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Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate, in a stunning report, revealed that 36% of the students withdrawn from six districts to be homeschooled between 2013 and 2016 lived in families that had least one prior accepted report of child abuse or neglect.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

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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

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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. 

Child Maltreatment 2018: Almost one in 100 children found to be maltreated, but great variation among states and populations

The federal Children’s Bureau (CB) has released its annual Child Maltreatment report, containing data provided by the states from Federal Fiscal Year 2018.  The high rate of maltreatment victimization and the contrasting numbers and rates between states and populations are two of the major takeaways of the report. A common theme across the report is that differences between states and populations and over time can reflect differences in levels of maltreatment,  policy or practice, or even how states collect data.

CB’s annual maltreatment reports use data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS),  which is a federal effort that collects and analyzes child welfare data provided voluntarily by the states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The data follow children and families from referrals to reports, dispositions and services. One of the most helpful resources is exhibit 2, reproduced below, a flow chart that follows families and children through the process from referral to services. (All tables in this post are reproduced from the report).

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Referrals and Reports

During FY 2018, states reported receiving a total of 4.3 million “referrals” (calls to a hotline or other communications alleging abuse or neglect) regarding approximately 7.8 million children.  The number of referrals per 1,000 children varied wildly between states, from a low of 15.7 in Hawaii to a high of 167.9 in Vermont.  The different referral rates between states may reflect different levels of knowledge about and comfort with child maltreatment reporting, different rates of underlying maltreatment, or even different state practices in defining the term “referrals.” Vermont explains that its high referral rate is the result of its practice of treating all calls to the child abuse hotline as referrals.

The rate of referrals has increased from 50 per 1,000 children in 2014 to 58.5 referrals per 1,000 children in 2018. Differences over time within a state may due to changes in state policy or practice or events in a particular state. For example, Alabama reported that it implemented online mandatory reporter training in 2014, resulting in an increase in referrals. Rhode Island reported a large increase in referrals due to the public trial of a school official for failure to report child abuse, resulting in more than a doubling of hotline calls from school staff.

A referral may be screened in or out by the child welfare agency depending on whether it meets agency criteria. Referrals may be screened out because they do not meet the definition of child abuse and neglect, there is inadequate information, or for other reasons. Screened-in referrals are called “reports” and receive a traditional CPS investigation or an “alternative response” (often called an “assessment”) in states that have two-track or “differential response systems.” These alternative responses, usually reserved for the less serious cases, do not result in an allegation of abuse or neglect but rather are aimed at connecting families with services they might need. Of the 4.3 million referrals, states screened in 2.4 million for an investigation or assessment. The rate of screened-in referrals (known as “reports”) has increased from 29.1 per 1,000 children in 2014 to 32.5  in 2018. The highest number of reports came from education personnel (20.5%), legal and law enforcement personnel (18.7%), and social services personnel (10.7%). Parents, other relatives, friends and neighbors submit the remaining reports.

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Substantiations

A total of 3.5 million children received an investigation or alternative response, and states found approximately 678,000 (16.8%) to be victims of child maltreatment; in other words the allegation was “substantiated.” Another 14% received an alternative response rather than an investigation, which meant there was no determination of whether maltreatment occurred. Reports involving 56.3% of these children were unsubstantiated, which meant there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that maltreatment took place.

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The 678,000 children who were found to be victims of maltreatment equates to a national rate of 9.2  victims per thousand children in the population, or almost one out of every 100 children. This rate varies greatly by state, from 2.7 in Washington 1 to 23.5 in Kentucky. A lower child victimization rate might reflect less child maltreatment or a system less likely to respond to existing maltreatment or that makes greater use of differential response. Kentucky had the highest proportion of children found to be victims (23.5 per 1000 children or over one in every 50 children) followed by West Virginia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Michigan. The ongoing crisis involving opioid and methamphetamine addiction has been blamed for an increase in maltreatment in many states. And indeed, all of the states with the highest rates have been hard-hit by the opioid epidemic and had among the highest opioid overdose death rates in the country in 2017.

The national proportion of children found to be victims of maltreatment has fluctuated since 2014, increasing slightly between 2014 and 2018 from 9.1 to 9.2 per thousand. This small national increase masks large changes in the numbers of victims in certain states, from a 50% decrease in Georgia to a 216% increase in Montana. In their written submissions, the states attribute these diverse trends to changes in child welfare law, policy and practice as well as increases in parental drug abuse and even severe weather events such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.2  Georgia reports a policy change that resulted in a large increase the proportion of cases assigned to the alternative response track, perhaps one reason for the decrease in substantiations. Montana has experienced a surge in children entering foster care due to parental drug abuse, especially methamphetamine, which probably contributed to the increase in children found to be victims.

The disparity in the proportion of children found to be maltreatment victims across states is consistent with the belief that there is no foolproof method of assessing the truth of an allegation and that substantiation may not be a very good indicator of whether maltreatment has taken place. Research has found little or no difference in future reports of maltreatment of children who were the subject of substantiated or unsubstantiated reports

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Victim Demographics

The proportion of children found to be victims of maltreatment decreases as age increases. The rate of substantiated victimization for babies under a year old is 26.7 per thousand. This rate falls to 11.8 percent for children aged one to two and decreases gradually as age increases. This age effect reflects the greater fragility and helplessness of younger children and also the fact that they are less likely to spend time away from their parents (the primary maltreaters). That is one reason why many child advocates support making early care and education available to all children at risk for maltreatment and particularly to those already involved with the child welfare system.

Screen Shot 2020-01-31 at 9.30.35 AMThe rate of children found to be victims of maltreatment  varies considerably between racial and ethnic groups. The highest rate is for Native American or Alaska Native children, who were found to be victims at a rate of 15.2 per thousand, followed by African-American children, with a rate of 14 per thousand, compared to  8.2 per thousand for White children,  and 1.6 per thousand for Asian children. It is 8.1 per thousand for Hispanic children, who can be of any race. The higher rate of substantiated victimization among African-American and Native American children is a subject of controversy. Some believe it reflects greater tendency of African-American and Native parents to be reported to CPS and later substantiated as perpetrators due to racism. But these differences might also reflect a greater poverty rate for Black and Native children, or cultural factors, such as a preference for corporal punishment in the Black community, or substance abuse in the Native American community.

Maltreatment Types

Neglect continues to be the predominant type of maltreatment. The data shows 60.8% of children were found to be victims of neglect only, 10.7% victims of physical abuse only, and 7.0% to be sexually abused only, with 15.5% suffering from multiple types of maltreatment, mostly commonly neglect and physical abuse. It is important to understand that a given child may be found to have suffered one type of maltreatment when other types are also present. For example, abuse can be hard to substantiate when the parent and child give contradictory accounts, or the child recants, and such children may be substantiated for neglect only when abuse is also present.

For the first time, 18 states reported on victims of sex trafficking. These states reported a total of 339 victims. While one case would be too much, it is encouraging that the scope of the problem is so small compared to other types of maltreatment. This suggests that sex trafficking as a type of child maltreatment is much less widespread than one might have thought given the amount of attention recently attached to this topic through legislation, training, and policy.

There is wide variation among states in the prevalence of different types of substantiated maltreatment. Some of this variation may be due to real underlying differences in parental behavior and some may be due to varying laws, policies and practices. Of particular interest are the states that have much higher percentages of abuse than the national average. While nationally only 10.7% of victims are found to have experienced abuse only, that percentage was 55.3% in Vermont, 48.2% in Alabama, and 39.7% in Pennsylvania. It is known that corporal punishment, which may escalate to abuse, is more popular in Southern states, like Tennessee and Alabama. Vermont’s  and Pennsylvania’s high rates of abuse may be due to the assignment of many less-serious cases to an alternative track where there is no disposition (in Vermont) or the disposition is not reported (in Pennsylvania).3 Alabamans are aware of their state’s high abuse rate, which was covered in an excellent story by Al.com that cites the state’s acceptance of corporal punishment as one underlying factor.

Substance Abuse

For the FY 2018 report, the researchers analyzed three years of data on the presence of alcohol or drug abuse among caregivers. They found that the national percentage of substantiated victims with a caregiver identified as a drug abuser was 30.7%  in 2018. Alcohol as a caregiver risk factor was 12.3%. Both of these percentages increased slightly from 2016. As is often the case, there was an astonishing diversity among states, ranging from 2.2% to 45.5% for alcohol abuse, and from 3.1% to 61.5% for drug abuse. This diversity, especially the very low rates in some states,  raises concerns about whether they are accurately capturing these factors.

Perpetrators

The data show that 90.7% of the victims were maltreated by one or both of their parents. That includes nearly 40% who were maltreated by their mother acting alone and 21.5% by their father acting alone. Relatives (4.7%) and unmarried partners of parents (2.8%) are the largest remaining categories of maltreaters.

Fatalities

There is no standard, mandatory system for reporting child abuse and neglect deaths and it is often extremely difficult to determine where a death was caused by abuse or neglect rather than natural causes. Based on data from all states except Massachusetts, the researchers estimated that 1,770 children died from abuse or neglect in 2018, which is a rate of 2.39 per 100,000 children in the population. That is an 11.3% increase over the estimate for 2014 but this change may reflect data quality rather than a real change in maltreatment deaths. State rates range from 0 (Nebraska) to 6.6 (Arkansas) per 100,000 children but it is hard to know how much of the variation reflects differences in capturing actual child fatality rates.  NCANDS maltreatment data are generally viewed as underestimates because, among other factors, many maltreatment fatalities may be unknown to any system or impossible to prove and some states do not report on deaths of children not known to the Child Protective Services Agency.  In contrast, the Commission on Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities reported that the most recent National Incidence Study (where data is collected directly by ACF) reported 2,400 deaths compared to 1,530 deaths in the Child Maltreatment report for a similar period. The  CAPTA reauthorization bill which was passed by the House would require the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services establish uniform standards for the tracking and reporting of child fatalities and near-fatalities related to maltreatment.  This requirement is badly needed.

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Like child maltreatment itself, child maltreatment fatalities are more likely occur to the youngest children. Infants under one year old were the most likely to die, at a rate of 22.77 per 100,000. The rate decreases to 6.3 per 100,000 one-year-olds and continues to fall with age. Nearly half of the children who died were younger than one and 70.6% were younger than three. This illustrates again why it is so important to ensure that all children at risk of severe abuse or neglect must be in early care or education.

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The child fatality rate for African American children (5.8 per 100,000 children)  is over 2.8 times the rates for White children. Mixed-race children had the second highest rate of 3.2, followed by Native American children at 3.12. As discussed above, we do not understand these disparities. They could be due to cultural factors, economic factors, racism in reporting and substantiation, or other factors. The child maltreatment fatality rate for Black children is more than twice that for White children (5.48 vs. 1.94 per 100,000). This is an even greater disparity than  the difference in child maltreatment rates (14.2 per 1000 for black children vs. 8.2 per 1000 for white children).   Perhaps many Black parents’ embrace of corporal punishment, as described by author Stacey Patton in her important book, Spare the Kids, while not much different in terms of overall percentages from that of White parents, countenances more severe discipline than among other racial and ethnic groups. These disparate child maltreatment death rates should give pause to those self-described anti-racists who want to equalize the rates of investigations, substantiations, and child removals of Black and White children. Such a policy would very likely lead to increased deaths of Black children–hardly an outcome they should welcome.

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Of the children who died from maltreatment in 2018, 72.8 percent suffered neglect and 46.1 percent suffered physical abuse, including some children who suffered more than one type of maltreatment. Eighty percent of the deaths were caused by parents or caregivers acting alone or with other individuals. Based on reports from 24 states, 20.3% of the children who died had received family preservation services in the previous five years. And 2.5%  had been reunified with their families in the previous five years after being removed.

Services

Approximately 1.3 million children (a duplicated count4) received services at home or in foster care as the result of an investigation or alternative response. This includes 60.7% of the children who were found to be victims of maltreatment and 20.9 percent of the non-victims. It is concerning that such a low percentage of the victims received services. But not every state reports data for every in-home service (especially those provided by other agencies or contractors), so the actual proportion receiving services other than foster care may be higher. Sadly, according to reports from 26 states, only 21.9% of the victims received court-appointed representatives.

About a fifth of the children found to be maltreatment victims (22.5%) and 1.9% of those not found to be victims5 were placed in foster care. It is worth noting that less than half of the maltreatment victims who received services (146,706 out of 391,661) were placed in foster care. The others received family preservation services while remaining at home. Many news reporters and child welfare commentators have incorrectly suggested that no services other than foster care were available to abused or neglected children before the implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act. This data shows the incorrectness of that assumption.

Infants with prenatal substance exposure

For FFY 2018, States were required  to report for the first time on infants exposed prenatally to drugs and alcohol. Forty-five states reported that they had been informed of 27,709 infants born exposed to substances. Nearly 88% of these infants were screened in as appropriate for an investigation or alternative response. It is somewhat concerning that the others were not, given the possible serious effects of prenatal and postnatal substance abuse.  Of those screened in, 75.5% had a caregiver identified as a drug abuser, 11.7% had a caregiver identified as a drug and alcohol abuse, and less than one percent had a caregiver identified as abusing alcohol only. The 24,342 children who were screened in in 42 states constituted a shockingly high 10.8 percent of children under one in those states. Of the screened in reports, 68.3 percent were substantiated as victims or abuse or neglect. Nine percent received an alternative response and nine percent were unsubstantiated. The report’s authors caution against comparing states because this was the first year of reporting.  The wild disparity between states in the proportions identified suggests they are right to be cautious and that the national figures have a wide margin of error as a result.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) as amended by the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) in 2016,  requires that all infants “affected by a substance abuse or withdrawal symptoms resulting from prenatal drug exposure, or a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder” receive a “plan of safe care…addressing the health and substance use disorder treatment needs of the infant and affected family or caregiver.” Thirteen responding states reported that 64% of infants with prenatal substance exposure had a plan of safe care. A separate CAPTA provision requires states to report how many infants had a “referral to appropriate services,” and fourteen states reported that only 42.6% of infants had such a referral. The difference between these two percentages is due to California, which provided data on referrals and not plans of safe care. Only 12.7% of California’s substance-exposed infants had referrals to appropriate services. Since the California’s population is larger, and the percentage receiving referrals was low, the overall percentage was reduced significantly by adding California but the two percentages were the same in the other responding states.

Plans of safe care and referrals are voluntary and do not mean much unless they are followed by the families, providers, and agencies. It would be better to know how many of these infants received foster care and other services after an investigation or family assessment. That would probably require opening a services case for all these families. Congress should consider requiring this, as it would be the only way to follow up on what services these families actually receive.

The fact that almost one in 100 children is found to be a victim of child maltreatment should be of concern to all child advocates, especially because it is likely that many other victims were never reported or found to be victimized. It is hard to interpret comparative data between states, populations, and years because of the difficulty in disentangling the amount of actual maltreatment given the variety of  policies and practices in how it is defined and reported. Analysis of the report suggests changes in CAPTA that would make it more useful. For example, Congress should to set uniform standards for reporting child maltreatment fatalities by passing the CAPTA reauthorization bill in 2020. And the new version of CAPTA should be further strengthened to replace the plans of state care with a more substantial response to infant substance exposure.

 

 

 

 

 

 


  1. Pennsylvania’s victimization rate was actually the lowest at 1.8% but this low rate reflects the state’s unusual child protective services structure. Allegations that do not concern abuse or specific very serious types of neglect are labeled as General Protective Services and not counted as referrals or reports for federal reporting. 
  2. Puerto Rico had a 43% decline in children found to be maltreatment victims between 2014 and 2018. The territory’s commentary explains that its child population was already decreasing due to emigration even before Hurricane Maria struck in October 2017 and then further declined due to emigration. 
  3. Vermont’s extremely high abuse rate rate may be due to the fact that about 40% of its cases are assigned to the alternative response track, which does not result in a disposition, and another sizeable group are assigned to a pathway outside CPS, called family assessment. The cases assigned to these alternative tracks are expected to be less serious and more likely to involve neglect rather than abuse. A similar phenomenon likely occurs in Pennsylvania where most neglect allegation are assigned to General Protective Services and not reported to the federal government. 
  4. Individual children were counted more than once if they were involved in more than one CPS case. 
  5. Many of these children were probably siblings of children who were found to be victims of maltreatment. 

Washington Post on foster care: old tropes and false narratives

The Donald R. Kuhn Juvenile Center in Julian, W.Va., where Geard Mitchell, now 17, spent part of his childhood. A lawsuit says 10 states’ agencies tasked with caring for children failed, “jeopardizing their most basic needs.” (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Image: Washington Post

Foster care has finally made it to the front page of the Washington Post, and a sad story it is. The story highlights the growing crisis in many states due to the increase in drug addiction bringing in its wake a cascade of child removals into foster care, outstripping the supply of  foster homes and other placement. The problems outlined in the article are real and urgent, but the analysis and prescriptions offered in the article and subsequent editorial reveal the authors’ lack of understanding of the issues, which results in the repetition of false narratives and common misleading tropes.

The Post‘s front-page article focused on a growing crisis caused by increased drug addiction among parents, especially the opioid crisis. The author, Emily Wax Thibodeaux, zeroed in on West Virginia, one of the epicenters of the crisis. She introduced us to Arther Yoho, a young man who spent more than two years in a detention center because there was no foster parent available to take him in. Locked up with 27 juveniles with criminal convictions, Arther was failed by the system that was supposed to protect him.

Thibodeaux reports that other desperate states are using emergency shelters, hotels and out-of-state institutions to house youth for whom there is no foster family home available. This is tragic and true, and I wrote about it in a recent post, although the placement of foster youth in detention centers along with criminally charged youth may be unique to West Virginia with its cataclysmic foster care crisis. Thibodeaux reports Oregon’s use of refurbished detention centers to house foster youth, which is certainly not ideal but is quite different from housing them with juvenile offenders. In any case, Thibodeaux is right to point out that many young people in foster care are being placed in inappropriate (and often harmful) placements because appropriate ones are not available.

However, Thibodeaux takes an unwarranted conceptual leap by linking the placement of children in inappropriate facilities to states’ use of congregate care, a term used to connote placements that are not families. These include what are generally known as group homes, as well as residential treatment centers, which are part of the accepted continuum of care for foster youth. While detention centers are never appropriate for foster youth who have not been charged with a crime, group homes and residential treatment centers may be the appropriate placement, often for a limited time, for some youths in foster care. These are the young people who cannot be maintained in a regular foster home because of their defiant, violent, or self-destructive behavior. Many of these children might be able to “step down” to foster care after spending time at a therapeutic residential facility.  It is possible that some of these young people could be helped in a professional therapeutic foster home staffed by salaried and trained foster parents, an approach that is gaining increasing interest, but programs so far are few and small and not likely to meet the need for therapeutic placements.

Thibodeaux cites the common trope that “Compared with foster children living with families, those housed in congregate care settings are more likely to drop out of high school, commit crimes and develop mental health problems.” That is very true. But it is a matter of correlation, not causation. It is the younger and less damaged children who end up in foster homes in the first place. Not surprisingly, they are likely to have better outcomes. Concluding that congregate care causes the negative outcomes may well be akin to concluding that fire trucks cause fire damage since buildings that have been visited by fire trucks are far more likely than typical buildings to have sustained fire damage. We don’t have a body of research on what happens to children with similar risk factors who spend time in foster homes compared to those who spend the same amount of time in group homes.

Thibodeaux appears to be unaware that some of the states with the lowest proportions of children in congregate care are those that are struggling the most with inappropriate placements. Washington and Oregon are among the states with the highest proportions of foster children placed in families as opposed to congregate care facilities, according to federal data cited in a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Both states have been the subject of disturbing media reports that foster youth are staying in hotels, offices and substandard and abusive out-of-state facilities. That’s not surprising, since appropriate options are not available.  In Washington, ten years of group home closures led to the current crisis. The director of Washington’s child welfare agency has requested funding to expand the capacity of therapeutic group home beds to accommodate the children who are now staying in hotels and offices. The director of Oregon’s agency has cited a reduced number of treatment beds as a cause of children being sent to substandard and abusive out-of-state facilities.

By implying that all congregate care placements are inappropriate, Thibodeaux lays the groundwork for false conclusions about policy. Rather than saying that states need to beef up their therapeutic options, whether they are professionally-trained therapeutic foster parents or therapeutic group homes or residential treatment centers, Thibodeaux suggests that the new Family First Prevention Services Act, which makes it more difficult to obtain federal reimbursement for congregate care stays, may solve the problem.

Actually, the Family First Act may well make things worse. By making it harder to license therapeutic group homes, there is reason to fear that Family First will exacerbate the placement crisis. This has already happened when group homes closed in in jurisdictions like Oregon, Washington, New York City, and Baltimore. In California, the closure of group homes due to their Continuum of Care “reform” (a predecessor of the Family First Act) has resulted in, according to one veteran service provider, “fewer kids in group homes, but only because there are fewer group homes and counties have inappropriately been pushing challenging, difficult-to-manage youth into lower levels of care.”

The Washington Post followed Thibodeaux’ article with an editorial, “The Crisis in Foster Care,” which repeated and further distorted some of Thibodeaux’s questionable statements. Where Thibodeaux reported that 71% of foster children aged 12 to 17 are in congregate care placements in West Virginia (a high number to be sure), the editorial page erroneously stated that seven in ten of all foster children are in such foster care placements. That is a huge difference as older children are much more likely to be in such placements.

The opinion writers go on to repeat Thibodeaux’ misleading statement from the Casey Foundation about children in group homes doing worse than those in foster homes. However, they also cite discouraging outcome data about children growing up with foster parents. Because both options seem bad, the opinion writers suggest that “the least-bad option for many children” may be staying or reuniting with their parents, “unless there is abuse in the home. “They go on to cite one of the most persistent tropes of all that child protective services workers “often remove minors from neglectful parents who, while a far cry from being good caregivers, may still be better than group homes.”

The trope that child neglect is “less than ideal parenting” is belied by some of the stories that have come out of West Virginia and other states in the throes of the opioid crisis. We’ve all heard the stories: infants born addicted to drugs to mothers unable to care for them,  children who lost their parents and even their extended families due to opioid overdoses, children abandoned at home without food while parents seek drugs, children strapped in cars while their parents get high, babies and toddlers who ingest heroin, alcohol or meth; children whose parents are incarcerated due to substance abuse or dealing; and more. This is not “imperfect parenting” but something much worse. Living with an addicted parent is has a host of negative consequences that may be lifelong and is in itself considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE).

One article from the Seattle Times documents the impact of the drastic increase in infants born addicted to drugs when they reach school age. “[The lives of children who grow up with drug-abusing parents are marked frequently by the presence of police, the constant fear of a mother or father’s incarceration and the likelihood of sudden death by overdose — all traumas shown to impede brain development and learning.”

To add insult to injury, the Post did not even seek to find out what is happening in its own back yard. Only two weeks before Thibodeaux’s article, a hearing was held in the 30-year-old LaShawn class action case to discuss the current placement crisis in the District of Columbia. The Judge referred to a letter from the court monitor that 31 children, including seven children between eight and ten years old, experienced a total of 60 overnight stays at the Child and Family Services Agency between April and November of 2019. All of these children had challenging behaviors that excluded them from existing placements. The agency director acknowledged that the District needs more therapeutic placements (either in family or group settings) for these children. The District is in the process of developing  a new group home and “a couple of” professional foster parents. The District is a small jurisdiction and its crisis is dwarfed by that of West Virginia, but its 60 office stays deserved a mention in our hometown paper.

The Washington Post‘s treatment of foster care illustrates the consequences of letting reporting and editorial staff without subject matter expertise tackle a complex subject like foster care. Repeating false narratives and tropes from alleged authorities is easy and saves time. But it does not help readers to understand what is wrong and what is needed and on the contrary leads them to look for “solutions” that may make things worse.