Family First: A “Reform” that Isn’t

Family FirstBy now most readers will know that Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) as part of the continuing resolution to fund the government until March 23. The passage of this major legislation as part of a continuing resolution marks the final victory of an ideological agenda that has taken over the child welfare advocacy community.

FFPSA was drafted in secret without feedback from stakeholders such as state and county child welfare administrators, many of whom expressed opposition to the bill or at least concern about its consequences.  After several failed attempts to pass the bill over a two-year period, it was finally passed as part of a continuing resolution that was urgently needed to fund the entire government and avert a shutdown.

If we had a more pluralistic intellectual landscape in child welfare, FFPSA might have looked very different. Any bill calling itself “child welfare finance reform” should have started by addressing the most egregious flaw in child welfare financing–the linkage between Title IV-E eligibility and eligibility for the long-defunct AFDC program, which was terminated in 1996.

As a result of this linkage, fewer children are eligible for Title IV-E assistance every year, and states spend millions of dollars on the useless exercise of verifying eligibility for every child entering the system, as described by Sean Hughes in the Chronicle of Social Change. Yet, the advocacy community, in its single-minded quest to reduce the foster care rolls, gave up the fight to de-link foster care from AFDC.

Instead, the goal of “finance reform” became expanding the use of Title IV-E funds to included what the Act calls “prevention services.” These are not services to prevent abuse and neglect, but rather to prevent a child’s entry into foster care once that abuse or neglect has already occurred. FFPSA allows the use of these funds to fund parenting education, drug treatment and mental health services for parents.

Most of these “prevention” services logically belong to other systems, such as drug treatment and mental health, and are also funded by Medicaid. But prevailing ideology favors diverting foster care funds to other purposes, ostensibly to encourage prevention. In the most recent display of this ideology, the President and CEO of Casey Family Programs testified last week that “for every $7 the Federal government spends on foster care, only $1 is spent on prevention.”

No footnote was provided, but it appears that Bell was restating a common refrain that compares Title IV-E foster care expenditures with spending under Title IV-B, that is used mostly for in-home services. This comparison fails to take into account all the services provided by other programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Social Services Block Grant, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, Medicaid, the Maternal Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Most of these programs are insufficiently funded, but it makes sense to increase their funding rather than divert funds that were designed to help good Samaritans meet the needs of the children they have volunteered to care for temporarily.

This view that a foster home is always better than a congregate (non-family) placement is another part of the prevailing ideology in child welfare. Congregate placements also happen to be more expensive, making restrictions on congregate care a perfect offset to FFPSA’s increased costs. It’s very convenient when ideological correctness coincides with saving money! Unfortunately, restrictions on congregate care may be harmful to children when there is a foster home shortage and so many of today’s foster homes are inadequate, as I described in my last column.

The lack of robust conversation and debate in the child welfare advocacy community has resulted in a “reform” that will create more problems than it solves. Our most vulnerable children deserved a better outcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Family First Act: A Bad Bill that Won’t Go Away

continuing rsolution

Some bad ideas just won’t go away. The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) is rearing its ugly head yet again. The act, which failed to pass the Senate in 2016, has been incorporated into the continuing appropriations bill passed by the House of Representatives on February 6.

Chapter I of the Act, billed as “Investing in Prevention and Family Services,” would allow Title IV-E funds to be used to fund services meant to keep children out of foster care, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, parent training and counseling, and kinship navigator programs.

The general idea of allowing Title IV-E funds to be used for services to prevent foster care placement makes sense. (I prefer to call these family preservation services rather than “preventive services” because true preventive services would seek to prevent maltreatment before it occurred, rather than preventing removal from the home after maltreatment has already occurred.)  But the bill limits the list of services funded to mental health, substance abuse treatment, and parent education and training. It does not include services like domestic violence prevention, peer mentoring or support groups, crisis intervention, housing assistance, and many others that could be crucial to keeping families together.

More importantly, FFPSA poses an agonizing dilemma for a grandmother, aunt or other relative who wants to help struggling family members. FFPSA allows children to live in a kinship setting for up to 12 months while their parents receive services to prevent their entry into foster care. Because the child is not technically in foster care with the kin, the placement must be informal in order for the parents to receive Title IV-E-funded “prevention” services.  The relative cannot become a paid foster parent unless the child enters foster care, at which point the parents are no longer eligible for the family preservation services. This leaves grandmother or aunt providing kinship care without any financial assistance or program support, while the child or children receive no monitoring or oversight by social workers.

Chapter II of FFPSA is billed as “Ensuring the Necessity of a Placement that is Not in a Foster Family Home.” This chapter would forbid federal reimbursement for a placement other than a foster family home (often called “congregate care”) beyond two weeks without an “age-appropriate, evidence-based, validated functional assessment” using a tool approved by the Secretary of Health and Human Services to determine that the child’s needs cannot be met “with family members or through placement in a foster family home.” Such placements must also be approved by a court within 60 days. The bill also establishes stringent requirements that must be met by agencies seeking to qualify for reimbursement, including on-site nurses, for example.

This approach is problematic for two reasons.

First, we don’t have enough foster homes. States around the country are reporting foster home shortages. Reports of children being housed in offices and hotels have come from California, Texas, Oregon, Kansas, and Georgia, Tennessee, and Washington DC. With group homes closed, this problem will only worsen.

The attempt to close congregate care facilities without providing an alternative is eerily reminiscent of the closure of institutions for the mentally ill in the 1960s. These hospitals were supposed to be replaced with community health services that were never funded. We are still reaping the consequences with the abundance of mentally ill people sleeping on the streets of America’s cities.

Nevertheless, the authors of the Family First Act made sure to specify that: “A shortage or lack of foster family homes shall not be an acceptable reason for determining that the needs of the child cannot be met in  a foster family home.” One wonders where these children should go but perhaps the sponsors don’t care. It is the states and counties that will find a place for the children, even if the federal government does not pay a share.

Second, we don’t have enough good-quality foster homes. Anyone who works with foster children and parents knows that a minority of foster parents do a spectacular job, treating their charges like their own children. But many of the other homes barely improve upon the abusive or neglectful homes the children were removed from.

I’m talking about foster parents that never visit the child’s school or transport them to activities, insist that the social worker to take them to the doctor and therapist, refuse to meet the child’s birth family, and siphon off part of the foster care payment for their own purposes. These children need extra love, support, and enrichment, not the bare bones of room and board and nothing else.

The widespread simplistic belief that a foster family home is always better than a non-family setting has been promoted widely with heavy support from ideologically driven funders and advocates including the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs. These groups employ slogans like Every Kid Needs a Family, ignoring the fact that most children entering foster care do have a family that they want to return to, and would not necessarily prefer being placed in a family of strangers rather than an educational or group setting where they can receive the enrichment they need while awaiting reunification.

Research supports the idea that quality is more important than the type of setting, and that high-quality group care can have even better outcomes than high-quality foster home care. Moreover large sibling groups can often be kept together only by placement in a non-family setting.

It is hard to understand that anyone believe that a loveless, bare-bones foster home is better than an idyllic environment like the Crossnore School in North Carolina, where foster children  (including sibling groups) benefit from dedicated cottage parents, an onsite school, and multiple forms of mental health treatment, including equine-assisted therapy. But the bare-bones foster home has one advantage over Crossnore. It is much cheaper.

Clearly, legislators want the savings from eliminating non-family options to offset the increased costs imposed by the expansion of Title IV-E to include preventive services. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the restriction on non-family placements would offset almost 70% of the costs of extending IV-E reimbursement to family preservation services, over a ten-year period.

It is not surprising that government officials in the three states with the largest foster care populations–California, New York, and Texas, have all expressed concern about or opposition to the Family First Act. Other states have expressed their opposition as well .

Aside from a pair of hearings that were orchestrated by the bill’s sponsors to support their vision for the legislation, there have been no hearings or floor debate on the Family First Act. Last year, it passed the House by voice vote, and its Senate sponsors tried to get it through without a vote before going on summer recess. They failed, thanks to courageous Senators who cared about children enough to resist pressure from the powerful coalition supporting the bill.

Lets hope that the same wise and courageous Senators make sure this dangerous legislation is not allowed to slip into law in the urgent effort to pass a continuing resolution. Lets not save money on our most vulnerable kids. Spending money on better placements now will surely reap savings down the road in crime, unemployment, and welfare receipt.

 

Grabbing the Wrong End of the Stick on Educational Stability for Foster Youth

vanFor decades, children in foster care have endured multiple school changes as they moved between foster homes and other placements. With each move there is another school placement, with some children and youth changing schools several times in the same year. This is not a satisfactory situation, especially because many children who are placed in foster care have already endured many school changes and long periods of absence from school, leaving them already behind academically.

But in order to bring about educational stability for foster youth, legislators  have grabbed the wrong edge of the stick. Rather than keeping foster youth near their original schools, Congress has passed legislation requiring education and child welfare agencies to transport children from new foster homes and placements to their former schools, no matter how long it takes and how much it costs.

The Every Student Succeeds Act  (ESSA) requires school systems to transport foster children to their original schools “whenever it is in their best interest.” There is nothing wrong with the legislation as written. Clearly, young people should be transported to their original schools if it is in their best interest. The question is, when is it actually in a child’s best interest to be transported to their original school?

Is it in their best interest to be in a van for up to four hours a day as the driver stops to pick up different children going to different schools? Is it in their best interest to be transported by a private services that gets them to school late daily? Is it in their best interest to be unable to participate in extracurricular activities because they have to be picked up right after school ends? Is it in their best interest to spend agency money that could be used for tutoring or therapy on transportation? These are all common problems that I observed as a foster care social worker in the District of Columbia when the children on my caseload were being transported to their original schools from their Maryland foster homes.

Some child welfare agencies, advocates,  and journalists seem to think that being transported to their original schools is always in the best interests of foster children.  But those who work directly with foster youth know better. As Margaret Henry, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, wrote in a powerful column, “Why spend money transporting children for hours to their home school, instead of working harder and more creatively to find them placements in their home school’s district?”

The contradictions of this backwards approach to educational stability are illustrated by a recent case that could have major implications for the education of foster youth nationwide, according to Dan Heimpel of the Chronicle of Social Change. “V. Doe” entered foster care in Rhode Island at the age of six in 2005 and had moved a dozen times by 2017. In May 2017, while she was living in a group home in North Smithfield, RI, the school district decided to move her to a special school for youths with disabilities and mental health issues after she had several altercations with other students at her high school.

Reportedly, V. Doe began to thrive at the new school and completed her junior year, hoping to graduate in 2018. But Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) decided to move her into a foster home–a placement that soon disrupted. Rather than returning her to the original group home (perhaps it was full?), she was moved to a residential facility in another school district.

DCYF determined that it was in V. Doe’s best interest to stay in the North Smithfield School. The North Smithfield school district agreed but (reasonably) refused to pay now that V. Doe was no longer living in there (and had been there for less than a year). DCYF filed a petition with the State Department of Education arguing that the district’s action violated ESSA. The Education Commissioner agreed and required that she be re-enrolled immediately at the private school, with North Smithfield picking up the costs.

The advocates who are praising this solution seem to be missing some key points about what caused the problem and who is paying for the fix.

A DCYF youth who has bounced between foster homes and group placements a dozen times was finally thriving in a group home and a specialized school. Why did DCYF choose to move her out of the district just before her senior year in high school?  Could V. Doe be a victim of the fashionable assumption that “every child needs a family,” which not coincidentally happens to save money for the state as well? Unfortunately, V’s placement in the foster home did not last and now she was stuck in a new group home. The premature removal of young people from group care, to be placed in homes where they will be shortly kicked out, is also something that I observed as a social worker in foster care.

And then there is the issue of who pays the costs of DCYF’s mistake. V. Doe moved and out of multiple school districts in a demented game of musical chairs. The district that finally found a school that was right for her got stuck paying the costs until graduation. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a centralized state fund (in either the education or child welfare department) for foster youth in this situation?

The backwards approach to educational stability embodied in ESSA is reminiscent of other false fixes for foster care, like legislation attempting to solve the shortage of foster homes by requiring more training for foster parents. It is not a coincidence that these approaches are often easier and cheaper (at least for the child welfare  agency) than policies that would get to the root of the problem. Instead, policies should aim at finding placements that are closer to students’ original schools . Readers wanting examples of better policies can see my recommendations and those outlined in Judge Henry’s column.

 

Why The Child Welfare Establishment May Not Want to Know About Child Torture

Turpins toilet
Image: CNN

The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), one of America’s most venerable child welfare organizations, issued its weekly update on January 21 with something conspicuously missing.  “Last Week in Child Welfare, January 14 -21” contained updates on Mississippi’s lack of representation for families involved with child welfare, a recent report from New Jersey’s court monitor, and an opinion piece in the Indiana star about Indiana’s struggles with opioid abuse and its impact on the foster care system.

You would never know that on January 14, a starving seventeen-year-old escaped from a house of horrors where she and her twelve siblings were being starved, beaten, chained to beds, and kept prisoner. The teenager told police that her parents would kill her if her escape plan failed. During the week after the children’s rescue, public and press around the country and indeed the world were fixated on this story, trying to understand why it could happen and what could be done to prevent similar occurrences in the future. But this event apparently did not figure in CWLA’s “week in child welfare.”

One might think that an organization with a self-described mission “to advance policies, best practices and collaborative strategies that result in better outcomes for children, youth and families that are vulnerable” would be concerned that 13 children were allowed to suffer for so many years. You’d think that they would be putting out information  about the warning signs of child abuse and neglect and an admonition to make the call that might save a life. But you’d be wrong.

CWLA is part of what I think of as the child welfare establishment–the group that dominates the national conversation around child welfare. These organizations’ resources have enabled them to dominate the national conversation around child welfare by funding materials, conferences, and technical assistance to state and local child welfare agencies.  Since the 1970s, this group has been preoccupied with keeping families together and children out of foster care–with scant concern about the costs to kids in families that are so dysfunctional and dangerous that foster care is clearly a better alternative

Like the other members of the child welfare establishment, CWLA believes that “children fare better in their own homes compared to children in foster care who have been similarly maltreated, suggesting that social services should promote therapy, education, and treatments to increase family stability instead of relying on removals. ”

Of course child removals should should be minimized unless absolutely necessary, but it is difficult to imagine that parents like the Turpins could be helped through “therapy, education, and treatment” to love and nurture their children. The child welfare establishment appears not to want to believe in the existence of such parents who are so bad as to be beyond rehabilitation.

The child welfare establishment also fears that publicizing cases like that of the Turpins will result in a flood of calls to child abuse hotlines, resulting in the type of “foster care panic” that sometime occurs after a tragic case. Perhaps they would rather not encourage members of the public to report suspicions of child abuse that might save children in the future, because they believe such reports must increase the foster care rolls.

Of course we don’t want the public making frivolous, malicious, or fallacious reports. Nor do we want investigators responding to tragic events by sweeping kids up into foster care who don’t need to be there. In some cases, we can help children by monitoring their situation and providing services to their parents without removing the children. But in other cases, the children can only be protected by removing them from their toxic families.

The desire to avoid publicizing extreme cases of abuse and neglect might also explain why the child welfare establishment was not part of the coalition that supported the establishment of the Commission the Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. And it might explain why, as I wrote in an earlier post, child deaths and other tragedies that are missed by CPS are often followed by the comment from system administrators that “systems should not be judged by one case.”

During the week the Turpins were uncovered, CWLA thought it was more important to cite an op-ed piece that criticized Indiana’s highly respected former child welfare commissioner, who resigned with warnings that children would die if more funding was not provided. CWLA assured readers that “Even infants who have been exposed to narcotics fare better when they are kept with their mothers, assuming the mother has access to government resources and drug treatments.”

Unfortunately, the child welfare establishment’s obsession with keeping kids out of foster care may be condemning more children to suffering, physical and emotional injury, and death at the hands of their own parents.

This post was updated on January 29, 2017.

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Breaking the Silence: How to Encourage Family and Neighbors to Report Child Abuse

Report child Abuse
Image from: Michigan-Family-Law Litigation.com

Yesterday I published a post arguing for monitoring of home schools to prevent cases like the horrific story of the Turpins in California. But we really can’t be sure if regulation of home schools would have prevented the horrific abuse of these children. Even if David Turpin had not registered his home as a school, he would not have been caught unless somebody reported his children as truant. Given the silence of their neighbors and family about the disturbing signs of maltreatment, they might have been equally silent about the children’s apparent failure to attend school.

The silence of neighbors and family despite multiple signs that something was terribly wrong in this family was striking. There were numerous red flags. One neighbor reported trying to speak to some of the children when they were outside of the house. She reported that they “froze,” “shut down,” and were “terrified.” They also appeared thin and malnourished. And yet the neighbor did not notify authorities.

Multiple neighbors told reporters that the family was only rarely seen working in the yard or getting into vans at odd hours and always responded to greetings with silence. as a representative of the Riverside County Department of Social Services told USA Today, “Not one person called us. How sad,” she said. Sad indeed.

Before they moved to California, the Turpins’ household also raised questions among their neighbors in rural Rio Vista Texas, according to the Los Angeles Times. One neighbor, Ricky Vinyard, was concerned that the children rarely left their home,  lights were on at all hours with blinds drawn, and eight new children’s  bikes sat outside for months. A dumpster outside the house was filled with trash and David Turpin “would stand in the driveway shooting cans with his pistol, aiming toward the road.” Mr. Vinyard told the Times that he and his wife suspected abuse but decided not to report it, fearing repercussions, especially since Turpin had a gun.

Elizabeth Flores, Louise Turpin’s sister, tearfully told Good Morning America that all attempts by family members to see the children were rebuffed. When Flores came to her sister’s home in Texas, she was not allowed inside and visited with her sister in the driveway. The children never appeared. When her mother drove hours to visit in Texas, she was denied entry, and when her father bought a flight ticket, he was told not to come. The family must have discussed this strange behavior among themselves, but they never reported it to authorities.

The silence of neighbors and family seems to defy belief, yet similar silence has been noticed in other cases of long-term abuse. Is it part of American culture to believe that one’s home is one’s castle and neighbors should not interfere? What can be done to change this reluctance to intervene? This is not an easy issue so I would love to hear readers’ suggestions on how to get members of the public to report suspected abuse or neglect.

At a minimum, it seems clear that states should do a better job of informing the public of the signs of child abuse and neglect and the responsibility to report even a suspicion of maltreatment to avoid a tragedy. Brochures with this information should be available at libraries, pediatricians’ offices, health centers, departments of motor vehicles and police stations. This information should be given out along with drivers’ licenses and voter registrations and included with tax forms. Television and radio PSA’s (along the lines of “If you see something, say something”), bus ads, and other vehicles should be used to disseminate the information. Online training should be available to all citizens.
Beyond public information, the question is whether states should require reporting of suspected abuse or neglect with penalties for those who fail to report. All states require certain professionals, such as doctors and teachers, to report their suspicions.  But most states (including California) don’t require ordinary citizens  to report when they fear a child is being harmed.

However, Texas is one of about eighteen states that require any person who suspect abuse or neglect to report it. The identity of the reporter is confidential and cannot be released except under very limited circumstances. Failure to report suspected child abuse or neglect is a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment of up to one year and/or a fine of up to $4,000. And that law has been in existence in Texas at least 20 years. Nevertheless, Mr. Vinyard and his wife chose not to report.

This leaves several questions. Did the Vinyards know that they were required by law to report their suspicions of abuse? Did they know that failure to report was punishable by a fine or imprisonment? While penalties have been imposed on mandatory reporters who failed to report abuse that they saw in their professional capacity, I have not been able to find documentation of such a penalty being enforced upon a member of the general public. Such enforcement might be considered too heavy-handed by most citizens and legislators. However, one way or another it is critical that citizens report to the authorities  when there are signs that things are desperately wrong as they were in in the Turpin case.

The Turpin children have been rescued. But they are physically and mentally stunted, most of them probably for life. We don’t know how many children are currently chained to their beds, locked in rooms. and starved by the people who are supposed to care for them. Monitoring all children who are ostensibly home-schooled and campaigns to encourage citizens to support their suspicions of maltreatment seem like the best ways to save these children and prevent more horror stories.

 

 

Turpin Case Shows Risks of Not Monitoring Home Schools

TurpinsIt seems that the whole country is talking about the Turpin family. Thirteen children and young adults were found imprisoned and emaciated in their home in Riverside County and California on January 14 after a seventeen-year-old escaped and called the police.

Reporters and politicians soon focused on one salient aspect of this family. The children were being ostensibly homeschooled under a provision of California law that allows parents to designate their homes as a private school by simply filing an affidavit. These “schools” are not monitored or inspected aside from an annual fire inspection.

I have already written about Natalie Finn. starved to death by her adoptive parents Adrian Jones, tortured to death by his mother and stepfather, and a little girl in Kentucky who was rescued at the last minute from a similar fate. All were ostensibly home-schooled, although little schooling was going on in these toxic homes.

Homeschooling is increasing in popularity in the United States. About 3.3 percent of the school-aged population was homeschooled in America in 2016. This is nearly double the percentage tin 1999. Clearly most of their parents are not abusive and want to provide the best education for their children, often at great personal sacrifice.

But available evidence suggests that the most severe cases of abuse and neglect, often fatal, tend to involve homeschooling.  A study by Barbara Knox of the University of Wisconsin found that 47% of a sample of children tortured by their parents had been withdrawn from school and an additional 29% had never been enrolled.

.The Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) has collected nearly 400 cases of severe or fatal child abuse in homeschool settings that it identified from public records that mentioned home schooling as a factor. Even based on this incomplete database, CRHE estimates that homeschooled children are more likely to die of abuse or neglect than children of the same age overall.

Many of  the severe and fatal homeschooling abuse cases that CRHE has collected share ugly details with the Turpin case. More than 40% of these cases involved some form of imprisonment. These children were chained to their beds, kept in cages, or locked in rooms for years. More than 45% of these cases involve food deprivation.

The linkage between home schooling and severe child abuse is not totally surprising. As Rachel Coleman and Kathryn Brightbill of CRHE point out in an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, children who are in school cannot be isolated and locked away. They cannot easily be starved to death as school staff would notice and they would have access to food. And they are required to have an annual physical exam.

Of course children who attend school are abused and neglected too. But attending school exposes them to teachers and other staff. School staff submit more child abuse reports than any other group. Education personnel submitted 18.4% of the child maltreatment reports that received an investigation or alternative response in 2015, the most recent year for which the information is available

In order to prevent more cases like the Turpins, CRHE recommends requiring that homeschooled children receive annual education assessments and physical examinations. This would provide two opportunities for each child to be seen by a mandatory reporter.

State Assemblyman Jose Martinez, who represents the town where the Turpins live, has already expressed his concern about the lack of oversight of private and home schools and his intent to explore introducing legislation to mandate some type of oversight.

But homeschooling advocates are opposed to any regulations on homeschooling. The President of the powerful Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) asked a reporter for Reuters, “Should all the innocent home-school families, who do a great job, … be intruded upon because of this family?” he said. “I think the answer is no.”

HSLDA is one of Washington’s most effective lobbying groups, according to the Washington Post Magazine. State groups have also been able to scuttle attempts to regulate homeschooling in response to child abuse deaths in Florida,  Iowa and Kentucky.

It is hard to understand why responsible homeschooling parents and their advocates would object to such minor requirements as requiring an annual doctor’s visit and educational assessment. State legislators should set aside their fears of backlash from extremist advocates and assume that most voters will support protecting children.

 

 

 

Yes, A System Should be Judged by One Case

Katia Tirado
Image: Hartford Courant

“A system should not be judged by one case, no matter how sad or sensational,” said Joette Katz, Commissioner of Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) Katz’ words were reported by the Hartford Courant.

Katz was referring to the case of Matthew Tirado. Matthew, a 17-year-old diagnosed with Autism and Intellectual Disability, died on February 14, 2017 from prolonged abuse and neglect by his mother.  As revealed by a heartbreaking  report from Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate (OCA), Matthew had been known to DCF for 11 years, since he was five years old. Yet, DCF missed several opportunities to save Matthew, who was nonverbal and could not speak for himself. Matthew’s interactions with DCF included:

  • In December 2005, when Matthew was six years old, his school called DCF to report that Matthew had missed more than 30 days of school since the school year began, . DCF investigated and found neglect but later closed the case after Matthew’s attendance briefly improved.
  • In December 2006, the school again contacted DCF to report that Matthew had missed over 50 days of school. DCF closed the case six weeks later without finding neglect. Matthew’s mother told DCF that her mother was moving in to help her care for the children. This should have been a red flag because agency files documented Matthew’s grandmother’s  long history of involvement with DCF, alcohol abuse and mental illness. But repeated risk assessments erroneously noted that Matthew’s mother had no history of being abused or neglected as a child.
  • In 2009, school officials again called CPS stating that Matthew came to school with bruising on his face that was covered up with makeup. School officials also reported contacting Ms. Tirado on other occasions regarding bruises, which she responded were inflicted by Matthew’s two-year-old sister.  Matthew’s mother denied abusing him and the case was closed before requested medical records arrived.
  • In October, 2014, Hartford Public Schools (HPS) reported that Matthew’s sister, a first-grader, showed signs of physical abuse and reported that her mother hit her. She told school staff that Matthew was also hit, but he was not seen or assessed.
  • In November 2014, HPS reported to DCF that Matthew was not enrolled in school and may not have been in school for a long time. In fact, Matthew had hardly attended school since 2012.  DCF found Ms. TIrado to be neglectful and abusive and opened a case on the family for supervision by the agency.
  • Matthew attended less than 100 days of school between June 2012 and his death in February 2017. HPS made five reports to DCF between October 2014 and May 2016. about the children’s failure to attend school.  After March 2016, Ms. Tirado refused to allow DCF access to her children. In July, DCS iled a neglect petition with the Juvenile Court.
  • The Court held six hearings on the case between July and December 2016 but Ms. Tirado never appeared. In December 2016 DCS asked the court to terminate the case. No orders were sought to compel Ms. Tirado to produce the children, permit visitation of Matthew’s sister in school, or to remove the children, even though there was legal justification for any of these actions. Unbelievably, after a failed attempt to compel Ms. Tirado to come to court, the court accepted DCS’ request to close the case. DCS closed its own case on the family in January 2017.

After Matthew’s death, the Hartford Courant reported that Commissioner Katz shockingly told legislators that “As horrible as this may sound, there comes a point where you have to make a determination that you have done all that you can legally do. There are 15,000 cases and only so many social workers.”

The Commissioner also said that a system should not be judged based on one case. It’s an old refrain. But is it true? I don’t think so. There are many reasons why a system should be judged by one case.

First, we are not talking about one bad decision. A child suffered for as long as 11 years and agency social workers missed multiple opportunities to protect him. His sister fared a little better since she survived but will probably bear lifetime scars. This is more than a one-time event.

Secondly, for each “worst case, “we don’t know how many children suffer for years and don’t die while the system ignores repeated red flags.  At least Matthew is out of his misery. The others are still suffering. We may never know their names.

I’m tired of agency heads who tell us not to judge the system by the worst cases. Lets bury this trope once and for all. A system should be judged–above all–by the worst cases. For each of these cases represents many more children whose daily suffering will lead to lifetime emotional educational and physical damage.