong in Gabriel’s home.

I identified two major systemic issues that could have been behind DCFS’ failure to rescue Gabriel. One of these issues–the focus on family preservation at all costs–was addressed in the documentary. The other issue–that of resources–was not. As Garrett Therolf put it in a brilliant article in The Atlantic, child welfare requires a balancing act between child safety and family preservation. Finding this difficult balance requires a highly trained workforce with the resources to carry out a thorough investigation in every case.” Overworked, undertrained, and underpaid social workers simply cannot do it.

Gabriel’s case was far from unique, as the documentary made clear. Two weeks after Isaurro Aguirre was sentenced to death for his murder of Gabriel, and Pearl Hernandez was sentenced to life without parole after taking a plea deal to avoid the death penalty, another little boy was dead of abuse in the Antelope Valley. Ten-year-old Anthony Avilas was allegedly killed by his mother and her boyfriend. His torture and abuse appeared to be motivated at least in part by homophobia, as in Gabriel’s case. And there was a long history of interactions with authorities with no help forthcoming for Anthony. Soon enough news arrived that a four year old named Noah Cuatro had died under similar circumstances in the Antelope Valley. Around California, over 150 children who were known to DCFS have died of abuse or neglect since Gabriel died, as reported in the documentary.

But this is not a California story alone. These cases happen all over the country. The Commission on Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities estimated that a third to a half of the child maltreatment fatalities around the country involved families known to Child Protective Services. I write have written about some of these children whose cases made it to the mass media: Zymere Perkins in New York City,;Matthew Tirado in Connecticut; Adrian Jones and Evan Brewer in Kansas; the six Hart children in Minnesota, Oregon and Washington; Jordan Belliveau in Florida; and most recently Thomas Valva in New York. All were the subject of reports and investigations, and sometimes service cases, but all were allowed to die at the hands of murderous caretakers.

The power of video to bring about public awareness is truly awe-inspiring. Normally my posts are read mainly by academics, child advocates, and child welfare professionals. On February 27, I started to notice some unusual traffic on my blog. Between February 27 and the early morning of March, my posts on Gabriel, Anthony, Noah and other children failed by the state had been viewed over 2000 times. If only the public could keep up this level of interest –perhaps even follow my blog–and insist on adequate funding and an end to the wall of secrecy around child welfare services, we might be able to save the next Gabriel Fernandez.

 

The Murder of Thomas Valva: Corrections to my earlier post

Thomas ValvaA new report from Eyewitness News has cast doubt on my pieced-together account of the process by which Justyna Zubko-Valva lost custody of Thomas and her other sons. My initial account, relying on reports from other media outlets, suggested that a judge revoked the mother’s custody and gave it to the father in an arbitrary manner without seeking to evaluate either parent’s capability of raising the children. Based on the documents described by Eyewitness News, ot appears that this was not the case. I have updated my post to account for the new information, as described below.

My post initially relied on available media accounts in stating that Judge Hope Schwartz Zimmerman became fed up with Justyna Zubko-Valva for failing to follow two orders, including one to get her children evaluated. In fact, the court documents obtained by Eyewitness News state that the Zubko-Valva was refusing to follow an order that she herself be evaluated, unless the interview could be videotaped. The evaluator refused due to the “sensitive nature of the testing materials.”

Without a psychological evaluation of the mother, Judge Zimmerman stated that she was unable to bring the case to trial. She announced that she was awarding “temporary, temporary” custody to the father. The rationale for that decision is not explained in the quotes from Eyewitness News. Perhaps Judge Zimmerman thought that moving the children would induce Zubko-Valva to obtain the evaluation. Using the children as tools to induce parental compliance would be inappropriate in any case. In this case, the transfer of custody not only failed to achieve the judge’s goal but resulted in the death of one child, horrific abuse of another child, and potential lifelong damage to the two living children. The “temporary, temporary custody” ended up lasting for two years after Valva filed an abuse report against Zubko-Valva and Zubko-Valva later refused supervised visitation, as described below. Nevertheless, my statement the judge cavalierly transferred custody of the boys without evaluating the parents appears to have been wrong. Instead, she apparently transferred custody in order to obtain the evaluation she required

Of course Zubko-Valva could not know that her intransigence about the evaluation would lead to suffering, death and lifelong damage to her children. But there are other disturbing aspects of her behavior cited in the Eyewitness News account.  It appears that she did not see her children for two years, from January 2018 until Thomas’ death in January 2020. Eyewitness News stated that visits were cut off in January 2018 due to the abuse accusations against Ms. Zubko-Valva but that another judge, Joseph Lorintz, offered her visits starting in April 2018, when the charges were dismissed. Zubko-Valva reportedly refused to visit the children unless they were moved from Valva’s home–a request which the judge denied. In July 2019 the judge again offered her visits, but said the visits must be supervised because “I’m not going to allow you to see your children after a year and a half without some form of supervision in place.” Eyewitness News reports that Zubko-Valva refused to visit her children in a supervised setting. She reportedly refused the same offer in September, 2019, only four months before Thomas’ death. According to the transcripts cited by Eyewitness News, Judge Lorintz almost pleaded with Zubko-Valva, saying “You haven’t seen your children since January 14, 2018. It may only be a few times, but I need for them to be reintroduced to you.” The transcripts show the judge offering three more times to order visits, without receiving an answer from Zubko-Valva. She would never never again see her son Thomas alive. By refusing the opportunity to see her children, did she miss the chance to save Thomas? We will never know.

Unless the Eyewitness News account of the court transcripts is terribly wrong, it appears that Zubko-Valva was not acting in the best interests of her children when she refused the evaluation and the visits. Her refusal to visit her children is very hard to understand and very concerning as it relates to her current fitness as a parent to her two very damaged young sons. The courts and CPS have already failed these children catastrophically; it is hoped that their continued involvement will serve to protect these children and ensure that they receive the treatment and monitoring they need.

The difficulty of piecing events together based on incomplete press accounts illustrates the need for an independent children’s ombudsman to review such cases of systemic failure and release their reviews  (redacted as necessary) to the public. Only with such independent reviews can taxpayers understand how and why the system they paid for has failed. If I knew that such a review was forthcoming, I would not have even tried to come up with a credible narrative of this case without the court transcripts and CPS documents. The public should not have to rely on guesswork to find out how the system failed and what has to change.

 

 

 

 

The murder of Thomas Valva: Another innocent child betrayed by Family Court and CPS

Thomas Valva funeralIt’s happened again. Another child is dead after being removed from a loving mother and placed with an abusive father. Another child is dead after more than 20 reports from school officials concerned about his treatment at home. Another child is dead after a judge and child protection workers made the wrong decisions over and over again.

On January 17, as reported by Newsday and other media outlets, police responded to a 911 call at the home of NYPD Officer Michael Valva and his fiancee Angela Pollina in East Moriches, Long Island. The caller stated that eight-year-old Thomas Valva, who had autism, had fallen in the driveway. Police soon learned that there was no fall in the driveway. The night before he died, Thomas and his brother were forced to sleep on the concrete floor of their family’s unheated garage, while outside temperatures fell to 19 degrees, Thomas’ body temperature was 76 degrees at the time of his death in the hospital. A chilling recording obtained by the police records the father mocking his dying son, who repeatedly fell when trying to walk, jeering that he was”cold, boo-[expletive]-hoo.” Valva and Pollina were arrested and charged with second-degree murder, among other crimes. They have pleaded not guilty and are being held without bail.

The facts stated above are clear, but the chronology below had to be pieced together from multiple articles in the media, each containing part of the puzzle. Many questions still remain.

The Family Court Places Thomas in Harm’s Way

A decision by Nassau County Supreme Court Judge Hope Schwartz Zimmerman in the divorce case between Thomas’ parents set the stage for the tragedy. On September 17, 2017, she took Thomas and his two brothers away from their mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, and placed them with their abusive father and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, who also had three girls. Based on court records obtained by Eyewitness News reporter Kristin Thorne, the judge had ordered forensic evaluations of both parents, a normal procedure in a custody case. But Justina Zubko-Valva, Thomas’ mother, refused to be interviewed by the psychologist without being able to tape the session. Due to the “sensitive nature of the testing materials,” the evaluator refused this request and the evaluation was not done.

It is not clear why Zubka-Valva insisted on a videotape of the interview, but she has indicated on Twitter and elsewhere her conviction that there was a conspiracy against her. She and her children paid a high price for her choice. The judge told the court, according to the court papers obtained by Eyewitness News, that “There’s certain things that have to be done in terms of preparing this case for trial … and until that happens I can’t have the trial. So I’m awarding temporary, temporary custody of the children to the father.” The Judge’s reasoning is unclear from the quotes provided by Eyewitness News, but the most plausible explanation is that she gave custody to Valva in order to pressure Zubko-Valva to submit to the evaluation. If that was her goal, it was certainly improper (as children should never be treated as tools to gain a parent’s compliance), and it certainly did not achieve its intended effect.

Ms. Zubko-Valva was by most accounts a devoted mother.  She trekked daily to Manhattan to bring her autistic sons to a special school. Struggling to provide for her children with minimal support from Mr. Valva after their separation, she had taken a job as a correctional officer to make ends meet and keep them on the same health insurance plan as they had before.  Dr. Kim Berens, a behavioral psychologist who worked with the boys told the Daily Beast that Ms. Valva “one of the one of the most loving, caring, devoted mothers I’ve ever met.” The children’s pediatrician and the neuropsychiatrist who examined both boys also praised Ms. Valva. Judge Zimmerman never got to hear from them thanks to Ms. Zubko-Valva’s own refusal to submit to the court-ordered evaluation.

CPS Seals Thomas’ Fate

The decision to place Thomas with his father opened the door to his murder, But it was the egregious failure of Nassau County Child Protective Services (CPS) over the succeeding two years that sealed Thomas’ fate.  After Valva and Pollina gained custody of the boys, they were apparently able to coach them to accuse their mother of abuse. By October 2017, Zubko-Valva was being investigated for child abuse. It appears that CPS actually substantiated the trumped-up charges and brought her to “trial”1 for abuse. The charges were dismissed in April 2018. Thus, the “temporary, temporary” custody stretched to become a long-term arrangement as Ms Zubko-Valva was apparently denied even visitation with her children once the abuse charges were filed or substantiated by CPS.

In the meantime, calls began streaming in from the boys’ school public school, where Valva had moved them from their special program in Manhattan immediately upon gaining custody. The New York Daily News obtained records of “some 20 calls” from Thomas’s teachers while he was living with Valva and Pollina. The calls reported that Thomas and his brother Anthony, who is also autistic, missed school for two or three days at a time, showed signs of physical abuse, and often arrived in school hungry and dirty.

The Daily News found that at least one abuse allegation (that Thomas had a black eye) was substantiated against Valva and Pollina but that CPS concluded that it did “not rise to the level of immediate or impending danger of serious harm. No controlling interventions are necessary at this time.” Another report alleged that Anthony had been coming to school with his backpack soaked in urine. “As a result of the child being soaked in urine, he has a foul odor and he is extremely cold,” the report continued.

Another call reported that Thomas had a welt on his forehead caused when Michael Valva threw a backpack at him. The report continues that Valva “refused to let the two boys be interviewed at school, where they might have felt freer to speak, or to allow the other children in the home to be interviewed.” However, the New York State Child Protective Services Manual states that if CPS is refused access to the home or to any child in the household “the CPS worker, in consultation with a CPS supervisor, must assess within 24 hours of the refusal whether it is necessary to seek a court order to obtain access.” Allowing an abusive parent to deny access to his children effectively neutralizes CPS’s ability to investigate. Why did CPS fail to follow its own procedures?

At least one allegation apparently resulted in CPS monitoring Valva  for a year under a court order that also required him to take parenting classes and “refrain from harmful activities,” according to Newsday. This order was apparently imposed by Suffolk County family court judge, Bernard Cheng, who was also presiding over the child abuse trial of Zubko-Valva, according to the Daily News. (The divorce case with Judge Zimmerman was in Nassau County Supreme Court). But the case closed and the children were left to their fate. It appears that Judge Cheng sensed that something was badly wrong in the Valva household but felt his hands were tied. The Daily News cites the Judge expressing concern in February 2019 about several issues:

  • Anthony arrived at an interview walking bent over at the waist and complaining his backside was sore. His school reported that he arrived with injuries so severe from beatings that officials needed to ice down his buttocks and upper thighs. Judge Cheng indicated that Anthony said that  “his father told him to say he does not get hit at his house.”
  • Ten-year-old Anthony had lost six pounds in one month, and Thomas gained just four pounds in the 12 months of 2018.
  • Teachers at the boys’ school told investigators that the children could not concentrate due to hunger and were looking for food in garbage cans or off the floor.
  • In his April 12 decision dismissing the charges against Ms. Zubko-Valva, the Judge stated that he found the father’s denials of abuse “less than credible,” since his testimony changed when he was asked for more detailed accounts.

But, despite expressing all of these serious concerns, the judge took no action to protect the boys. The attorney for CPS argued at the February hearing that the concerns brought up were “non-issues.” Judge Cheng disagreed with him, stating that the concerns were valid. He also stated, with more knowledge of child development than CPS, that “deterioration in [Anthony’s] level of functioning suggests that his needs are not being met.” But he said he had to rely on the opinions of CPS investigators. This statement is confusing to this former social worker who has more than once been overruled by a Family Court judge. It is hard to say what is more astonishing: that Judge Cheng was aware of so much credible evidence of abuse and did not order the removal of the children despite CPS’s opinion, or that CPS thought the children should be left in this lethal home.

Justyna Zubka-Valva has custody of her surviving two sons now. She was granted that custody by another judge at an emergency hearing following Thomas’ death. But it was too late for Thomas. Inquiries are underway into Judge Zimmerman’s conduct in the case as well as the actions of CPS.

Why were Thomas and his brothers not protected?

More information is necessary to make conclusions about why the system failed. The factors that affected the court case–Ms. Zubko-Valva’s intransigence and the Judge’s inappropriate response–may be specific to this one case.  But widely-known systemic issues with CPS appear to have played into this tragedy.

High CPS Caseloads: As in many jurisdictions, Suffolk County CPS caseloads are too high, with the average caseload at 17.9 per worker at the beginning of 2019, declining to 12.4 by the end of the year, and several caseworker handling more than 30 cases a month. The Child Welfare League of America recommends that CPS workers carry no more than 12 cases at a time.  In addition, Nassau County CPS workers complain that they spend too much time on paperwork instead of investigating allegations–a complaint that this former social worker heartily endorses.

Making it difficult to substantiate abuse: But the overwhelmed CPS explanation can only take us so far. The head of the union representing social workers told CBS-New York that workers did what they were supposed to do in Thomas’s case but their hands were tied. “You can’t remove a child from a parent without having clear cut evidence as supported by the law that will be upheld by the judicial system,” he said.  It is hard to believe that CPS did not consider it had such evidence–and that makes one wonder if a policy of quelling such findings was being imposed from on high. A chilling comment by Jeanette Feingold, director of Suffolk County Child Protective Services illustrates the issue. At an emotional legislative hearing covered by Newsday, she said “We don’t want to take these children. We want to build these families…. We’re not there to rip families apart.” I’ve written before about the exaggerated emphasis on family preservation that has taken hold in most child welfare systems. But with the mother being the primary parent for most of her older children’s lives, it is hard to understand the preference by CPS for Mr. Valva over his wife. 

The need for an independent review

Multiple reviews of judicial and agency conduct are underway, but they may never be available to the public. Or they may end up whitewashing official conduct, like the recent review of child welfare agency responsibility for  the death of Noah Cuatro in Los Angeles. Needed is an independent agency such as the Inspector General for the Department of Children and Family Services in Illinois, which reviews such cases and publishes detailed summaries that are redacted to preserve the confidentiality of living children and innocent adults.

Some analysts say the focus on fatalities is not useful because they are atypical. I disagree. Fatalities and other extreme cases are the tip of the iceberg that is the total universe of abused children. For every fatality, we have no idea how many other children are living with pain and fear even though child welfare agencies or courts have been alerted. These same judges and social workers operating under the same laws and policies hold the fates of hundreds of other children in their hands every year.

A repeating story in New York

Moreover, this cases are not as atypical as one might think. Within two weeks of Thomas’ death, the deaths of two other little boys from abuse after being abandoned by the state made it to the pages of the New York Times. In New York City, Teshawn Watkins was arrested late in January for murdering his six-week old son, Kaseem, after video was found showing him smothering the infant with a pillow. Now New York City’s Administration on Children’s Services (ACS) is facing questions about why the infant was not protected despite his father’s known history of abuse. It turns out that not only was Watkins arrested twice for assaulting the baby’s mother, but he has been investigated four times for child abuse, including a broken leg suffered by one of his two other sons. The two older brothers (now ages 3 and 4) were actually placed in foster care until the police found no evidence of the infant’s abuse. Watkins is being held without bail on Riker’s Island, where ironically Justina Zubka-Valva is a correctional officer.

In the same week, the ACS’ failure to protect another little boy was on display: Rysheim Smith was convicted for the murder of six-year-old Zymere Perkins after ACS disregarded numerous reports that the little boy was repeatedly injured and in constant danger from his mother’s violent boyfriend.  The case shocked the city in 2016 and led to a raft of reforms that apparently failed to protect tiny Kaseem. The New York Times reported on Smith’s conviction for killing Zymere on January 15, Thomas’ death on January 24, and baby Kaseem’s death on February 7. All of the articles were by different reporters. Nobody at the paper seems to be putting the pieces together to expose what appears to be a crisis of children abandoned by the state.

We need to pay attention to these egregious cases for at least two reasons. Only by finding out what went wrong in these cases  can we know how to change policy and practice to prevent future tragedies. But we also need accountability. I’m tired of hearing that we don’t want to punish people or create a climate of fear. It’s not about punishment. It’s about removing people who should not have custody over children’s lives.

This post was updated on February 13, 2020.

 

 


  1. The term “trial” connotes what is called a “neglect trial,” not a criminal trial.