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Neglect as poverty: the myth that won’t go away

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It’s one of those myths that won’t go away and instead is gathering steam–the idea that parents who are found to be neglectful by child welfare agencies are really just poor people being judged for their inability to provide sufficient material support to their children. It doesn’t matter how much evidence is cited against it. The myth continues because it is an essential part of the narrative that is currently dominant in the child welfare arena. Nevertheless it’s been over a year since my last attempt to shed some light on this issue, and some new research has become available, thus it seems a good time to revisit the topic.

It’s Time to Stop Confusing Poverty With Neglect, exhorted Jerry Milner, Children’s Bureau Commissioner and his special assistant David Kelly back in January, 2020, in a typical statement of this myth. “Most of the reasons for child welfare involvement fall into what we call “neglect” rather than physical abuse or exploitation. Our most recent child maltreatment data tell us that 60 percent of victims have a finding of neglect only…More times than not, poverty and struggles to meet the basic, concrete needs of a family are a part of the equation in all types of neglect.” Miller and Kelly now sell their expertise at Family Integrity & Justice Works, an arm of the Public Knowledge consulting firm which has the goal of “replacing child welfare.”

Media outlets have taken this story and run with it. Here is the Philadelphia Inquirer: “A common misunderstanding is that the leading reason kids are taken into the foster care system is because of physical or sexual abuse. But that accounts for only one of six cases. Children far more often are removed from their homes for ‘neglect,’ which often amounts to symptoms of poverty, like food insecurity or unstable housing.”

The Biden Administration has endorsed the idea that most neglect findings reflect nothing but poverty. The Administration on Children and Families (ACF) has solicited applications for a grant of between one and two million dollars “to support the development and national dissemination of best practices to strengthen the capacity of child abuse hotline staff to distinguish between poverty and willful neglect.”

There is no federal definition of child neglect, and state definitions vary. In contrast to abuse, it is usually defined as an act of omission rather than comission. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, neglect is “commonly defined in state law as the failure of a parent or other person with responsibility for the child to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision to the degree that the child’s health, safety and well-being are threatened with harm.” The most commonly recognized categories of neglect include physical neglect or failure to provide for basic physical needs, failure to provide adequate supervision , educational neglect or failure to educate the child as required by law, and medical neglect.

There is no dispute that more children are found to be neglected than abused. Based on data collected by the federal government and published in Child Maltreatment 2020, three-quarters (76.1 percent) of the children found to be victims of maltreatment in 2020 were found to be neglected. A total of 16.5 percent were found to be physically abused, 9.4 percent were found to be sexually abused, and six percent were found to be victims of some other type of maltreatment.* Of the children who were removed and placed in foster care, according to the 2020 AFCARS Report, 63 percent had neglect listed as a circumstance associated with the child’s removal, compared to 12 percent with physical abuse and four percent with sexual abuse.

But the idea that neglect findings represent nothing but poverty is questionable. First, the neglect deniers would probably agree that most poor parents do not neglect their children but instead find a way to meet their needs, relying on charity, extra work, or subordinating their own wants to the needs of their children. When poor children are deprived of food, clothing or adequate housing, other factors such as substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence are often involved. Second, more than half of the states exempt from the definition of neglect any deprivation that is due to the lack of financial means of the parents. Third, the definition of neglect is not confined to the failure to provide adequate food, clothing or shelter but instead includes other acts of omission, such as failure to protect a child from dangerous caregivers, or failure to ensure that children go to school and get needed medical care. Lack of supervision, a common form of neglect, can reflect poverty when parents feel they must rely on inadequate arrangements in order to go to work; we just don’t know the degree to which neglect findings reflect such decisions by parents.

But until now we did not have quantitative data concerning the types of neglect being investigated or the importance of risk factors like substance abuse and mental illness. A recent study from California, the nation’s most populous state, begins to fill this data gap. Palmer and colleagues used a representative sample of 295 neglect investigations that took place in California in 2017. They found that only 14 percent of the investigations involved physical neglect–the deprivation of food, clothing, and housing that is most closely connected with poverty. The most common types of neglect that were investigated were inadequate supervision, investigated in 44 percent of the cases, and failure to protect (leaving the child in the care of a known abuser or failure to intervene with known abuse), in 29 percent of cases. Moreover almost all (99 percent) of the investigations of physical neglect included concerns related to substance use, domestic violence, or mental illness; or they involved another type of maltreatment such as physical or sexual abuse or an additional neglect allegation. Thus, the authors conclude that almost no parent was investigated for material deprivation alone, although it is true that they did not separate out any lack of supervision cases that involved the inability to obtain adequate childcare for work or other necessary activities.

The evidence from California is very suggestive, but as the authors caution, it is possible that other states receive more reports that focus on unmet material needs, are less likely to screen out such reports, or emphasize them more during the investigation. This is possible because California, according to a recent study of state neglect definitions, is one of five states that have adopted an “expanded” definition of child neglect, including more neglect types and allowing for the threat of harm, rather than actual harm, in neglect findings. Studies similar to the Palmer study from other states with more limited neglect definitions would be useful.

While the California study is not sufficient to negate the presumption that findings of neglect represent nothing more than poverty, it is important to note that there are no studies supporting this viewpoint. So why does the myth that child welfare treats poverty as neglect persist despite the lack of evidence supporting it, and the many reasons for skepticism? It persists because it supports the narrative and associated policy prescriptions of the child welfare establishment today–child welfare leaders, administrators, legislatures, and influential funders like Casey Family Programs. The dominant narrative describes a racist family policing system that persecutes people only because they are Black, Indigenous or poor. The policy prescriptions involve radically shrinking or even abolishing child welfare systems.

According to the prevailing view, if omissions that are labeled neglect are strictly due to poverty, there is no need to intervene with social services or child removal. Instead, governments should provide economic benefits to neglectful parents. There is a body of research suggesting that economic support for families does help reduce maltreatment, perhaps not only by helping parents meet their children’s financial needs, but also enabling them to provide better childcare and improving parents’ mental health through stress reduction. Independent of their impact on maltreatment, I strongly support increases in the safety net for families and children. But available information suggests that it will take more than financial assistance to cure neglect in most cases. Improved economic supports will not be a replacement for services to help parents address challenges with substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health, and parenting, and for child removal when there is no other option.

What can be done to alleviate the confusion and misinformation around child neglect and poverty? Collecting better data from the states would be helpful. In its annual Child Maltreatment reports, the Children’s Bureau uses data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS). When reporting on the type of maltreatment alleged and then found, states must pick up to four out of eight categories, including physical abuse, “neglect or deprivation of necessities,” medical neglect, sexual abuse, psychological or emotional maltreatment, sex trafficking, no alleged maltreatment, other or “unknown or missing.” It is not clear whether the “neglect” category is supposed to indicate all types of neglect or just those involving “deprivation of necessities,” but there is no way for states to clarify what they mean or to distinguish between the most common types of neglect. The same problem exists with the AFCARS data used to compile federal reports on foster care and adoption.

Clearly, a reform of the data elements that states are required to submit is needed so that resesarchers can see the types of neglect that are being alleged and found for each child. However, such an improvement would not substitute for careful research like the California study cited above because it will never be possible to rely on the thoroughness of database entries by overworked social workers. We cannot be sure they will enter all of the applicable categories, for many reasons, including that not all the applicable categories may be substantiated for a particular case. Moreover, while states are required to report on some caregiver risk factors contributing to abuse and neglect, such as alcohol and drug abuse, emotional disturbance and domestic violence, these seem to be vastly understated by the social workers who enter these factors in state databases. For example, only 26.4 percent of caregivers of maltreated children were found to have the risk factor of drug abuse and only 36 percent of removals involved parental drug abuse, according to federal data. Yet anecdotal reports from states and localities tend to indicate a much higher percentage of cases that involve substance abuse.

Thus, a reform of data collection might help, but would not solve the problem, especially considering that that many child welfare leaders and funders seem inclined to maintain the hypothesis that CPS confuses poverty with neglect. Ideally, the federal government and other funders would support more studies like that of Palmer et al, and more academics would consider performing such studies.

The myth that CPS confuses neglect with poverty is pernicious because, like other myths currently prevalent in child welfare, it runs the risk of hurting abused and neglected children. It is being used to justify dismantling child protective services, eliminating mandatory reporting, or more modest proposals to hamper these critical protections for children. The federal government should improve data collection on child neglect and associated risk factors as well as supporting additional research to provide more accurate estimates of their prevalance.

*According to the report’s authors, “other” could be anything that does not fit into the categories offered by the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting System and includes threatened abuse and neglect, drug addiction, and lack of supervision according to state comments submitted with the data.

Book Review: A Place Called Home: a needed antidote to the dominant narrative

It’s Christmas in Manhattan, and five-year-old David Ambroz (then called Hugh), six-year-old Alex and seven-year-old Jessica trudge through the freezing nighttime streets. “I’m only five,” writes Ambroz, “and all I know about Christmas is the stories I’ve heard at the churches where we go for free meals.” “Mom, we’re close to the Port Authority, can we go inside?” asks Hugh. “Walk straight. They’re after us” is the reply he receives. “There’s a calculation I make whenever I talk to Mom: Will she hit me, and is it worth it?” Ambroz explains.

So begins David Ambroz’s harrowing account of life with a mother, Mary Ambroz, whose mental state varies from manic to apathetic to floridly paranoid. A former nurse who was once married to a doctor,* Mary has been in the grips of her untreated mental illness for as long as Hugh can remember. The family bounces back and forth between New York City and Albany, eventually relocating to Western Massachusetts. The children are condemned to a life of sleeping at all-night Dunkin Donuts shops, dining on tiny cups of creamer mixed with sugar packets, and eating out of dumpsters, interspersed with short periods of relative normalcy when the family finds a temporary home. Those periods last until Mary decides the CIA or other pursuer is back on their trail. Some years the children don’t go to school at all, other years they change schools one or more times due to their frequent moves. The children don’t receive medical or dental checkups or vaccinations and visit the occasional clinic only for emergencies. When Hugh breaks his arm at the age of four, he is taken to the emergency room to have it set but never brought back to have the cast removed; when it starts to smell, Mary removes it with a kitchen knife.

Over the years the family has been investigated many times without getting any help, reports Ambroz. Mary Ambroz usually manages to convince authorities that she is a good mother, although she has lost custody more than once–one time when she threw a shoe at a judge in eviction court and was carted off to a psychiatric ward. The children went to a friend’s mother, but were returned to their mother as soon as she was released.

When she finds work as a live-in nurse for an older woman who allows the family to live with them, Mary instructs the children to call their benefactor “Aunt Flora.” Hugh is thrilled to live in an apartment where he can take a bath and to be enrolled in third grade only a month into the school year even though he missed most of second grade. In an apparent effort to ingratiate the family with “Aunt Flora,” Mary tells eight-year-old Hugh he is Jewish, renames him David, and immediately takes him to a doctor to be circumcised. But she does not bring him back for follow-up care and the wound becomes infected. Mary refuses to seek medical care despite “Aunt Flora”‘s pleas, rippimg off the protective mesh that had become stuck to the wound. Dismayed at Mary’s refusal to seek medical care for her son, “Aunt Flora” expels the family and they are living in Grand Central station again.

Even during relatively stable periods, when they are able to rent an apartment in Albany with the help of public assistance, life is far from normal for the children. Mary Ambroz doesn’t cook and when the food stamps start to run low the children have strategies for getting fed, like sneaking into Ponderosa Steakhouse by pretending to be part of a family that has already paid. A kitten they were allowed to adopt during a good period starves to death despite David’s attempt to steal enough food to keep him alive. “He ate his own shit and died,” his mother tells him. “Enough whining, David. You should have taken care of him,” she said, putting the body in a trash bag along with the cat toys and the litter box.

Mary Ambroz uses a gift of $500 to take a taxi to Boston, and the family ends up in a domestic violence shelter in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Shelter staff try to help her get back on her feet and David tries to assist, accompanying her in selling vacuum cleaners door to door. The children are enrolled in school But that situation falls apart when Mary accuses a 65-year-old staffer groundlessly of sexually abusing David, after beating David up for allowing it to happen. “Nobody wants to tangle with my mother….And so, at this shelter for abused women, the response to our mother’s unhinged behavior is to move us to an apartment where they won’t have to witness the abuse.” And that is the same story, reports Ambroz, that repeats over and over again in their lives. Adults intervene with temporary kindnesses but don’t take steps to rescue the children from what is clearly a dangerous situation.

The children are thrilled with their new apartment, but Mary grows worse, alternating between almost catatonic apathy and violence. Twelve-year-old David realizes that foster care could be his salvation. He and his siblings been have been hiding their bruises for years at their mother’s demand but he finally understands that he must reveal his injuries in order to be saved. He shows his bruises to a DARE officer visiting his school. Two weeks later, two social workers knock on their door. “David, does your mother hurt you?” asks one of them, in front of his mother. As often happens when children are asked this question in the presence of the abusive caregiver, David retracts the allegation and the case is closed.

Mary Ambroz’s violence continues to escalate. She beats Alex severely with a curtain rod when he refuses to make a list of all the men with whom he has had sex. The children hatch a plan: 14-year-old Alex will ride a stolen bike 40 miles over the hills of Western Massachusetts at night to get help from a friend’s mother in Albany. The children gather $40 worth of food stamps, candy, and snacks and Alex is off. The family hears nothing for three weeks, and then the police call. Alex had made his way to Albany and disclosed the abuse to police and social services and is now in foster care. Once again, David is interviewed in front of his mother. Once again, denies the abuse. Once again, the social workers leave him and Jessica at home.

Just a few days later, Mary throws David down the stairs of their apartment building and then kicks his head, and everything goes dark. Covered with blood, David drags himself into the nearby courthouse and collapses into the arms of a bailiff. Finally David has had enough. From his hospital bed, he tells the investigating social worker what happened. His mother insists that he fell down the stairs, but the doctor opines that “it is not impossible, but these are pretty extensive injuries for a fall.” The CPS worker, unbelievably, tells David that while the investigation proceeds, “we think it’s best that you go home with your mom.” But a week later, the police knock on the door. A social worker tells David to pack his things. As he drives away from the apartment, David thinks, “This is it. I’m free.”

And now starts David’s life in foster care, which is only slightly less harrowing than his life with his mother. Jessica is placed in the foster home where Alex is living, but the home is not open to David and he knows why; the social workers can tell that he is gay. David spends his first night in foster care sleeping in the Department of Social Services (DSS) office, an experience of many children in foster care today. Then David is brought to a facility for juvenile delinquents, after being told by a social worker that it was not the right place for him but “we don’t have a place that can accept your kind.” At the facility he is called “fag” and “Ms. Ambroz” by a staffer, loses privileges for talking back, and is beaten up by other residents at the apparent instigation of the homophobic staffer. David’s illusion of safety is gone. “I am destroyed. It took everything I had to escape my mother. I thought nothing could be worse, but now, at twelve years old, I feel like this is it.”

David quickly cycles through several foster and group homes. He is finally placed with his siblings in the home of Buck and Mae, a couple who should never have been accepted as foster parents. After the children go to bed in their basement, they are not allowed upstairs for any reason, not even to go to the bathroom. They can’t use the shower without an escort, they can’t go into the kitchen except for mealtimes, and no snacking is allowed. Abetted by a succession of therapists, Buck and Mae try to suppress David’s homosexuality, forbidding him to close the door to the bathroom all the way and designing “manly” chores like clearing a swamp and digging out a backyard swimming pool. He is sent out to hang up wet laundry in the winter without gloves. They say he is too fat and put him on a starvation diet, and now he is hungry again and scrounging for food.

Thanks to a high school friend of David’s siblings, he is hired to work at a summer camp, and that summer changes David’s life. He bonds with the camp director, Holly, and her small daughter, a camper. Holly senses that something is wrong in David’s home. Knowing he needs support, she visits him weekly after camp ends but the visits eventually stop. Later David learns that Holly stopped visiting him after Mae became furious when she bought him new clothes. Holly called David’s social worker and asked to become his foster parent. She and her husband were working on receiving their foster care license until the social worker told them that Mae and Buck insisted it was better for him to be kept with his siblings.

Finally, Jessica and Alex run away. They disclose abuse at the foster home and refuse to go back. But there is no room in the new foster home for David, and DSS keeps David with Buck and Mae even while recognizing their abuse, requiring them to do additional training and not allowing them to take on new children. (Holly is never told that David is no longer with his siblings or invited to apply for her foster care license). Mae restricts David’s food even more while citing his obesity, even though he is dangerously underweight. Nobody at school appears to notice or care. Even when David faints in school, he does not explain that he is starving and no red flags are raised. Buck and Mae begin taking him out of school to work for an acquaintance, pocketing his pay and that too raises no concerns at school.

The torture escalates until one spring morning in 1995, Mae tells David he is staying home from school and David decides he is not going to take it anymore. He leaves the house and tracks down Holly, learning of her attempt to have him placed with her. Finally, David is placed with Holly, her husband Steve, and their two small children. He cannot believe that he is allowed to freely roam upstairs, or that he is allowed to eat whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Steve teaches David how to drive and laughs when he destroys their mailbox, saying he never liked it anyway. Holly ensures that he, Alex and Jessica get the braces that Mae refused to let them get since her kids could not have them.

David always loved school, but the dislocations imposed by his mother, and the hunger and absences posed by his foster parents, often affected his grades. One he is stable and fed, he gets straight A’s. As a high school junior, he joins the Foster Youth Advisory Council and begins attending annual meetings in Washington. But even with loving foster parents, David is tired of the system. He emancipates himself with the help of a fictitious custody arrangement with his siblings’ father and goes off to Spain for a miraculous year of healing and fun with a loving host mother. He applies and is accepted to his dream school, Vassar, with a generous financial aid package.

Even with his financial aid, David struggles to buy books and to survive during school breaks. (It is not clear why he does not ask Holly and Steve for these things or return to them for the holidays; it seems to be a matter of pride or reluctance to burden them.) He eventually gives up on fulfilling his mother’s dream that he become a doctor and switches his major to political science and his plan to law school, remembering his experience as a White House intern the summer before. At a meeting of the Foster Youth Advisory Council, he agrees to be a liaison to a collaboration working to help gay foster youth. That’s when he comes out as a gay man. The story ends with his graduation from Vassar in May 2002. He is on his way to UCLA to study law and public policy. Now, Ambroz works for Amazon as head of Community Engagement (West) and is the founder of Fostermore.org, an organization that encourages those in the entertainment industry, businesses, and nonprofits to raise money and heighten awareness about the needs of foster children.

A Place Called Home provides some important corrections to the prevailing narrative in child welfare. That narrative features struggling parents who are doing the best they can, and who are being persecuted by an evil “family policing system” that is dead set on removing their children. Clearly, that is not the story of David Ambroz and his siblings. At every stage of the child welfare process–reporting, investigation and reunification–the deck was stacked against the children’s interest in safety and stability and in favor of their mother’s keeping them. While it has been some years since David Ambroz was an abused child (he does not give his date of birth but we know that he graduated from Vassar in 2002 and we can assume he was born close to 1980) the problems he identified are very familiar to those with knowledge of the system and indeed some of them may even have worsened due to the current ideological climate in child welfare.

Failure to Report: The number of people who knew that David and his siblings were suffering but took no action to help them is truly staggering. As Ambroz puts it, “Priests, rabbis, teachers, shelter directors, church members, welfare employees and Aunt Flora have all been witnesses to our bruises and lice, our hunger, a ceaseless tide of neglect and abuse.” David acknowledges that reports were made and the children were even removed once or twice, but the vast majority of people who witnessed their abuse apparently did not report it. We often hear similar stories in the wake of a child’s maltreatment death. For example, eight-year-old Dametrious Wilson was killed by his aunt in June 2022. Though he missed 60 days of school in the year before he died, his Denver Colorado school never reported his absences as required by law, even when his aunt said she was keeping him home “for few weeks” as punishment for his behavior!

And yet, today there is a groundswell of opposition to mandatory reporting and serious proposals to eliminate it, mostly on the grounds that children of color are disproportionately reported. It is true that a staggering proportion of Black children are investigated by CPS; it has been estimated that over half of Black children experience a CPS investigation by the time they turn 18, compared to 28 percent for white children and 37 percent of all children. It is possible that reporting is overused in some communities and underused in others. But it seems more logical to address these problems directly (and also educate ordinary citizens about the need to report suspected maltreatment) rather than eliminating mandatory reporting itself.

Flawed investigations: Even when reports were made, the investigations were often flawed. Ambroz states that “Over the years we’ve been investigated many times without getting help. Mom always fights to keep us, and it’s a battle she’s mostly won.” So what went wrong? Ambroz gives us part of the answer when he explains that social workers and police interviewed him at least twice in front of his mother. Both times he recanted and denied the abuse he had alleged earlier, knowing that he risked severe punishment for telling the truth. It seems obvious that children should be interviewed away from their parents since either love or fear or both will lead them to lie. Yet, this clueless and dangerous practice of interviewing children in front of the alleged perpetrator contnues in many jurisdictions. In Minnesota, a young woman named Maya, who was forced to report her fathers’s sexual abuse while he was listening, worked with an advocacy group to draft Maya’s Law, which required that Minnesota children be interviewed privately regarding allegations of abuse. But like the previous attempts, Maya’s Law failed. Instead, the language was revised to read “When it is possible, and the report alleges substantial child endangerment or sexual abuse, the interview may take place outside the presence of the alleged offender…” Sadly, many “advocates” for Black and indigenous children argued against the requirement for private interviews, fearing that it would increase disproportional involvement of these groups in child welfare.

Unwarranted reunifications: Even when David and his siblings were removed from their mother briefly, they were returned at least twice with no indication they would be safe. When Mary returned from the psychiatric ward after throwing a shoe at a judge, “nobody cared that we are being put in the custody of a homeless woman who’d recently thrown a shoe at a judge in a court of law.” We know that many children are reunified with their parents despite a lack of evidence of any change in their behavior or capabilities. In Lethal Reunifications, I wrote about two such cases that ended in a child’s death, but clearly that is just the tip of the iceberg. We never know about the children left to suffer in silence, unless they decide to write about their experiences.

Necessity of foster care in some cases: The current narrative holds that foster care is almost never necessary. But David Ambroz’s story reveals the stark truth that some children must be removed in order to be saved. Of course every effort should be made to help parents conquer their problems while monitoring children for safety in the home. But in cases of chronic maltreatment, ingrained patterns may be impossible to change. As Dee Wilson put it in his briliiant commentary on chronic multitype maltreatment, “Chronic neglect is marked by the erosion or collapse of social norms around parenting resulting from chronically relapsing conditions.” There is no better example of such collapsed social norms than Mary Ambroz, who had completely lost any sense of responsibility to keep her children clothed, fed, and housed, not to mention to avoid abusing them. In such cases, it is wrong to sacrifice the well-being of the child or children for the general value of family preservation.

Ambroz’s story also provides a needed antidote to the current trope that what child welfare describes as neglect is actually just poverty. The confusion of poverty with neglect is a pernicious misconception being perpetrated today by those who wish to eviscerate the child welfare system. David’s story clearly shows the difference. He says of the mother of friends they make in Albany: “Aurora and her sons are poor like us, and yet she still manages to take care of them. She feeds and clothes them. She cares about where they are when they roam around at night. She gives them a home that is stable in all the ways I’ve never dreamed.” And there, in a nutshell ,is the distinction between poverty and neglect.

The dominant narrative portrays foster care as harmful for children and even abusive at times. That part of the narrative is accurate for the first part of David’s time in care, when the system proved incapable of keeping David and his siblings safe, let alone meeting their needs. Among the major reasons for this failure, Ambroz draws attention to the lack of qualified foster parents and overwhelmed social workers.

Lack of Qualified Foster Parents: David fell victim to one of the scourges of our system, insufficient numbers of good foster parents. For this reason, he was initially placed in a facility for juvenile delinquents where he was abused for being gay, and then in a totally unsuitable home. In Buck and Mae, David provides a classic example of a couple who become foster parents to make ends meet. The foster care payments they received helped Buck and Mae keep their house and clothe their children. It is not surprising that such foster parents exist: some foster care agencies leave recruiting brochures in food stamp offices and laundromats; one that I worked for advertised in in a publication called the PennySaver. And yet, even when David’s siblings ran away and their abuse allegations that were taken seriously enough that the agency decided to send no more children to this couple, they were allowed to keep David. One reason, as Ambroz points out, is that there are not enough foster parents, especially for large sibling groups, so the focus is on finding any “bed” for a child. As a foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, I knew many foster parents who were motivated mainly by money. My recommendations to fire such foster parents were never accepted because the agency needed the beds.

To address the shortage of good foster parents, Ambroz recommends recruiting more middle and upper-income foster parents with higher education degrees. In order to do this, he suggests providing benefits that might attract such parents, such as government pensions, participation in the federal employee health plan, and access to free or subsidized tuition and state colleges and universities. I’m not confident that any of these benefits will attract more educated foster parents, and financial incentives also pose the risk of attracting more educated versions of Buck and Mae. Perhaps the lesson of David’s story lies the willingness of Holly and Steve to be his foster parents and the unresponsiveness of the system to this request. There is now a big push to locate kin who can care for children who are removed–and this may be happening much more frequently than when David and his siblings entered care. Perhaps agencies can do more to find unrelated adults who may have bonded with children as their teachers, parents of their friends, mentors or employers, who might serve as foster caregivers. This is certainly done; I myself agreed when asked by CPS to provide a temporary home to a friend of my son’s. If most children who are removed could be placed with adults known to them, it would be easier to fire the Bucks and the Maes and reserve the great foster parents for the children for whom no known adults are available.

Overwhelmed social workers: One reason David’s social worker did not jump at the chance to move him to Holly’s home may be that she was overwhelmed. “I have a rotating cast of social workers, who don’t have the bandwidth to pay attention to anything but immediate and obvious problems,” Ambroz reports. Based on my experience as a social worker in foster care, I could not agree more. Foster care, especially for older and more troubled children, is plagued with constant crises. With caseloads in most jurisdictions far too high, social workers have no time to deal with anything besides the latest crisis. Contributing to the problem are frivolous paperwork and metrics that have nothing to do with child wellbeing. Between the foster parents who did not perform the most basic parental responsibilities, and the caseloads that were too high for me to pick up the slack, I could not spend the time I needed to ensure that each child received the care they needed to thrive, and I eventually left the job.

David Ambroz recommends attracting more and better social workers by decreasing their caseloads and increasing their pay and benefits by either a salary increase or alternative compensation such as student loan forgiveness and home loan assistance. These are excellent ideas. There are other ideas worth considering, such expanding and publicizing the current Title IV-E social work education program that provides tuition assistance for social worker students who want to go into child welfare. Also worth considering are recruiting among populations that do not traditionally seek these jobs, such as military retirees, and perhaps changing education requirements for social workers in child welfare to allow other backgrounds besides social work.

Flaws in the Analysis

While David Ambroz’s story is powerful and carries many important lessons, his acceptance of the current child welfare zeitgeist may have prevented his drawing the conclusions that logically flow from his story. First, he buys into the currently popular misconception that parents are being found neglectful when they are simply poor. Second, he misses the opportunity to advocate for strengthening child protection services, not weakening them.

Poverty vs. neglect: While I’ve already described how Ambroz’ story contradicts the currently popular assertion that “neglect” is synonymous with poverty, he unfortunately repeats that same trope. Describing the domestic violence shelter staff’s decision to place the family in an apartment after observing Mary Ambroz’s abuse of her children, Ambroz states that “[T]his is a pattern that is repeated across the country–children in poverty are given kernels of assistance but are rarely rescued from their circumstances.” But David and his siblings were abused children, not just children in poverty. As mentioned above, he acknowledges that other poor families were not like theirs. By confusing poverty with maltreatment, Ambroz loses a key opportunity to clarify the difference between these problems and to explain that eliminating maltreatment requires more than just economic assistance .

Child protection failures: In his list of policy prescriptions, included in an appendix to the book, Ambroz does not address any of the problems with CPS that were revealed in his memoir. He focuses mainly on foster care, as if his earlier experience as an abused child did not have policy implications. Ambroz could have thrown his weight behind mandatory reporting in light of the movement to end it and could have argued for education of all citizens on the need to report suspected abuse. He could have supported reforms requiring that children be interviewed away from her parents. But these such policies are opposed to the current climate in child welfare which favors hobbling or eliminating CPS and minimizing interference with families. Ambroz appears to be determined to stay within the mainstream, saying “the best way to reform foster care is to decriminalize poverty and help families remain intact whenever possible with wraparound support–be it jobs, mental health care, or whatever is needed.” If abused and neglected children can remain safe with wraparound support that is clearly the best option, but to receive this support, these children must be identified through reporting and investigation. It is unfortunate that Ambroz did not recognize the discrepancies between some of the lessons of his story and the dominant narrative in child welfare and missed the opportunity to spell them out.

Despite its flaws, Ambroz’s story takes its place with other haunting memoirs of abused children, like Stacey Patton’s That Mean Old Yesterday, Regina Calcaterra’s Etched In Sand, and most famously Educated by Tara Westover, which put the lie to the current narrative of good parents vs. the evil state. If only Ambroz had recognized the conflict between his narrative and the dominant one, his book would be even more useful. But the story speaks for itself; the commentary is secondary. David Ambroz’s story is a must-read for anybody who cares about the abused and neglected children among us, including those who are in foster care.

*The doctor was the father of Alex and Jessica, but Mary Ambroz never told David who his father was.

Chronic maltreatment: A blind spot for child welfare

A CPS supervisor in St. Louis City once told the author about something he called “the 500 families.” When asked what this meant, he said that this referred to the small group of families that we see in the city again and again over many years, and sometimes over generations. They consume most of the time of workers and eat up most of the money available to the agency. These are the FE [frequently encountered] families.

L Anthony Loman, PhD., Families Frequently Encountered by Child Protection Services

It is a fact universally acknowledged that some families are reported to child protective services (CPS) again and again over a period of years. Many or most of these referrals involve some type of neglect, but there are often allegations of physical and sexual abuse as well. But in many cases, CPS fails to recognize families that are experiencing chronic maltreatment and when it does provide services, they may conclude with little or no change in the parents’ behavior or the children’s situation. As a result, children suffer lifetime damage, sometimes extending the cycle of maltreatment to the next generation, and sometimes the maltreatment even results in a child’s death. Sadly, today’s climate of anti-interventionism, combined with the reluctance to spend money and the lack of public concern about maltreated children, makes it unlikely that any relief for these at-risk children is forthcoming in the near future.

What is chronic maltreatment?

Every child welfare social worker seems to know families who have been reported to CPS repeatedly over a period of years. Dee Wilson, a former child welfare worker, supervisor and administrator who writes an essential child welfare blog called Sounding Board, asks participants in his training classes to tell him the highest number of CPS reports they have ever seen on one family. For almost 20 years, he has heard no answer less than 30 in any group of caseworkers, and he has received answers as high as 90 or 100 on several occasions.1 

There are different ways of describing those families who are frequently reported to CPS. The most commonly used term is “chronic neglect,” but this term can be misleading, as Anthony Loman explains. While these families usually have multiple reports of neglect, they often have reports of physical and sexual abuse as well. Loman uses the term “frequently encountered families,” meaning families who are reported again and again to CPS, and Jonson-Reid et al write about “chronically reported families” to refer to the same group. Dee Wilson prefers to focus on chronic multitype maltreatment, which he defines as maltreatment that is both chronic and includes more than one maltreatment type, such as neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. But all of these writers are talking about the essentially the same families, as discussed below.

The case histories of frequently reported families consist of a sequence of reports followed by diverse outcomes. Some reports are screened out by hotline staff. Others receive an investigation or alternative response. Some investigated reports are substantiated, others are ruled as “unfounded” or “inconclusive.”2 The substantiated reports may result in the opening of an in-home case or the removal of.a child or children, or no action may be taken if the children are deemed safe or not at risk. New reports often come in and are investigated even while a case is open. An in-home case may turn into a foster care case based on a new incident or a new investigation. Removed children are returned home and the cycle continues, with new reports, investigations, case openings, and removals. Loman calls this the “replay cycle.”

There is a surprising lack of research about frequently encountered families, and most of it is over two decades old. Loman, in his magisterial study, used a sample of 33,495 Missouri families who were reported to CPS for the first time between July 1997 and June 1998 and followed for five years after that first report. He defined “frequently encountered families” as those that received five or more reports in five years. He also used a smaller sample of 797 families from one Minnesota county who were selected in 2001 or 2002 and tracked for 27 months; for this sample he defined frequently encountered families as those with three or more reports. Jonson-Reid et al used a longitudinal study of children reported for maltreatment in a midwestern metropolitan area in 1993 or 1994. They limited their sample of 6,412 children under the age of ten at the time that they were first reported to CPS to allow a follow-up period of at least seven years. While there are a number of studies that examine maltreatment recurrence, I found no others that focus on families classified according to the number of reports received.3

The limited research available suggests that frequently reported families are a significant part of the population of families known to child welfare. Loman reports that of his sample of 33,395 Missouri families with screened-in CPS reports, one-fifth had five or more reports in five years. Of this group, nearly half had five or six reports during the five-year follow up period, a quarter had seven or eight reports, and the remaining quarter had nine or more reports. It is important to remember that these families were followed for only five years, and that they could have received many more reports after the follow-up period was over, perhaps as high as the 90 or 100 reports some social workers described to Dee Wilson. In their study, Jonson-Reid et al found that 27 percent of their sample had four or more reports by the end of the seven-year followup period.

Using their entire sample of over 33,000 Missouri families, and defining twelve different types of abuse and neglect. Loman found that the type of maltreatment alleged in the first report on a family is not a reliable predictor of the allegations in subsequent reports. In terms of the broad categories of “abuse” and “neglect,” many family histories showed reports of abuse interspersed between neglect reports, and much diversity in the type of abuse and neglect alleged in different reports. It is often observed that neglect by a single mother opens the door to abuse by her boyfriend, especially when he is caring for her children. And indeed, Turner and her co-authors, using 2011 and 2014 responses from 7,852 children or their parents to the National Surveys of Children’s Exposure to Violence, found that both physical and supervisor neglect were “strongly associated with risk of other maltreatment and most other forms of victimization.” These findings suggest that “chronic neglect,” “frequently encountered families,” and “chronic multitype neglect” refer to mostly the same families.

Using mostly his smaller but richer Minnesota dataset in which “frequently encountered” meant three or more reports in 27 months, Loman was able to compare frequently encountered families to those families that were reported less frequently. He found that frequently enountered families were more likely than others to be in extreme poverty and to have no employed adults. Younger parents, younger children, larger numbers of children, domestic violence, substance abuse, children with mental illness and disabilities, and caregivers with low self-esteem were more prevalent among frequently encountered families. Not surprisingly, these are the same factors that are associated with having any re-report or recurrence of maltreatment after the first report, and they are also associated with child maltreatment in general.

As might be expected, frequently encountered families account for a disproportionate share of child welfare spending. Loman found that the one-fifth of families in his Missouri sample that were defined as frequently encountered accounted for half the spending on families over a five-year period. The majority of these expenditures was for foster and group care and residential treatment. Case management and administrative costs for these families, which were probably disproportionate as well, were not included in this estimate.

Source: I Anthony Loman, Families Frquently Encountered by Child Protection Services, Institute of Applied Research, 2006, https://www.iarstl.org/papers/FEfamiliesChronicCAN.pdf

What are the consequences of chronic maltreatment?

Many studies show that exposure to maltreatment is linked to multiple adverse outcomes, and several have found that children exposed to chronic maltreatment tend to experience worse outcomes than those exposed to a single incident.4 In The Science of Neglect, the Harvard Center on the Developing Child explains how chronic severe neglect–defined as “the absence of sufficient attention, responsiveness and protection that are appropriate to the age and needs of a child” –can produce “serious physiological disruptions that lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and health.”

It is also important to note the relationship between reports of child maltreatment and mortality from all causes, which I wrote about in an earlier commentary. There has been a spate of new research demonstrating that children who have been the subject of at least one child abuse or neglect report are more likely than other children to die from many causes, including childhood injury, sudden unexplained infant death, medical causes, suicide and homicide, even when confounding factors are controlled. As a member of the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Committee, I have observed that children who die of all these causes often have long family histories with CPS. For example, the families of many young victims of homicide had a history of CPS reports often starting in the infancy of their first child. Many of these case histories reveal numerous calls to CPS alleging both neglect and abuse, with school absenteeism and lack of supervision being among the most frequent allegations. Eventually, many of these young people became involved in violent and illegal activities, ultimately leading to their violent deaths. There is no evidence of whether chronic maltreatment has worse effects on mortality than a single episode, but common sense suggests that is the case.

In discussing the consequences of chronic maltreatment, it is important to bear in mind the relationship between chronic maltreatment and the placement crisis that is currently plaguing child welfare agencies around the country. Many of the young people currently sleeping in offices and hotels, housed in psychiatric wards after being ready for discharge, and sent out of state, are undoubtedly victims of chronic maltreatment. Because they were allowed to stay in their toxic environments for so long without intervention, they developed cognitive, emotional or physical problems making them difficult to care for in a foster family; some are too hard to handle for most group homes and residential treatment centers and end up being rejected or expelled from those facilities as well.

How does CPS respond to chronic maltreatment?

CPS often fails to respond to chronic maltreatment in a family early enough to help parents make changes in their behavior and prevent serious harm to children. As Dee Wilson describes, many families referred to CPS several times for less serious neglect often receive no services until maltreatment is so ingrained that opportunity for effective early intervention has been lost. Wilson blames CPS’ tendency to focus on the incident alleged in the last report rather than the pattern revealed by a family’s history of reports over time.

And even when CPS responds, the response is often inadequate. The “replay cycle” described by Loman – with repeated reports, case openings, case closures, foster care removals and reunifications – continues because parents’ mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence or parenting style remain problematic. And indeed, research suggests that even when a family receives services as a result of a substantiated report, these services are generally too brief and do not result in behavior change. Chaffin et al, studying parents in home-based child welfare services, found that chronically maltreating parents tend to enter services with high levels of problems and do not improve much as the result of participation in services. They concluded that the “episodic and reactive service model characterizing traditional child welfare services” may be a “mismatch” for chronically matreating families.

Another reason for the “replay cycle” in some jurisdictions may be that at least one of the allegations being investigated must be substantiated in order for the agency to open a case. As a member of the Child Fatality Review Team in the District of Columbia, I have observed that many children who later died were assessed to be at high risk by the CPS investigator but were left at home with no support or monitoring when the allegations were not substantiated. When asked why this happened, agency representatives invariably explain that social workers are not allowed to open a case if an investigation did not result in substantiation of at least one allegation.

Similarly, accounts of child abuse or neglect deaths in states like California and Kansas have revealed that these children were assessed to be at high risk by CPS investigators one or more times but were left at home with no support or monitoring. Again, one reason was the requirement that an allegation be substantiated before a case can be opened.5 In the wake of the horrific child abuse death of Yonatan Aguilar in Los Angeles County, who was kept in closets for three years before he died, after four unsubstantiated allegations, the Office of Child Protection analyzed 1,225 referrals investigated by DCFS between 2012 and 2016 involving a child was later seriously injured or killed. They found that as in the case of Yonatan, more than half of the fatalities and near-fatalities occurred when the allegation was not substantiated. Yet we know from research that whether a report has been substantiated is a poor indicator of future behavior among parents who have been reported to CPS.6 Requiring substantiation to open a case ensures that some at-risk children will remain unprotected.

How can agencies respond better to chronic maltreatment?

There may be some social problems that we know how to solve but cannot do so due to financial or political constraints. But chronic maltreatment is not one of those problems. There are no easy answers to chronic maltreatment. But one thing is clear. The system itself must stop neglecting chronically maltreated children by leaving them at home without monitoring or support. Different commentators have supported different policies and some of these are discussed below.

Early Identification and support: Loman suggests that many families that will go on to become frequently encountered can be identified after the first or second report. These are the families that have many risk factors for child maltreatment and few protective factors against it and therefore score high on risk assessments. Ideally, child welfare agencies would identify these families after the first or second report and intervene to prevent their becoming chronically maltreating families. But, realistically, this is not going to happen in the current ideological climate, which favors restricting rather than expanding the role of child welfare services. However, it should be possible to offer all of these families a referral to high-quality childcare that includes family support services and staff trained to spot signs of abuse or neglect. For example, Educare, a nationwide network of birth-to-five schools, provides high-quality early childhood education, family support services, and links to needed services in disadvantaged neighborhoods around the country. At least in the Washington DC location, children are checked daily for signs of abuse.

Standards for removal based on age: Dee Wilson contends that the requirement of “imminent danger” for child removal is inappropriate in light of what we now know about the damage that long-term maltreatment causes to children’s developing brains and its contribution to mortality from all causes. He suggests considering developmental harm to children, rather than the narrow criterion of imminent danger, in the decision of whether to place the youngest children (those five and under) in foster care. Conversely, he suggests that children aged six to 17, unless they are in extreme physical danger if they remain at home, should be placed out-of-home only when a child welfare agency has a known therapeutic resource for that child, or when there is an extended family member, family friend or professional with whom the youth has a good relationship and who is committed to the youth. But removing more children at any age is unlikely to gain support in today’s ideological climate, which perceives child removal as punitive “family policing.” Removing fewer older children as Wilson proposes may leave many in harm’s way, especially those who might be in danger of self-harm from emotional abuse. Nevertheless, these ideas are worth further attention and exploration.

Reducing the role of substantiation/mandating services: Jurisdictions where substantiation of an allegation is required in order to open a case can consider changing that requirement. Los Angeles’s Office of Child Protection, in the report referenced above, spoke to experts who supported placing more emphasis on risk (instead of on allegation dispositions) when making case decisions, and on offering services and supports to families that may help to reduce this risk. However, agencies may need to do more than “offer” such services. Children who are assessed to be at high or intensive risk and in families that have multiple reports of maltreatment should not be left in their homes without monitoring. When there are three or more reports, and a child or children are found to be at high or intensive risk, a case should be opened for services and a court petition should be filed if the family refuses to participate. Court petitions should also be used more often during in-home cases to oversee parents’ compliance and incentivize their cooperation with services in in-home cases.

Services for Parents

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of interventions that have been found to be effective for parents with histories of chronic child neglect, especially when accompanied by substance abuse and mental health disorders, as well as parents displaying multiple types of maltreatment. Such families need a variety of services to address all of their risk factors, and the services must be sequenced so as not to overwhelm the parent or to provide certain services before a parent is ready for them. Drug treatment and mental health services are major needs for these parents. They also need services to address their financial need and employability, as research has shown that poverty and financial stress make child maltreatment more likely. Adequate housing will have to be provided for some families. Also needed, as Loman describes, are services to bolster protective factors like social supports, for example by trying to reconnect a family with an estranged relative.

Case management itself should be considered one of the most important services that cna be provided to frequently encountered families. Given the serious issues of these families, case managers need to have lower caseloads or work in teams. Dee Wilson recommends the creation of case management teams consisting of a CPS caseworker, substance abuse assessment specialist, mental health therapist, a public health nurse and a parent advocate to work with these families. Another approach is to assign one case manager with a smaller caseload to such families. The District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency implemented chronic neglect units but they were dropped after barely a year. Case managers or teams should be allowed to work with families for at least a year, or even longer when a parent is mentally ill or cognitively impaired. Deep-seated problems that are often multigenerational cannot be solved in a matter of months.

Serving Parents and Children Simultaneously

Therapeutic childcare: An intervention that has not received enough support is therapeutic childcare, such as that offered by the relief nurseries in Oregon. Relief nurseries seek to prevent the cycle of child abuse and neglect through comprehensive and integrated early childhood therapeutic and family support services. Seattle’s Childhaven used to operate a similar model, combining therapeutic childcare with coaching parents in how to interact with their children. Such therapeutic childcare addresses many of the issues with chronic maltreatment. Quality care with family support can replace some of the missing interaction that is so essential to healthy child development, while at the same time training parents to interact this way themselves. Reducing the hours that a child spends alone with the parent, and enabling observation by staff trained to spot signs of abuse or neglect, increase child safety. Stress on parents is reduced by family support and availability of childcare. It is hard to think of an approach that addresses child maltreatment through so many pathways. As mentioned above, high quality childcare should be offered to families reported for the first time and at every subsequent report. But therapeutic childcare designed for children who are the victims of maltreatment should be mandated for those who have an open in-home case.

Residential Services: Keeping parents and children together while parents get treatment can keep children safe while not disrupting the parent-child bond. Drug treatment programs where children can stay with their parent are one approach that deserves more funding. Dee Wilson, in another helpful commentary about in-home services, also suggests trying out the concept of Shared Family Care, widely used in some Northern European countries, in which whole families with a substance abusing or mentally ill parent are placed with resource families.

Services for Children

Mentoring: Every school-aged child with an in-home case or in foster care should be matched with an adult mentor7 providing both another set of eyes on the child and some of the nurturing that the parents may not be providing. Mentors can be volunteers or employees of a professional mentoring program like Friends of the Children, which aims to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and has a special concentration on children in foster care or involved with child welfare. Credible Messengers is a quickly-spreading model that uses people with similar life experiences to mentor youths involved with juvenile justice, and the District of Columbia’s child welfare agency has begun using it in foster care as well.

Creativity and Mastery: As Dee Wilson suggests,7 agencies managing the cases of abused and neglected school-age children should invest as much in their talent development as in their mental health treatment. Developing a child’s talent in arts, sports or another arena provides multiple benefits, including the psychological benefits of mastery of a skill, and in the case of the arts, the opportunity to process and understand trauma, as described in an Imprint article about an arts programs for incarcerated youth.

Specialized Education: Some public education models are designed to support children with child welfare involvement. Haven Academy in the Bronx is a public charter school that is open to all students but prioritizes admitting children whose families are involved with the child welfare system. Their model integrates family support services with the academic program. Some school-aged children who are candidates for foster care may do well in a boarding school that takes them away from their homes for much of the time while their parents receive needed services. Monument Academy Public Charter School in the District of Columbia is a weekday boarding school designed to serve students who have experienced significant adversity, including involvement or risk of involvement in the child welfare system. The school works to provide its students with the “academic, social, emotional, and life skills to be successful in college, career, and community.”

Coordination with other agencies

Shared Data: The families that come back again and again to every child welfare agency are probably the same families known to other agencies that work primarily with the poor–such as income support, mental health, juvenile justice and probation. The schools probably know these families as well because of their children’s issues with absenteeism, behavior, and disabilities. With a database shared between these agencies, families with issues could be identified early and helped in a more coordinated manner, perhaps allowing earlier intervention (and not always by CPS) with chronically maltreating families. But privacy and other concerns are often used to block any attempt at information-sharing between agencies. In a future commentary, I will discuss how such concerns ended San Francisco’s Shared Youth Database, a successful and award-winning data sharing project.

Shared Case Management: Another way to coordinate services between agencies would be to actually merge case management for child welfare and income support programs, returning to something more like the model that existed when cash welfare was administered by social workers who monitored parents to ensure that they were meeting the needs of their children. This model was phased out between 1968 and 1972 after criticism that it was coercive and also to save money, and it is unlikely to get a good reception in today’s ideological climate. But returning to a shared case management arrangement for cash welfare and child protective services would have many advantages. It would make the receipt of benefits contingent on taking proper care of one’s children and provide an incentive for families to cooperate with their case plans.

Recognizing when to give up on birth families: Finally, child welfare agencies must recognize when it is time to remove a child from a toxic family environment or when the prospect of reunification should be given up for good. It is not appropriate to close an in-home services case or to reunify a family if there is no indication that the parents have changed their behavior, and yet this happens all the time. Many of the most egregious child abuse and neglect deaths have been associated with startling failures to remove a child after long histories of abuse, or incomprehensible reunifications with parents who are clearly dangerous. Social workers and judges should be more rigorous about demanding evidence of change before putting a child in harm’s way by closing a case or sending a child home. When starting work with frequently encountered families, social workers should immediately seek out relatives or family friends who could serve as sources of support as the parents try to improve and as alternative caregivers if the children must be permanently removed.

Dee Wilson provides several reasons why there little motivation to find effective responses to the problem of chronic maltreatment. There is certainly no great public concern with the emotional and developmental damage to children from growing up with chronic abuse and neglect. Child welfare commentators in the spotlight today are clamoring for a narrower standard for child welfare intervention, not a broader one. And finally, understaffed and underfunded child welfare agencies are not looking to expand their services to maltreating families, although paradoxically many of them apparently want to expand their mission to encompass prevention of maltreatment among the group of families not yet known to them. The combination of public indifference, resistance to government spending (traditionally the province of the right wing) and resistence to any sort of “family policing or regulation” regardless of the danger to children (now the province of the left wing), is particularly toxic. Nevertheless, those who care for children must keep raising our voices, hoping one day that those in power will understand the need to protect the most vulnerable children and thereby interrupt the transmission of chronic maltreatment from generation to generation.

Notes

  1. Dee Wilson, email to this author, November 29, 2022.
  2. Substantiated means that there is credible evidence that abuse or neglect has occurred. Unsubstantiated or unfounded generally means there is not credible evidence concluding that abuse or neglect has occurred. Some states have an intermediate finding of “inconclusive” or “indicated” meaning that there is some evidence that maltreatment has occurred but not enough to substantiate the case. See Children’s Bureau, Child Protective Services: A Guide for Caseworkers 2018, p. 8-0.
  3. Jonson-Reid, M., et al. (2010). Understanding chronically reported families. Child Maltreatment, 15 (4):271-281. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3628675/. Jonson-Reid et al were able to find only one study (the Loman study) that focuses on these chronic cases. To determine if there were any such studies later, I went through the list of articles citing the Reid et al paper and found no more estimates of the proportion of families that are chronically reported by any definition.
  4. English, D. J., Upadhyaya, M. P., Litrownik, A. J., Marshall, J M., Runyan, D. K., Graham, J. C., & Dubowitz, H. (2005). Maltreatment’s wake: The relationship of maltreatment dimensions to child outcomes. Child Abuse and Neglect, 29,597-619; Ethier, L.S., Lemelin, J.P., and Lacharite, C. (2004). A longitudinal study of the effects of chronic maltratment on children’s behavioral and emotional problems. Child Abuse & Neglect, 28, 1265-1278; Jaffee, S., and Malkovich-Fong, A.K (2011). Effects of chronic maltreatment and maltreatment timing on children’s behavior and cognitivec abilities. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52(20, 184-194; Lemmon, J. H. (2006). The effects of maltreatment recurrence and Child Welfare services on dimensions of delinquency. Criminal Justice Review, 31, 5-32.
  5. See my commentary, Risk not substantiation should drive services to families. But not all jurisdictions require substantiation in order to open a case for in-home services or foster care. In Washington State, an allegation does not need to be substantiated for an agency to file a neglect petition in court; the purpose of filing a petition is to “prevent harm” and there is no need to prove that harm already occurred. Nevertheless, we know from Dee Wilson that despite this possibility, families continue maltreating long enough to accrue 30 or more reports, so clearly it is not the only answer. In Michigan and Minnesota, a case can be opened or a child removed because of “threatened harm,” which can be substantiated as a type of maltreatment.
  6. See Drake, Jonson-Reid, Way, & Chung, Substantation and Recidivism; Kohl, Jonson-Reid, and Drake, Time to leave substantiation behind: Findings from a National Probability Study; Putnam-Hornstein et al., Risk of re-reporting among infants who remain at home following alleged maltreatment.
  7. Dee Wilson, Email to the author, December 21, 2022.

The placement crisis for high-needs kids: it is residential facilities, not foster homes, that are lacking

Several housing units leased by DFPS for housing foster youth were adjacent to blighted abandoned housing development. From Court Monitor’s Report, published by Texas Public Radio, https://www.tpr.org/government-politics/2022-01-12/texas-foster-care-in-crisis-after-a-decade-in-litigation-and-5-years-under-federal-oversight

Around the country, child welfare systems are struggling with a placement crisis, especially for their most troubled youths. In North Carolina, an assistant secretary of the health and human services department told county directors that the state’s child welfare system is in crisis and could be hit with a massive class action suit due to children with emotional and behavioral health needs being boarded in offices or left in emergency rooms. In Illinois, the Director of the Department of Children and Family Services has been found in contempt of court a dozen times for not find a appropriate placement for specific children who were left in psychiatric hospitals after they were ready for discharge, left in juvenile detention centers after their sentences expired, or slept on office floors for want of a better placement. A recent case involved a girl who remained in a psychiatric hospital 170 days after being cleared for discharge.

In Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, the stories are similar. State and local agencies are unable to find appropriate placements for foster children and youth with the most severe behavioral health needs. As a result, they are being warehoused in inappropriate settings, such as temporary shelters, hotels, offices, or state-leased houses staffed by social workers; sent far away for residential care, or being left in psychiatric hospitals and detention centers after being cleared for release. Depending on the nature of the setting, these young people are deprived of normal schooling, activities, contact with their families, heathy food, exercise and opportunities to develop the life skills that they need. And equally important, they receive the message that nobody cares about them. As Cook County’s Public Guardian told a reporter about the children left for months in hospitals after a stay that should last no longer than a week or two :

“Imagine what it says to a child to see other kids come in, be treated, leave after a week. And they’re (wards of the state) stuck there for months, and months, and months because there’s nowhere for you,” Golbert said. “imagine the message that that sends to these children. It very powerfully tells these children that you don’t matter. And these are kids that often have attachment issues to begin with, by definition — they’ve been removed from abusive parents to be in DCFS care.”

Not surprisingly, the children languishing in inappropriate placements tend to be those who are hardest to place in foster homes. They tend to be older and with mental and physical disabilities, behavioral health problems, or both. Many of them have been bouncing from foster home to foster home for years until no foster home would take them. Many of these children have displayed violent or self-destructive behavior and are at risk of harming themselves or others. With fewer abused and neglected children being removed from their homes, foster care professionals all over the country are reporting that the children who are being placed today have more serious needs and often need of intensive services from professionals.

Few potential foster parents are willing to open their homes to youth who might be a threat to themselves or others in the home. Furthermore, many of these youth require a placement with intensive therapeutic services before being able to function in a normal foster home. Such a placement might be called a therapeutic group home, residential treatment center, or psychiatric residential treatment facility. Definitions of these terms vary, but the federal government’s foster care data system (AFCARS) classifies all these settings as “congregate care,” a term that has come to mean any setting that is not a foster home. Perhaps a specially trained, paid and supported therapeutic foster home could help some of these youths, but the numbers of such homes are tiny compared to the need.

So how did we get to this place where so many children with acute needs, far from having their needs met, are being housed in inappropriate and harmful settings? The foster care placement crisis is part of a larger crisis in residential care for youth (not just those in foster care) that stem from a push by advocates and governments to reduce the number of children in institutional care. Egregious cases of abuse in residential facilities have led to extensive press coverage, lawsuits, investigations, and the closure of many residential treatment centers. But they have also been used by opponents of residential care to argue that all such facilities are abusive or unnecessary, instead of recognizing that there are high-quality residential placements that can help the most wounded children who cannot be helped in another setting.

In addition to the growing opposition to residential care, other factors have also affected the supply of these facilities. Reimbursement rates have stagnated around the country, resulting in closure of some facilities. And those that are still open cannot pay their employees more than they would make in jobs in fast food or retail, with much less stress and risk. This has resulted in a staffing crisis that has caused facilities to close.

In a disturbing echo of the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960’s, disappearing residential treatment facilities have not been replaced by other options for providing the necessary care. The Colorado Sun reported on the catastropic state of residential care in that state. More than 44 youth treatment centers, with more than 1,000 beds, have closed since 2007. Only “a handful” of the 40 remaining centers will take the youth with the most severe mental health problems. And the director of human services for Weld County, Colorado, told the Sun that when the county does find a residential bed for a child, the child is often kicked out for displaying behaviors to severe for them to handle.

At the same time as residential facilities for youth in general have been closing down, a series of laws and court settlements has resulted in massive reductions in residential beds available to foster youths specifically. As is often the case, California took the lead by passing its Continuum of Care law, and Congress followed by adopting the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), of which one of its two main purposes was the reduction of children’s placements in congregate care. FFPSA accomplished its purpose by limiting to two weeks the time a child could spend in congregate care, except for certain specialized facilities for youth who had been sex-trafficked, pregnant and parenting teens, and independent living facilities. The only other exception is a new facility type called a Quality Residential Treatment Program (QRTP), which must meet stringent requirements, like a trauma-informed model, accreditation, and full-time nurses on site, that would require major modifications for many existing facilities. FFPSA also required that any placement beyond two weeks be approved by a court and that a stay longer than 12 months be approved in writing by the head of the agency. FFPSA contains another poison pill for residential care, of which its framers may have been unaware. QRTP’s of over 16 beds will likely be classified by Medicaid as “Institutions of Medical Diseases,” and therefore youth who are placed in these facilities will be ineligible for Medicaid funding of any of their care.

New Mexico is a “window into challenges facing other states, as documented by Searchlight New Mexico and Pro Publica. in the aftermath of a court settlement in which it agreed to reduce its reliance on residential treatment centers for foster youth, the number of group facilities has dropped by about 60 percent over the four years ending last August. But the state has yet to build the the community-based behavioral health system that it had promised. Therefore, the highest-needs youths are spending months in crisis shelters designed for brief stays and not equipped to deal with severe mental illness. Practically every day, reports Searchlight New Mexico, someone at a shelter that accepts foster teens calls 911 with a report of young people harming themselves, attacking or threatening staff or other residents, or running away. According to Pro Publica, the state plans to train four therapeutic foster parents and open two small group homes, with six beds each, for troubled youth. The state has not yet licensed a single QRTP.

The states with the largest numbers of foster youths are facing crises as well. In California, according to a letter from four state associations in April 2022, 1,193 residential therapeutic beds available to foster youth had been lost since January 1, 2020. The writers report that they are “aware of a number of other providers who are either greatly reducing their capacity, shifting program models to serve youth with less intensive needs, or closing.” In Texas, at any time there are as many as 75 children sleeping in unlicensed facilities like hotels or state-leased houses staffed by CPS workers for lack of an appropriate placement. In New York, more than half of residential treatment facility beds for children have shut down in the past ten years, dropping from 554 to 274, according to Pro Publica. In New York City, the Imprint recently reported that at least 40 children currently in the City’s emergency Children’s Center have been there for more than a month. The center, designed for temporary stays, currently houses 72 children. Housing children with a variety of complex diagnoses and speaking multiple languages, the center is responsible frequent calls to 911 and has been the subject of public scrutiny as a result of some of these episodes.

Some commentators and media outlets persist in blaming the placement crisis on a shortage of foster homes. Confounding the foster home shortage with the shortage of placements for high-needs kids is deceptive. As mentioned above, there are not many potential foster homes that would agree to take these children or that could help them. The option of using therapeutic foster care, while politically popular, has so far resulted in only very small programs due to the difficulty in recruiting suitable parents. This is not to say there is no foster home shortage for children who could be accommodated in a foster home; such shortages probably exist in many or most states, especially when we talk about the supply of quality foster homes.

What can be done? As many advocates argue, we should help children earlier so that they don’t become so damaged that they have to be placed in residential care. Many child welfare leaders and and advocates say the answer is to reach out to families before they become involved with child welfare. But they rarely talk about intervening earlier and more intensively with families already known to child welfare agencies. As a member of the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Team for years, I have observed a striking pattern among youths who are victims of gun violence. More often than not, their families have extensive child protective services case histories, often involving multiple children with repeated referrals for excessive absences from school, lack of supervision and physical or sexual abuse. The records show referral after referral being screened out, in-home cases being opened and quickly closed, and children being placed in and returned from foster care without any evidence of improvement in family functioning. Over time, the children’s behavior worsens, they acquire mental health diagnoses, become involved with juvenile justice, and those young people whose sad cases I reviewed eventually were killed by other youth and adults with similar backgrounds. We need to understand the deep intergenerational problems of chronically maltreating families and intervene with more intensity earlier–through intensive in-home services (with participation enforced by a court if necessary) and, when all else fails, removal of the child to a safer environment.

No matter what we do to help children earlier, it is obvious that at least in the short-run we must replace some of the lost residential facilities. These new facilities should be QRTP’s or other high-quality residential placements. But they must be established, and funded adequately enough to hire and adequately reward staff who are dedicated and passionate about their work. Some states have already taken action to boost their residential capacity for high-needs youth. The Legislature in Texas, for example, appropriated $70 million to the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) for supplemental payments to retain providers and increase provider capacity, and another $20 million for new facilities for the young people with the most intense needs. Congress can help by exempting QRTP’s from the IMD exclusion. The federal government could also incentivize creation of QRTP’s through a pilot or grant program.

Around the country, and in states encompassing the vast majority of foster youth, there is a placement crisis that is affecting mostly those youth who require more intensive care and services. This is part of a larger crisis in residential care for youth, which is exacerbated among foster youth because of new laws and policies discouraging their placement in what is called “congregate care.” Those who explain this as a shortage of foster homes fail to understand the nature of the youth affected. Perhaps earlier intervention with children who are chronically abused or neglected can reduce the number of children who are in need of residential care. But at least in the short run, we must increase the supply of quality residential facilities in order to prevent further damage to these youths. It will be costly, but the costs of inaction would be far greater.

 

A tragic ignorance: support for corporal punishment in certain communities

Photo: Montgomery County Police Department

In March 2021, political and community leaders in progressive Montgomery County, Maryland recoiled in horror at the release of a video showing two Black police officers screaming at a Black five-year-old boy who had thrown objects at his teacher, scratched her when she tried to stop him, and ran out of his school in January 2020. The officers’ behavior – including forcing the tiny child into a chair and screaming at full volume only inches from his face – was appalling enough that it resulted in brief suspensions for the two officers and the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the child’s mother, as recently revealed by the Washington Post. This incident drew attention to the fact that bad police behavior extends beyond inappropriate use of their guns. But there has been little focus on another systemic issue raised by this incident – one that may be even more destructive to at-risk children – and that is the widespread acceptance and promotion of corporal punishment among authority figures such as police.

The video of the 2020 incident is difficult to watch. It shows the two police officers, one male and one female, forcing the child into a chair and screaming into his face as he cries, coughs and hyperventilates. While disparaging and threatening him, they repeatedly prescribe corporal punishment as the remedy for the child’s behavior. “So this is why people need to beat their kids,” states Officer Dionne Holliday as she marches the boy into the building.” I hope your mama lets me beat you,” “Oh my God I’d beat him so bad!” Officer Kevin Christmom chimes in telling the child he misbehaves “because you don’t get no whupping.” “He’s bad. That’s what it is. Because no-one is correcting him,” adds Officer Holliday. As the child cries, gasps, and coughs, the officers continue to lament his bad behavior and upbringing, saying he should be “crated” since he was acting “like a beast.

When she arrives, the little boy’s mother’s top priority is not to comfort him but rather to order him to take off his shirt to demonstrate the lack of marks. It appears that, while on the telephone with the school, she heard one of the officers wondering what was going on in her home, so she wanted to show them that she was not abusing her son. The two officers hasten to reassure her. Says Officer Christmon: “We believe it is the exact opposite.” And the Officer Holliday chimes in, saying “Yeah, we want you to beat him.” The harassed mother insists she cannot beat her son because she does not want to go to prison or lose her child, but the officers insist that there is no such risk. The officers take the mother into a conference room in order to continue their discussion of appropriate discipline away from the child. The boy’s mother insists that she had been told by two school staff that they would call CPS if she spoke about beating her son. Officer Christmom said “you have two uniformed police officers telling you the law,” adding that “when my girlfriend beat her daughter, the officer said do what you need to do, just don’t kill her. Added Officer Holliday, “All I’m telling you is beat that ass.” The mother and the officers appear to bond over their belief that Black people discipline differently from Whites and the officers suggest that she disregard the statements of White school staff.

The child is brought into the room to face his mother’s wrath. After chastising him for his behavior, his mother asks, “What mommy gonna do?” “Beat me on the butt,” responds the little boy. You want me to keep beating your ass?” asked Mom. “You want her to let me do it?” asks Officer Holliday. “I don’t like bad children. Bad, disrespectful children. I think they need to be beaten.” The mother confesses that she has been so frustrated with her son’s behavior at school that she considered finding a therapist. But the officers discarded that option quickly. “He’s just bad,” says Officer Holliday. The officer adds that her mother beat her with anything at hand, including a telephone cord, and told her children, “When CPS comes let them take all of you.” Officer Christmom reiterates: “you can beat your child, just don’t leave no cuts, no cigarette burns…..” The boys’ mother parts with the officers on good terms, and a school staff member lets her know that her son has received two days suspension, clearly adding to the beating she has been licensed to give.

The degree of ignorance displayed by these police officers cannot be overstated. Researchers have been unanimous in finding that corporal punishment is harmful to children and worsens behavior rather than improving it. In an updated policy statement that strengthened its opposition to corporal punishment, the American Academy of Pediatrics found no evidence in the research literature of long-term benefits from corporal punishment and “a strong association between spanking children and subsequent adverse outcomes.” These bad outcomes include a greater likelihood of physical injury among the youngest children; negative impact on the parent-child relationship; increased aggression and defiance among children; increased risk of mental health disorders and cognition problems; and an increased likelihood of adult health problems.

In her book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America, the Black child advocate Stacey Patton contends that corporal punishment in the Black community grew out of the struggle to survive centuries of enslavement followed by Jim Crow and continued state violence. As she explains in a brilliant article about this case, the use of corporal punishment to ensure survival continues today as “many Black parents invoke their fear of their children being harassed, arrested, beaten or killed by police to justify whupping their children. Corporal punishment of Black children is widely considered a necessary step in protecting them from police violence.” But in fact, as Patton points out, corporal punishment has the opposite effect, leading to more problematic behavior at school and in the community, not less. As she puts it, “The last thing any police officer should be telling parents, especially Black parents, is to hit their children.”

Thankfully, the use of corporal punishment appears to be declining in the US. But poor and marginalized families are often late in adopting social trends, whether it be smoking cessation or diet and exercise. Moreover, nineteen states, mostly in the south, allow corporal punishment by school staff. It’s unlikely that police training can change officers’ ingrained beliefs, just as parents can attend any number of parenting classes without changing their minds about the value of corporal punishment. What is needed is a national effort to change social norms around corporal punishment.

Such an initiative already exists but needs more support from governments. Several organizations have collaborated on a national initiative to end corporal punishment, which is working to change social norms about the hitting of children. This alliance has announced a free virtual conference on October 14, 2022. One of the workshops will highlight a creative new intervention called “No Hit Zones,” which are institutional policies adopted by hospitals, courts, libraries and other institutions, that promote employee intervention when parents hit, or threaten to hit, their children. Other workshops, including one by Stacey Patton on how to talk about the harms of corporal punishment with African-American parents, will help professionals talk more effectively with parents about this issue. Approaches such as no-hit zones, professional training, and public health messaging campaigns, need support from federal, state and local governments.

Perhaps I have spent too much time analyzing one video, which may be atypical. But the tone of it rings true with what I have seen and heard as a social worker in the District of Columbia, and read in the writings of authors like Stacey Patton. This video sheds light on the language and thinking of people with whom many policymakers and analysts have little contact. We are rarely given this opportunity to hear what people are saying when they don’t expect it to be publicized. It is important that we learn from this disturbing video. With a widely-acknowledged mental health crisis among American children and youth, this is no time to ignore the promotion of corporal punishment by police and other authority figures.

Using child welfare data to learn from the past: why is it so unpopular?

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

Miracle Jackson, a seven-month-old in Detroit, died with a sock stuffed down her throat and her face covered in duct tape at the hands of her father in 2000. During the same week in the same city, a five-month-old named Jamar was severely beaten. It turned out that Miracle’s mother and Jamar’s parents had abused or neglected their previous children seriously enough that their rights to parent those children were terminated. Yet, when Miracle and Jamar were born, nobody checked on them to make sure they were safe. But that was about to change in Michigan, which became the first state to match birth and child welfare data to identify new children born to parents who had severely abused or neglected previous children – a practice that has become known as “birth match.”

The logic behind birth match is simple. Research suggests that in parenting as in other areas, past behavior is often the best predictor of future actions. Current technology makes it possible to match existing databases maintained by the child welfare and health agencies in order to identify infants born to parents who have had their parental rights terminated, been convicted of a crime against a child or have other history identifying them as a safety risk to a newborn. So it is not surprising that the Committee to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF) in its 2016 report recommended birth match as one strategy to identify children at high risk of maltreatment so that action can be taken to keep them safe. Yet, only four other states have adopted birth match, and only one (Missouri) has adopted it since the CECANF recommendation.

In a report called Learning from the Past: Using Child Welfare Data to Protect Infants Through Birth Match Policies, published by the American Enterprise Institute, I discussed what we know about birth match in the five states that use it. As the report illustrates, birth match policies and procedures varied widely from state to state.

All of the states that use birth match identify infants born to parents who had their rights terminated because of abuse or neglect, with some specific differences. It is not surprising that they all identify parents with a termination of parental rights (TPR), because a TPR usually means that there has been severe abuse or neglect and and the parent has been given multiple chances to ameliorate the behaviors or conditions that caused the child’s removal.

Each state has chosen to include certain other parents in addition to those who had a TPR. Maryland has the most limited policy, including (in addition to those who had their rights terminated) only parents who have been convicted of the murder, attempted murder, or manslaughter of a child. Minnesota includes the broadest group of parents–all those who were determined to have committed “serious maltreatment,” the highest of four categories of severity that are assigned to all substantiated instances of maltreatment. States also differ in how far back they look in time for evidence of dangerous parental behavior: Texas looks back only two years, Maryland and Missouri look back ten years, and Michigan and Minnesota match all available records, regardless of when the maltreatment or termination occurred.

States also differ in whether they treat birth match referrals as allegations of abuse and neglect, requiring a regular CPS investigation. The first two states to adopt birth match, Michigan and Minnesota, already had a category of child maltreatment called “threatened harm” or “threatened injury.” Birth matches in those cases receive a CPS investigation of an allegation of threatened harm or injury. In Texas, matched infants and their families also receive a regular investigation, but the type of allegation depends on the content of the report.1 In general, investigations result in a finding on the truth of the allegation; if it is “substantiated,” or found to be true, it may result in the removal of a child or children into foster care, the provision of in-home services and monitoring to ensure their safety, or a possibly a placement with a relative or family friend with the consent of the parent.

In contrast to the other three states, Maryland and Missouri treat birth match referrals differently from allegations of child abuse and neglect. In Missouri, birth match referrals are treated as “Non-Child Abuse/Neglect Referrals” and receive a “Newborn Crisis Assessment,” a special type of investigation that was designed to respond to calls from hospital personnel who are hesitant to release newborns from the hospital because of safety concerns. If no safety concerns are identified, parents can decline any services that are offered; if safety concerns are identified, social workers have the same choices as in a regular investigation: they may go to court to request immediate custody, allow the child to stay at home under a safety plan supervised by the department, or negotiate a voluntary placement with a relative.

In Maryland matched families receive an “assessment,” which is less comprehensive than a regular investigation. Families can refuse to participate, unless there is “reason to believe a child has been abused or neglected or is at substantial risk of abuse or neglect,” in which case the local department of social services is directed to make a report to CPS. Similarly, the department is directed to call CPS if there is such a concern at any time during the birth match assessment process.

The lack of data makes it difficult to assess the impact of existing birth match processes. Other than Missouri, where birth match has been in use for less than a year, none of the states publishes data on the results of these programs as part of their regular reporting, and it appears that administrators do not review this data internally. In response to the request for data for the report, child welfare officials had to generate new tables from their databases. But the data raised many questions and without knowing exactly how it is obtained, one cannot judge its accuracy. There were some anomalies that state administrators were unable to explain, like the fact that the total number of matches in Michigan dropped from 1186 in FY 2019 to to 873 in FY2020 and then down to 515 in FY2021–a drop of 50 percent in two years! It appeared that state administrators were unaware this anomaly before being asked about it, and they were unable or unwilling to provide an explanation. 

If the data provided by the states is approximately accurate, birth match is identifying significant numbers of children. The number of matched infants identified in FY2019 (before the pandemic) was 1,188 in Michigan, 1,138 in Texas, 420 in Minnesota, and 243 in Maryland. Between half and two-thirds of these children already had an open investigation or case. It is encouraging that so many of these infants were known to CPS without birth matching, but it also shows that a sizable number and proportion of infants at risk due to their parents’ earlier behavior would be unidentified in the absence of this tool.

But the effectiveness of birth match depends on the quality of the investigations or assessments that are conducted and whether they result in actions to ensure child safety. The limited evidence is not encouraging. The number and percentage of matched children and families reported to be actually receiving services was surprisingly low. In Texas, of the 302 families investigated due to birth match in FY2019, only 70 received in-home services and 28 had a child or children removed. In Michigan, of the 484 investigations due to birth match, only 49 cases opened for services and 24 had a removal of a child. In Maryland, only four of the 89 families investigated due to birth match were documented to have received services. Minnesota provided no data beyond the number of matches. Without better data and case reviews, it is impossible to know why so few families received services.

The fact that the data requested had to be specially generated suggests that child welfare administrators in birth match states have little interest in the implementation and effects of of birth match. That was not always the case, at least in Michigan. One former CPS director in Michigan, who had served as a CPS worker and supervisor earlier in his career, had a strong belief in the potential of the process to protect children if correctly implemented. He conducted an internal review of birth match cases and found that 75 percent of the investigations resulted in no finding of threatened harm to the child, and only 6.5 percent of the cases eventually went to court for removal or court-ordered services. He concluded that investigative workers were not following agency policy and that supervisors were nevertheless approving the findings of the flawed investigations. He was working on ways to improve implementation through oversight of supervisory decisions. But with a change of personnel, those efforts never came to fruition. Now, birth match is under review in Michigan as part of a “front end redesign” of the child protection system.

Many former birth match advocates appear to have lost interest as well. In Texas, birth match was adopted in response to a recommendation by the State Child Fatality Review Team (SCFRT). But after requesting updates on implementation in FY2013 (which were never provided) and recommending expanding the program to look back five years in FY2018 (a recommendation which DFPS rejected), the SCFRT stopped making recommendations about the program. In Maryland, advocates pushed to strengthen the program by increasing the “lookback” period from five to ten years. But after such legislation was passed in 2018, it does not appear that advocates asked about its implementation nor about the effects of the expansion. Moreover, in passing the 2018 legislation, the legislature included a provision that appears to be aimed at finding less controversial alternatives to birth match.

The changing ideological climate might be the reason for the loss of interest in birth match among officials and advocates in the first four states to adopt it. In today’s atmosphere, identifying parents based on their past involvement in child welfare or criminal justice is likely to be criticized because these systems involve Black people at a rate that is disproportionate given their share of the population, though proportionate to their rate of abuse and neglect compared to other populations. There is no escaping the conclusion that birth match is simply at odds with the current zeitgeist in child welfare. Missouri was the only state to institute birth match since it was recommended by CECANF in 2016.

The report makes three recommendations. Due to its support in research and common sense, birth match should be added to every state’s set of tools to prevent child abuse and neglect and Congress should consider mandating birth match as a requirement to receive funds under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). Birth match provisions should include all parents who committed severe abuse or neglect whether or not they had a TPR or criminal conviction. And finally, states with birth match programs should track and publish data on the children matched and should conduct case reviews to assess the implementation of their programs. But it is not likely that any of these recommendations will be widely adopted until the pendulum swings toward the needs of children living in unsafe homes.

When a new baby is born to parents who had their rights terminated to a previous child due to severe abuse or neglect, or who killed or severely harmed another child, the child welfare agency should be notified, and a professional should make contact with the family to ensure the child is safe and offer the parents any assistance needed. It is such a commonsense idea that it’s hard to imagine anyone would oppose it. Nevertheless, only five states have adopted such a program, and and the four states with programs that have been in effect for more than one year have displayed what appears to be little interest in assessing or improving their implementation; on the contrary, there seems to be some interest in eliminating the programs among administrators and legislators in some states. The current ideological climate in child welfare may be be responsible for our failure to use a simple tool to protect children.

Notes

  1. How the allegation type is determined and by whom, and how maltreatment can be found before it has occurred are unclear. Birth match is not mentioned in the department’s policy manual and DFPS’ Media Relations Director was not able or willing to answer these questions.

Where is the outrage at the death of Chase Allen in Detroit?

Source: The Mirror

On June 24, the decomposing body of Chase (also spelled Chayse or Chayce) Allen was discovered in a freezer in the basement of a rundown house in Detroit. It did not take long for the media to learn that Chase’s mother had a history of child abuse, including a conviction in court, resulting in the removal of all six of her children by Children’s Protective Services (CPS). Nevertheless the children were returned over the objections of their grandmother and aunts, whose continued calls to the hotline to report suspected incidents of abuse were to no avail. The last time CPS came out in response to one of their calls, it was too late to save Chase. Shockingly, media interest in this story dropped off after a few days, and legislators and community activists have been totally silent. There have been no demonstrations, no vigils, nobody demanding justice for Chase. One doesn’t have to look far for the reason for this appalling lack of concern. Chase’s story does not fit into the prevailing narrative, which features CPS wresting Black children from their loving parents simply because they are poor.

The discovery of Chase’s body was first reported by media outlets including the Detroit News on June 24. On June 26, Channel 7 and others reported that Chase’s mother, Azuradee France, was charged with first-degree murder, child abuse and torture and concealing the death of an individual, and was jailed. In the next few days, the Detroit News reported that France had a history with the Children’s Services Division of MDHHS dating back at least to 2017 and had been involved with the agency at least seven times as a parent. She had been arrested and convicted for child abuse of a nephew for whom she was caring temporarily, serving two years of probation, and her children had been removed from her. When she gave birth to a fifth child in 2020, MDHHS obtained a court order to take custody of that child, citing her failure to address the conditions (including untreated mental illness) that brought her children into care. Nevertheless, all five children were inexplicably returned to her only three months later, and she apparently gave birth to a sixth child about two months ago. Relatives reported making multiple calls to the child abuse hotline since the return of the children. One visit, due to a burn to Chase, resulted in no action by CPS; the next visit in response to a CPS call resulted in the finding of Chase’s body.

The last bit of media coverage appeared on July 3, when Karen Drew of Channel 4 reported on Chase’s grandmother’s belief that CPS could have prevented his death if he had not been returned to his mother. But since July 3, Chase’s story appears to have totally disappeared. Shockingly, there is no mention of Chase on the website of the city’s paper of record, the Detroit Free Press and the Metro Desk did not respond to a tip from this writer. And amazingly there has been no coverage anywhere of the preliminary court hearings on the case. Even worse, there has been no response to the tragedy from the Detroit City Council, the Michigan Legislature, or community activists.

Is Chase’s story an outlier? Not likely. Several families and attorneys told Kara Berg of the Lansing State Journal earlier this year that Michigan children are often left in abusive households due to inadequate investigations and a failure to act by state employees. An audit of CPS investigations in Michigan published in 2018 by the Michigan Auditor General found that MDHHS’s efforts to ensure “the appropriate and consistent application of selected investigation requirements” such as starting investigations in a timely manner, conducting required child abuse and criminal history checks of adults in the home, and assessing the risk of harm to children were “not sufficient” and that ineffective supervisory review of investigations contributed to the deficiencies they found. Such an inadequate response to children’s suffering almost invariably results in lifelong damage to children, but can also result in severe injury or death as in Chase’s case. Michigan reported 43 children died of abuse or neglect in 2020 (undoubtedly a gross underestimate1) but was not able to report how many of these children were known to CPS. Nationally, the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities estimated that one-third-to one half of children killed by maltreatment were known to CPS.2

So what is the explanation for this lack of outrage about Chase’s death, given that evidence of problems already exists? In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the ensuing “racial reckoning,” and the movement to defund the police, a parallel narrative and associated movement has sprung up in child welfare. Funded by deep-pocketed foundations led by Casey Family Programs and embraced by the US Administration for Children and Families, this narrative portrays CPS as a family policing system that wrests helpless children from parents only because they are poor. Perpetrators of this narrative have devoted obsessive attention to the disparities in the proportion of Black and White children who are involved with the child welfare system at every stage–reporting, investigation, case opening and child removal. There is a problem with this analysis. The evidence suggests that Black children’s higher likelihood of being reported, investigated and removed reflects their higher tendency to be abused and neglected. Reducing their involvement in the system to a rate comparable to that of White children would mean to establish separate, lower standards for the safety of Black children.

But nowadays there appears to be little concern about Black children who are killed by their parents. B As one Black woman told reporter Kara Berg of the Lansing State Journal about her failure to interest CPS on the neglect and sexual abuse of her nephew, “They think this is how Black children are supposed to live.” What could be more racist than disregarding Black children’s suffering and deaths at the hands of their parents, when such suffering and death would be cause for massive protest if it happened to White children? Do Black lives matter only when taken by a White police officer, and not by a Black parent?

If Black lives matter, then surely Black children’s lives matter. More than twice as many Black children are killed by their parents every year as the total number of Black people of all ages killed by police. in 2020, 504 Black children were killed by parental or caregiver abuse or neglect, according to annual child maltreatment report of the US Children’s Bureau, which is widely considered to be an understatement of the actual number of child fatalities.3 That is more than twice the number (243) of Black people of all ages who were killed by police in the same year, according to the Washington Post‘s police shootings database.

The lack of public outrage at the death of yet another Black child means there is no pressure on MDHHS to release information on Chase’s family’s history with its children’s services division. A public information officer for MDHHS has told WXYZ (Channel 7) Detroit, that “The department, by law, cannot release specifics about Children’s Protection Services (CPS) investigations or confirm whether or not CPS has received complaints about a specific family or individual.” The exact opposite is true. The agency is actually required to release certain information in a child abuse or neglect case in which a child who was a part of the case has died.” That information includes anything in the case record related specifically to the department’s actions in responding to a complaint of child abuse or child neglect.”3

The public needs access to the case files in order to understand what went wrong and what policies and practices need to be changed. In addition, the case files are necessary to ensure that public officials, including investigators, supervisors, and court personnel, are held accountable for their decisions. Some of the many questions that need answers include the following:

  • What caused Chase to go blind? (Relatives indicated he lost his sight “over a year ago.”) Was this the result of some sort of maltreatment? Was he targeted for abuse because he was disabled? Did CPS ever ask these questions?
  • Why were the children returned to their mother three months after MDHHS filed a petition to take custody of the newest baby she was deemed to be far from ready to parent them? And did the juvenile court referee named by Channel 7 and the Detroit News make this decision at the behest of MDHHS or against its recommendation?
  • The children were returned to their mother “under the supervision of the department,” according to the court record cited by the Detroit News. Exactly what did this supervision consist of? How long did it last? Who agreed to the end of supervision and why? What does the record state about the mother’s improvement and readiness to parent? What “intensive reunification supports” were provided?.
  • Why did CPS take no action after the most recent report, when the grandmother reported that three CPS investigators came to the home?
  • How many calls from Chase’s family were screened out and did not even receive an investigation?

Receiving no response to my emails to local reporters urging them to request the the files on MDHHS’s involvement with Chase and his family, I contacted the agency’s public information office on July 11 to make the request. On July 25, I received a denial of my request based in part on the fact that the investigation of Chase’s death is not complete. It is unclear why the fact of an incomplete investigation is a reason for the denial of my request; the agency could send me the records of all previous investigations now and I would be happy to wait for the latest one. It’s a shame that several media outlets, who have attorneys who can appeal decisions by agencies to withhold information, did not choose to seek this information. Readers can help by sharing this post with their contacts in Michigan and asking them to urge their state and local legislators to demand answers.

The reaction, or lack thereof, to the death of Chase Allen shows a blatant disregard for Black children’s suffering and death at the hands of parents or caregivers, in large part because it does not fit within the prevailing narrative of CPS snatching children from loving Black parents. Anyone who believes Black lives matter should be asking why CPS and the courts left this vulnerable child unprotected in such a dangerous home. We’ve already let Chase die. Let us at least learn from his death how to save children in similar situations.

Endnotes

  1. This is almost certainly an understatement for several reasons. As Michigan describes in its notes for the 2020 Child Maltreatment report, only deaths that are found to be due to maltreatment by a CPS investigation are counted. Second, the count of 43 is considerably lower than the estimates for previous years (63 in 2019, for example), suggesting that the Covid pandemic delayed completion of child death investigations by CPS.
  2. See footnote 14 on page 35 of Within Our Reach: A National Strategy to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.
  3. As reported by the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities in its final report, this number is considered to be an understatement because not all states currently report on fatalities and in some states the death is not reported to the federal system if the child was not known to the CPS agency.
  4. MCLS Section 722.627c states that “The director shall release specified information in a child abuse or neglect case in which a child who was a part of the case has died.” “Specified information” is defined in Section 722.622bb  as “information in a children’s protective services case record related specifically to the department’s actions in responding to a complaint of child abuse or child neglect.”

Another abuse death in Michigan: Why doesn’t child protective services want to learn from the past?

Source: The Detroit News

On June 24, a child protective services worker (CPS) accompanied by police officers knocked on the door of a rundown house on Detroit’s west side to conduct a welfare check. Azuradee France answered the door but tried to keep them out. When they entered the house, they found the badly decomposed body of a three-year-old, later identified as Chayse Allen, in a freezer and five more children living in squalor. The media soon learned that Chayse’s mother had been involved with CPS at least seven times as a parent. She had been arrested and convicted for child abuse, serving two years of probation, and her children had been removed but later returned. And yet, there were no procedures in place to protect France’s six children from her lethal violence. And Chayse Allen, described by family members as a sweet, shy and soft-spoken child who had become blind about a year ago, is dead as a result.

There is a common belief that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, and that certainly seems to be the case in child maltreatment. Over twenty years ago, Detroit was transfixed when in one week a child was murdered and another suffered irrevocable brain damage, both in the custody of parents who had lost their rights to previous children. This coincidence of horror was enough to spur change–and a new process was created to protect children whose parents had already harmed other children. On September 23, 2000 the directors of the human services and health department agreed to cross-reference the names of parents of newborns with the names of parents who had severely abused their children. The system, which became known as “Birth Match,” is still in effect. This process as designed would not have saved little Chayse, but the story of its imperfect implementation and the state’s declining interest in its application may shed some light on why he too was abandoned by the public officials who were charged with protecting him.

I researched birth match in Michigan while preparing a report on this important tool for child safety, which is being used in only five states. In Michigan, birth match is an automated system that notifies the statewide child abuse hotline when a new child is born to a parent who previously had parental rights terminated in a child protective proceeding, caused the death of a child due to abuse and/or neglect or was manually added to the match list.1 When a birth match report is received, hotline staff must check whether it is accurate and whether there is a pending investigation or open case, and if so, whether the investigative worker is aware of the historical concerns. If there is a pending investigation, the birth match information must be used in assessing the child’s safety.

If the match is accurate and there is not already a pending investigation, the complaint must be assigned for investigation with the allegation of “threatened harm” to the child. “The MDHHS policy manual lays out requirements for assessing threatened harm, including the severity of the past behavior; the length of time since the last incident; the nature of the services received since that incident and whether the parent benefited from those services; a comparison between the historical incident and the current circumstances; and the vulnerability of the child. As in any other investigation in Michigan, if the investigative worker does confirm the allegation of threatened harm, the next step depends on the worker’s assessment of safety and risk. If the child is assessed to be unsafe, the worker must petition the court to remove the child or place the child under supervision at home. If the child is found to be safe but the risk level is considered high or intensive, the worker must open a case to provide services to the family in the home. And if the risk is found to be low or moderate, the worker is directed to refer the family to community–based services.2

At one time Michigan was very proud of its birth match process. Stacey Bladen, the Acting Deputy Director of Michigan’s Children’s Services Administrator gave a presentation about birth match to the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities in 2014. She displayed a graph showing an increasing number of birth matches and case openings over time. Three other states had adopted birth match by this time, and CECANF in its final report recommended its adoption by all states as a way to protect vulnerable infants born to parents who have harmed other children. (Only Missouri has adopted birth match since CECANF made this recommendation.)

But even while Bladen was trumpeting the virtues of birth match, the Manager of CPS in Michigan was already concerned that tool was not fulfilling its potential due to imperfect implementation. Based on an internal review of 105 cases conducted in 2011 and 2012, he told a Harvard Law School class that he was disturbed about the small proportion of investigations that found threatened harm (only about a quarter) and the even smaller percentage (6.5 percent) that resulted in a court petition. Given that 4.5 percent of all investigations resulted in a court petition at the time, he would have expected a much higher proportion of birth match cases to go to court, considering the gravity of the behaviors committed by the parents and the fact that a parent’s rights were rarely terminated without a long history of agency attempts to assist a family. Based on these findings, the CPS Manager concluded that investigators were not following agency policy; in particular, he concluded that they often failed to assess the severity of the earlier maltreatment and parents’ response to services they had received since that time.

I asked MDHHS for an update of the data provided by Bladen to CECANF and quickly learned that birth match was no longer a point of pride for the agency. MDHHS was no longer routinely tracking birth match cases: the agency had to generate the tables to respond to my request. Moreover, once received, the data displayed some anomalies. The number of birth match complaints dropped from 1,186 in FY2019 to 873 in FY2020 and 515 in FY2021—a drop of more than half between FY2019 and FY2021. Stranger still, MDHHS administrators appeared to be unaware of this sharp drop in birth match complaints and had no explanation for why it occurred. This is particularly odd because these matches occur automatically; one wonders whether the drop was related to the pandemic, but the continued sharp decline in 2021 casts doubt on that theory.

Throughout the period from FY2009 to FY2021, about half the matched families already had an open investigation or case when the match was generated. But the number and percentage of the remaining matches that resulted in an open case have fallen considerably, from 99 cases, or 9 percent of all matches, in FY2012, to only 30 cases, or three percent of matches, in FY2020. Child removals also dropped from 41 removals, or 3 percent of matches, in FY2012 to 11 removals, or one percent of matches, in FY2020. MDHHS was unwilling to provide any theories about why these changes occurred. Moreover it appeared that agency leaders were not interested in the fate of birth match, as evidenced by their failure to track the data themselves, or to discuss birth match in their published reports or press releases. Furthermore, Michigan’s policies concerning birth match are currently “under review” as part of a “front end redesign” of the state’s child protection system.

Birth match started in an atmosphere of hope. In a heartfelt essay, a blogger named Donna Pendergast expressed her feeling that “As horrific as the murder of Miracle Jackson was, it can be said that something good came of it,” citing the new practice of birth match. “May [Miracle’s] legacy be that other children are spared her horrific fate.” Unfortunately, Miracle’s legacy appears to be fading.

Even as it was envisioned, Miracle’s legacy of birth match was not broad enough to save Chayse Allen. His birth would not have been matched because his mother’s parental rights were never terminated, she was not found to have caused a child’s death, and she probably would not have been added manually to the birth match list. But the failure to learn from the past which has hampered the implementation of birth match is on full display in the agency’s dealings with Chayse’s mother. As media outlets have revealed, Azudee France had a history of child welfare involvement including at least seven separate episodes. Court records obtained by WXYZ, Detroit’s ABC affiliate, and the Detroit News showed three CPS contacts in 2016 and two in 2017 due to “physical abuse, improper supervision, sexual abuse, failure to protect, and physical neglect.” The records also show that at least the allegations received in November 2017 were substantiated for physical abuse and improper supervision. In 2018, France admitted to assaulting her two year old nephew, who was staying with her temporarily, leaving him with “swollen lips, a black eye, a contusion on the forehead, and bruises to his rib cage and both ankles,” described as “severe physical abuse” in a court document. She was charged with felony child abuse and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, serving two years of probation.

In April, 2020, MDHHS filed a petition requesting court approval to take custody of France’s newborn son, who was born on April 7, 2020. France’s other four children were already in foster care, apparently due to her conviction for abusing her nephew. The petition stated that France “has not yet rectified the conditions that brought her other children into care” and that she “continues to have untreated mental health concerns.” It also stated that France had a history of postpartum depression and threatened to harm her newborn son.

It appears that the MDHHS petition to take custody of the baby was granted, but three months later following a hearing on August 24, 2020, all five children were returned to France. The court referee3 stated that “Mother has completed parenting classes. … mother is currently in therapy…. mother’s home is suitable.” France’s sister Azunte Sauls told Detroit News reporter George Hunter that she could not imagine how France’s home was deemed suitable as it was filthy and “not suitable for any adult.” And It’s hard to understand how the serious and deep-seated issues outlined in the petition could have been resolved in three months.

Sauls told Hunter that CPS workers came to her sister’s home again last year, to investigate a report of a burn to Chayse. But apparently the investigators, unfazed by France’s history, accepted her explanation that he had burned his hand on some noodles. Sauls and her mother also reported that they and other relatives called CPS many times after incidents of suspected abuse, but to no avail. France subsequently gave birth to a sixth child, who was two months old at the time of Chayse’s death.

When is enough enough? When does an agency accept that it is time to stop waiting for a parent to change and place the children in a safe environment, preferably with loving extended family members? Chayse’s aunt told WXYZ that she had custody of Chayse and his siblings when he was two months old and all of the children were removed from their their mother after her conviction for child abuse. “She should have never gotten her kids back after that,” another aunt told reporter Kimberly Craig of WXYZ. Michigan law allows a parent’s rights to a child to be terminated if “there is a reasonable likelihood, based on the conduct or capacity of the child’s parent, that the child will be harmed if he or she is returned to the home of the parent.” That argument could certainly have been made for any of France’s children long before Chayse was killed.

The desire to let parents start anew with each new child or report is one reason why birth match has been adopted by only four states and appears to be so unpopular among the current DHHS leadership. Moreover, the current child welfare climate is exacerbating the failure to protect children, especially children of Black or Indigenous origin. The concern about racial disparities in child welfare involvement may be discouraging agencies from protecting vulnerable children like Chayse and his siblings.

Azudee France has been charged with with felony murder, first-degree child abuse, torture, and concealing the death of an individual in the death of Chayse, and the children are now with relatives. Maybe by his suffering and death, Chayse was able to save the lives of one or more of his siblings. But they have endured experiences that will leave scars for a lifetime. And it’s all because CPS was unable or unwilling to learn from the past, as its imperfect and waning implementation of birth match illustrates so well.

Notes

  1. The provision for manual additions allowed the inclusion of adults who committed an egregious act of maltreatment but did not have their rights terminated, or who harmed a child that was not their own child.
  2. It is not totally clear how “threatened harm” can be found and yet the risk level can be determined to be low or moderate.
  3. A referee is an attorney who holds hearings, examines witnesses, and makes recommendations to a judge. 

In New Jersey, children’s needs disregarded as blood ties take precedence over attachment and timely permanency

In my last commentary, I wrote about the tragic case of Harmony Montgomery, who disappeared after being placed with her father after four-and-a-half years in and out of foster care. Massachusetts is not unusual in keeping young children in limbo for excessive periods of time in the interests of reunifying or placing them with family members. While writing about Harmony, I heard from a foster parent in New Jersey about several children who are being sent home to their parents or placed with relatives after more than three years in foster care starting in infancy or early toddlerhood. There is strong evidence that these disruptions are harmful to young children given the attachments they form to their early caregivers. For this reason, a federal law is designed to curb this practice. Talking to foster parents and advocates revealed a conjunction of policy changes, agency culture and circumstances in New Jersey that are resulting in very young children being removed from stable pre-adoptive homes after as much as three years in these homes, starting in infancy or toddlerhood. But a group of advocates is determined to protect these vulnerable children by showing legislators the reality behind the state’s pious pronouncements about the importance of biological family.

I first wrote about New Jersey in February 2021, when the Department of Children and Families (DCF) was turning away would-be foster parents, an unusual situation among states, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. My investigation revealed a dramatic decline in substantiated investigations and foster care entries between 2013 and 2020, which could have been due to policy or practice changes making it harder to confirm child maltreatment or to an increased tendency to place children informally with relatives before concluding a maltreatment investigation. Since that time, the number of children entering foster care has leveled off, changing little between 2020 and 2021, and the agency has begun accepting foster parents again. However, the agency’s emphasis on biological ties at the expense of emotional bonds has been raising concerns among child advocates.

Research has shown that “adverse childhood experiences, known as ACES, that disrupt attachment relationships between children and their caregivers are a “significant predictor of risk for child emotional or behavioral problems.” This is why the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA) included a provision requiring states to file for termination of parental rights (TPR) after a child has spent 15 out of the past 22 month in foster care, unless the child is living with a relative, services to address the conditions leading to placement have not been provided, or if the state can document a “compelling reason” why TPR is not in the child’s best interests.

But New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P), part of its Department of Children and Families (DCF), has been moving away from considering the importance of attachment and timely permanency for young children. In large part, this change has been a response to the current dominance of an ideology emphasizing the importance of biological family bonds, the trauma caused by family separation, and the belief that if a child must be removed from home then the best placement is with an extended family member or family friend. These beliefs were all reflected in the Family First Act, which was passed in 2018 as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. And now there are calls to repeal the AFSA timelines that encourage timely permanency to protect children from the trauma of being separated from longtime caregivers to whom they have become attached. Also contributing to the focus on blood ties was the growing attention to racial disparities in many areas, including child welfare. This focus was intensified by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, which led to comparisons between police and child welfare and calls to abolish the “family policing system.” One organization making this call is upEnd, a collaboration between the University of Houston and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, which just happens to be the court monitor for New Jersey’s long-standing class action suit, Charlie and Nadine H. v. Murphy.

In 2018, Christine Beyer became the DCF Commissioner. She came to New Jersey directly from Casey Family Programs, which describes itself as “the nation’s largest operating foundation focused on safely reducing the need for foster care in the United States.” I’ve written before about Casey’s outsized influence on child welfare policy, which the foundation uses to promulgate its mission to “to provide and improve — and ultimately prevent the need for — foster care.” With assets of $2.4 billion and spending of $111 million in 2019, Casey works to implement its mission by providing free consulting to states and localities, convening meetings, producing research and testimony, and helping place alumni like Beyer in government offices around the country.

In 2019, under Beyer’s leadership, DCF released a new strategic plan, which contained four “transformational goals,” one of which is “preserving kinship connections.” The plan dictates that family separation should be used as rarely as possible, but that when it is necessary to remove children from families to ensure their safety, DCF will ensure that children can remain with extended family or family friends. In aid of this goal, DCF set a target of placing 60 percent of children entering care with kin in the first seven days and 80 percent by the first 30 days.

The New Jersey State Legislature has endorsed the enhanced focus on kinshipn by passing legislation which was signed by Governor Phil Murphy on July 2, 2021. The new law adds a set of “findings” which states that “kinship care is the preferred resource for children who must be removed from their birth families because use of kinship care maintains children’s connections with their families.” But the findings go beyond simply establishing a preference for kinship care. They go on to negate the importance of a child’s attachment to a foster parent in decisions about kinship placement, with the following language:

f.  The existence of a healthy attachment between a child and the child’s resource family parent does not in and of itself preclude the child from maintaining, forming or repairing relationships with the child’s parent or caregiver of origin.

 g.  It is therefore necessary for the Legislature to amend current laws to strengthen support for kinship caregivers, and ensure focus on parents’ fitness and the benefits of preserving the birth parent-child relationship, as opposed to considering the impact of severing the child’s relationship with the resource family parents [bold added by author].

In accord with this finding, the legislation eliminated the provision that allowed the use of evidence that separating a child from the child’s resource family parents would cause “serious and enduring emotional or psychological harm” to the child in initiating a petition to terminate parental rights. This elimination of any consideration of emotional harm to the child, no matter how serious or lasting, is disturbing. The result may be a generation of foster children that are ripped from loving, stable homes with the only parents they have ever known, causing lifelong damage. To make matters even worse, a child’s reunification with a birth parent or placement with kin may not last, but it may be too late to return the child to the foster family that raised them. Witness the case of Harmony Montgomery in Massachusetts. After her third failed reunification with her mother, her behavioral problems had escalated to the extent that the foster family that had provided the only safety and stability she had ever known no longer felt capable of caring for her. (And that’s before she was placed with her unvetted father and disappeared.)

The recent legislation did make some sensible changes that could help children achieve timely permanency. It requires that DCP&P first make reasonable efforts to find a suitable relative or “fictive kin” (family friends or trusted adults who have a preexisting relationship with the child), before placing a child with another person. This is helpful, because placing a child with kin right away prevents the need to remove the child from unrelated caregivers with whom the child has already bonded. It also reduces (to six consecutive months or nine of the last 15 months) the amount of time that a caregiver (including a foster parent) must have cared for a child before qualifying for Kinship Legal Guardianship (KLG), a permanency option that allows an adult with a relationship to a child to raise that child without terminating the parents’ rights.

But aside from the new provision requiring an upfront search for kin and reducing the time to qualify for KLG, the bulk of the policy, practice and legislative changes since 2018 has made it more likely for children in foster care to be removed from foster homes where they have lived for as long as three years. Talking to some of these foster parents raised alarming concerns about DCP&P’s disregard for the damage done to children by tearing them away from the only families they have every known (or can remember) at the age of three or four.

The foster parent who first approached me (I will call her “Ms. R”) has been caring for a child (I will call him “A”) since he was born over three-and-a-half years ago. A was removed from his mother as a result of her substance abuse and mental illness. Although A’s mother did visit, she did not begin to complete goals necessary for reunification until he had been in care for three years. A’s father, late to arrive on the scene due to his mother’s refusal to identify him, was barely engaged. DCP&P had already tried to terminate the rights of both parents, but the judge ruled against the agency, arguing that the father was not given enough time to prepare for reunification. The agency did not appeal, leaving A in limbo beyond timelines and without a clear plan going forward. But after that ruling, the agency began working with A’s mother, whose rights should have been terminated by the judge at the TPR trial. A is currently visiting with his mother twice weekly and has begun to exhibit problem behaviors on visiting days. On one occasion, A’s school called the CPS hotline after A returned from a visit saying “Mommy hurt me,” but DCP&P declined to investigate. A DCP&P worker raised concern about the mother’s rough handling of A during visits, but A’s mother managed to get the worker removed from the case. A’s mental health provider has suggested that the visits end to stop his problem behaviors, as A’s extreme aggression jeopardizes his placement at school and endangers other children. The provider also opposes reunifying A with his mother, but DCP&P appears to be undaunted: the judge has issued a “self-executing order” allowing reunification to proceed at the agency’s discretion without a hearing.

Ms. R referred me to Ms. S, who has been caring for “B” for three-and-a-half years, since she was five days old. B was removed from her parents due to neglect related to substance abuse and mental illness. The father almost killed B in utero by attacking her mother late in her pregnancy, sending her to the emergency room. At 10 months old, B was placed with a relative, but she came back into care neglected and sick after her father had taken her back and was live-streaming himself high with her on Facebook. After the pandemic began, visits became virtual and the parents were given extra time to comply with their case plans. When B was 18 months old, her father began bringing another relative to his visits with her. In her sixties, childless and with mobility problems, the relative nevertheless wanted to raise B and the DCP&P was happy to oblige. When B was two-and-a-half, her goal was changed to Kinship Legal Guardianship with the relative. B began progressively longer visits with the relative, returning to the foster home exhausted with an unused toothbrush, gastrointestinal problems, regressed behaviors and reports that her father was at the visits against agency requirements. The relative refused to speak to the S’s or to take B to trauma therapy. B’s attorney was in favor of adoption by the S’s, and a trial was scheduled and postponed multiple times. Before it could take place, DCP&P simply placed B with the relative at the age of three-and-a-half. B’s lawyer remained opposed to the move but with the new legislation discounting the importance of attachment to the foster parent in TPR cases, told the S’s that his argument would no longer carry weight with the judge.

Ms. R also referred me to Ms. T, who has been caring for “C” for almost three years. “C” came to the R’s at the age of 13 months old malnourished, dehydrated, unable to walk or crawl, and needing hospitalization, after his mother was arrested and her boyfriend brought the three children to New Jersey. C has global developmental delays; his two siblings are autistic and were placed in another home, but the siblings had regular visits. The goal was never changed from reunification, in part due to delays caused by Covid-19. After C had spent nearly three years with the T’s, DCP&P began to plan for adoption, but not with the T’s. C’s two autistic siblings had been moved to an unrelated foster parent who was willing to adopt all three children. Ms. T received a call one morning stating that overnight visits would start that Friday–in a home C had never visited before. Since the visits have started, C has become clingy at home and his behaviors have deteriorated in school to the extent that Ms. S now has to pick him up at noon from his all-day pre-K class. C’s attorney believes he should stay with the T’s and his pediatrician has expressed strong opposition to the move. But DCP&P appears to be resolved on keeping the children together, citing the 80-20 rule, which applies to placements within 30 days, not three years.1 Clearly, the agency believes that the blood ties between siblings who have never lived together outweigh C’s attachment to a foster family that has raised him for the last three-quarters of his life–including the foster “brother” he grew up with, who has now been adopted by the T’s.

In all of these cases, DCP&P chose to remove children from foster parents who had been caring for them for three or more years and wanted to adopt them. This is far beyond the timeline contained in federal and New Jersey law, which requires states to file for TPR after a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. States are allowed to make exceptions based on the best interests of the child, the lack of services for the parents, or a child already living with a relative, but it does not appear that these exceptions applied in these cases. For the two children, B and C, who were placed or about to be placed with relatives, those relatives should have been identified and the children placed with them much earlier if the placement was going to happen at all. The goal of having 80 percent of children placed with kin within a month should not be cited to justify moving a child to kin after three years; yet DCP&P staff cited it to justify “C”‘s placement with a stranger after almost three years with his foster family

We should not make policy based on individual cases and we do not know how frequent these extended stays in foster care are or whether they are increasing in New Jersey. Data on how long children stay in foster care before achieving permanency is not available either in New Jersey or nationwide.2 Nor do we know the extent to which the pandemic has contributed to delays in permanency; it did not seem to affect the case of A, whose mother did not start working on her case plan for three years, but it seems to have contributed to the delays in permanency for “B” and “C.” In addition, a historically high shortage of family court judges has also been delaying the scheduling of hearings in New Jersey; the state Senate is moving to fill the vacancies now. However, it appears that policy and practice in New Jersey are moving in the direction of delayed permanency as children in foster care wait for parents to work on their case plans or appropriate relatives to appear. And the New Jersey Legislature’s elimination of attachment to foster parents as a criterion in TPR filings is clearly designed to remove one obstacle to reunification or relative placement outside the timeframes that are considered acceptable by child development experts.

It is unfortunate that New Jersey does not seem to be interested in collecting data that might cast light on the extent and impacts of the increased emphasis on blood ties. For example, child advocates worry that DCP&P may be increasingly waiving foster parent licensing requirements for kin caregivers at the expense of children’s safety, but DCF does not provide data on the number of waivers granted. Data on re-entry into foster care after reunification or permanent placement has not been updated on the data portal maintained by Rutgers University since 2019 and data on maltreatment after reunification has not been updated since 2018. Whether DCF is simply indifferent or prefers not to share this data is not a question I can answer.

BA small but growing group of New Jersey foster parents and child advocates is determined to push back against current trends and place children’s needs front and center where they belong. Begun in response to the dramatic decline in foster care entries and fears that children were being left in dangerous homes, the Child Advocacy Association of New Jersey (CAANJ), is housed inside a nonprofit (Miriam’s Heart) that supports foster and adoptive children and families. CAANJ fought unsuccessfully against removing the provision that allowed the use of evidence that separating a child from the child’s foster parents would harm the child in initiating a petition to terminate parental rights. Currently, the group is supporting bills that would require foster parents, relatives, pre-adoptive parents, or caretakers to be party to reviews or hearings involving a child under DCP&P care; establish an Office of Child Advocate or Ombudsperson; and increase the frequency of permanency hearings from every 12 months to every six months. They also have a wish list of legislation that they would like to draft if they can find sponsors. This includes a foster parents’ bill of rights and legislation allowing foster parents to be considered “kin” for placement and adoption purposes (not just Kinship Legal Guardianship) after the child has been with the family for a specified period of time; strengthening the requirements to search for relatives at the beginning of a child’s foster care placement; requiring TPR hearings to take place within six months of a child’s goal changing to adoption; allowing open adoption to be an option in foster care adoptions; and imposing uniform standards for whether resource, kinship, or biological caregivers when it comes to agency involvement, removal and reunification.

The national movement to place blood ties above attachment and bonding has found a faithful echo in New Jersey, where children’s needs are being disregarded as they are being reunified with parents or placed with relatives long after they should have been settled in permanent homes. Ironically, DCF has a “Statewide Action Plan” for addressing ACES among New Jersey’s children, but the plan does not require the agency itself to stop inflicting ACES on its own clients. But a group of child advocates is fighting back and trying to enlist legislators in the quest to put children’s needs back on the front burner. This child advocate fervently hopes that they succeed.

  1. Moreover, it is not clear that the 80-20 rule was meant to be satisfied by placing a child with siblings in the home of a non-relative.
  2. Ideally we would want to know, for each child exiting to a permanent placement, the amount of time they were in foster care, and how this “time to permanency” has changed over time. Such data are not provided routinely by states and the federal government and requires manipulation of data by researchers using statistical analysis software.

The tragedy of Harmony Montgomery: Why we must strengthen the federal permanency timeline, not repeal it

Source: NBC News

I write with heartbreak and rage about a child who was removed from her drug-abusing mother at the age of two months, placed with a loving family that wanted to adopt her, ripped from this family twice more to return to her mother in a fruitless attempt at reunification, and finally placed after over four years with a father and stepmother she hardly knew without any vetting to ensure their capacity to care for her. The case of Harmony Montgomery has made national news–but only because she is now missing after that last disastrous placement. The Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) has released its report on the tragic case of Harmony Montgomery. The OCA report reveals the extent of the disruption to which Massachusetts subjected this young child, but unfortunately it does not draw the needed conclusions about policy and practice to ensure timely permanency for children in foster care. No child should be subject to the treatment Harmony received in the child welfare system, let alone the abuse and neglect she certainly endured after leaving it, but policy shifts being considered now would make it more likely that other children will suffer similar fates.

Harmony’s child protection case began almost as soon as she was born in June 2014 to Crystal Sorey and Adam Montgomery, who were not married and were no longer together at the time of her birth. Montgomery was incarcerated at the time of Harmony’s birth for “a shooting that involved illicit substances,” according to the report. Harmony was diagnosed at birth with a visual disability and was blind in one eye. Due to her disability, she received early intervention services until age three and then special education services from her local school district until moving to New Hampshire.

Shortly after Harmony’s birth, the Haverhill Area Office of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) received three reports alleging that Sorey was using illegal substances and neglecting Harmony. DCF confirmed the allegation of neglect and opened a case to provide services to the family without removing Harmony. But two more reports were made in August 2014, and DCF concluded that Sorey continued to struggle with substance abuse, putting Harmony at risk. Two-month-old Harmony was removed and placed in foster care. (A chronology at the end of this commentary provides a summary of the case history).

In January 2015, seven-month-old Harmony was returned to the care of her mother. But the following April, at the age of 10 months, Harmony was removed from Sorey again due to neglect associated with her renewed substance abuse. In July 2015, Harmony’s permanency plan was changed from reunification to adoption. In September 2015 Adam Montgomery was released from prison and moved to New Hampshire, but he did not contact DCF for a year. In February 2017, the DCF team changed Harmony’s goal back to reunification with her mother. That March, Harmony was returned to her mother for the second time. She was almost three years old and had been in foster care for a total of 28 months, including approximately 23 consecutive months since her second removal from her mother.

In January 2018, at the age of three-and-a-half, Harmony was once again removed from Sorey due to the latter’s neglect associated with renewed substance abuse, and she was placed in the same foster home where she had lived during both of her previous stays in care. In August 2018, when Harmony was four years old and after eleven months without seeing her, her father resumed supervised visits. According to OCA, in December 2018 the team began working toward “reunification”1,2 with Montgomery instead of Sorey and requested that New Hampshire conduct a home study through the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC).3 Nevertheless, Harmony’s goal was changed back to adoption in that same month.4

A hearing was held in February 2019 to consider both parents’ requests for immediate custody of Harmony, but Sorey was unable to attend because she was at a hearing about another of her children. New Hampshire had not yet acted on the home study request and the DCF attorney objected to the placement of Harmony with Montgomery in the absence of any information about the family. The attorneys for Montgomery, Sorey and Harmony5 all supported giving custody to Montgomery, and the judge awarded him full custody on the grounds that as a “fit parent” as defined by law, Montgomery’s right to parent his child could not be infringed by the ICPC. A week later, Montgomery brought Harmony to New Hampshire to join his household made up of his wife, Kayla Montgomery, and their two children, who were both under five years old. DCF’s involvement with Harmony was over and there was to be no agency or court oversight of the newly reunified family as there would be if Montgomery lived in Massachusetts.

A report from the Governor of New Hampshire provides a glimpse into Harmony’s troubled life after arriving in New Hampshire. On July 19, 2019, an anonymous call was made to the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) hotline stating that five-year-old Harmony was seen a week before with a black eye that Adam Montgomery admitted causing. In a visit conducted on August 7, 2019, a social worker found signs of a healing black eye, but Harmony and her father said the mark was caused by “horseplay” with a sibling. The allegation was ruled “unfounded,” but Harmony was deemed to be at high risk for future maltreatment.

On January 8, 2020, another call was made to the hotline regarding another child or children in the home. When the investigating social worker asked about Harmony, Adam Montgomery said that she had been back in Massachusetts with her mother since about Thanksgiving of 2019. Kayla Montgomery later confirmed the story, stating that Montgomery told her he was taking Harmony to Sorey on the day after Thanksgiving in 2019. On January 13 and March 16, additional calls were received regarding the household, and Montgomery again stated that Harmony was with her mother and he had not seen her in a year. In September 2021, a person known to Sorey called the DCYF hotline to say that Sorey had not seen Harmony since 2019 and had not been able to reach Montgomery to schedule a visit. DCYF learned that Harmony had never been registered for public school in Manchester.

On December 31, 2021, the Manchester police located Montgomery, but he did not have Harmony in his care and gave “contradictory and unconvincing explanations” of her whereabouts. An exhaustive police search for Harmony began, making national headlines. On January 4, 2022, Adam Montgomery was arrested on charges of second degree assault and endangering the welfare of a child. On January 6, 2022, Manchester police arrested Kayla Montgomery on a charge of welfare fraud for obtaining over $1,500 in Food Stamp benefits for Harmony after she was no longer in their household. The search for Harmony continues.

The case history shared by OCA shows that DCF, the agency charged with protecting children, instead subjected Harmony to the trauma of repeated moves during her crucial infancy and early childhood, including ripping her from a loving home where she had resided for almost two years. After being removed from her mother at two months, returned to her at seven months, removed again at ten months, and then remaining another 23 months in foster care, Harmony deserved to stay with the only family who had provided a safe and stable home for her. This family had even facilitated Harmony’s contact with family members other than her parents, who visited her in the foster home and told OCA they appreciated the care Harmony received there. But DCF sent her back to her mother, only to remove her again 10 months later. There is no better evidence of the damage done by this ill-advised action than the following quote from the OCA report:

Although placed in the same foster home after each removal, each time Harmony returned she struggled with more challenging behavior and increasing feelings of insecurity. While the foster parents provided exceptional care and were committed to Harmony, with each subsequent placement the scope and depth of her behavioral and emotional needs grew. The foster family felt that after Harmony had been removed from Ms. Sorey’s care for the last time, they were no longer able to provide for her increased needs. Several months into her third placement, Harmony’s foster parents determined that it was in Harmony’s best interest to be placed in a therapeutic foster home where she would receive the specialized and dedicated attention she needed. It is evident in the record this was an extraordinarily difficult decision for the foster parents as they consistently expressed their love for Harmony. 

Office of the Child Advocate, A Multi System Investigation Regarding Harmony Montgomery, May 2022,

The harm to children of such repeated disruptions has been well documented, as Sarah Font and Lindsey Palmer explain. Humans have a fundamental need to know where and to whom they belong. Foster care sets up a “loyalty conflict” that is familiar to every social worker who has worked in the field, and the harmful impacts of repeated movement between the two families cannot be overstated. Secondly, children need predictability, and research consistently shows that unpredictable environments harm children’s development even more than harmful environments. Every member of Harmony’s case management team should have been aware of the harm that would be caused by the repeated disruptions in her living situation, the on-and-off visitation with her father and the continued uncertainty about her future.

In subjecting Harmony to over four years of uncertainty and disruption, DCF and the court also appear to have flouted both law and policy guidelines. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 119 Section 26 requires DCF to file a petition in court to “dispense with parental consent to adoption, custody, guardianship or other disposition” if the child has been in foster care in the custody of the state for 15 of the immediately preceding 22 months. This law is based on the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA), which requires states to observe this “15/22 rule” in order to receive Federal foster care funds. Federal and Massachusetts law provide three exceptions to the rule: if the child is being cared for by a relative, if there there is a “compelling reason” that filing such a petition would not be in the best interests of the child, and if the family has not been provided with the services that the department has deemed necessary for the child’s safe return home. DCF policy mirrors the provisions of the law by requiring that DCF review all cases of children who have been in placement 15 of the past 22 months and initiate a petition for TPR (termination of parental rights) unless one of the three exceptions described above apply.6 But there is no mention in the OCA report that such a review took place.

DCF policy includes other requirements to ensure the 15/22 rule is followed, mostly through the use of Permanency Planning Conferences (PPC’s). PPC’s are “the Department’s primary internal planning vehicle for reviewing the clinical and legal issues related to permanency decision-making.” PPC’s are required under certain circumstances, including within the first 9 months following the date of placement. At this conference, DCF policy states that:

For most families, based upon a well-reasoned prognosis about the probability of the child’s returning home given the family’s documented capacity to benefit from reunification services, the Department will decide whether to initiate a TPR action at the PPC held within 9 months after the child enters placement. In some of those cases, the Department will decide that one of the exceptions [described above] applies but will schedule another PPC for the 13th month after placement to determine whether initiating TPR is appropriate given the facts as they then exist. 

Harmony’s first PPC noted by OCA took place in July 2015, about 11 months after her placement, in apparent violation of the nine-month deadline. The result of that conference was a change of Harmony’s permanency goal to adoption, which presumably entailed “initiating a TPR action” as described by the policy. If for some reason that did not happen, another PPC should have been scheduled for the 13th month after placement. OCA does not cite another PPC until the one that took place in February 2017, which was about two-and-a-half years after placement and actually changed her goal back to reunification. So it is appears that the DCF Area Office was out of compliance with agency policy requiring it to either initiate the TPR or schedule another PPC for the 13th month after placement.

There are more safeguards in DCF policy to ensure timely permanency for children in foster care, but these did not save Harmony either. According to policy, “Any decision not to initiate [a TPR] when a child has been in placement for 15 of the previous 22 months must be the result of a Permanency Planning Conference and approved by the Director of Areas/designee.” Harmony had spent 15 of the past 22 months in care around February 2016. But there is no mention that such a PPC ever took place or that such approval was obtained. As noted above, the next PPC mentioned by OCA occurred after Harmony had been in care for two-and-a-half years.

The OCA report does not mention the 15/22 rule, even though it provides a link to the policy in which the rule is repeatedly mentioned. Presumably, the rule was not mentioned in the case records that OCA reviewed, and this may be typical. When the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) studied early state implementation of AFSA, they found that in the nine states that provided data on the use of the rule in FY 2000, “the number of children exempted from the provision greatly exceeded the number of children to whom it was applied.” This is not surprising because the exceptions can be easily interpreted so broadly as to apply to many or most cases. There is no update on the GAO survey, but available evidence suggests that application of this provision is not widespread. During child welfare monitoring visits conducted by the federal government between 2015 and 2018, practices related to timely termination of parental rights were rated as a strength in only seven of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia and were rated as an “area needing improvement” in the other 44 jurisdictions, according to a federal study. Foster parents from around the country who completed a caregiver survey disseminated by the advocacy group iFoster reported that failure to observe the AFSA timeline resulted in stalled permanency for foster youth. Certainly, the intent of the law is not being fulfilled.

Whether social workers around the country are assessing cases to determine whether the exceptions apply or simply ignoring the 15/22 rule is not clear. In Harmony’s case, no discussion is noted in the OCA report of whether she was exempt from the rule. It certainly appears that her mother received more than enough services before and after her relapses; she was reported to have received both substance abuse treatment and mental health therapy. It might have been possible to argue that Harmony’s father needed more time because he was released from prison when she had already spent ten months in foster care, but since he did not contact DCF for a year after being released, such an argument seems weak.

Respect for the 15/22 rule is if anything decreasing because of the current ideological climate in child welfare that prioritizes the rights of parents over the needs of children. Indeed, there is a new movement to repeal ASFA altogether on the grounds that it is unfair to parents. Parents’ rights advocates argue that states are not providing parents with the services they need, and it is not fair to apply the timeline when parents have not been offered the services they need in time to meet the 15-month deadline. This is a valid point. Enforcement of the timeline needs to be accompanied by prompt assessment and appropriate services for both parents. But the burden should be on the parent to make use of the services offered. An agency should not be required to beg, persuade or repeatedly urge parent to pursue visits and services. if a parent falls out of touch and cannot be reached, the child should not be penalized by delays in permanency.

Parent advocates also argue that it often takes longer than 15 months to correct deep-seated problems. In particular, it is well-known that most substance abusers (like Harmony’s mother) relapse more than once before shaking their addiction. But young children simply don’t have the time to wait for such a parent to be cured without incurring irreversible developmental damage.

In this time when parents’ rights advocates have all but monopolized the current conversation, few seem to be speaking for the rights of children. But in its recent report, Voice of the Foster Care Community, the advocacy group iFoster concluded that greater efforts are needed to support parents before their children are removed, and to help them regain their children quickly once placed in foster care. But if that quick reunification does not happen, caregivers, workers and advocates surveyed stated the need to prioritize the needs of the child over the needs of the parent to avoid delays in termination of parental rights. As one Pennsylvania foster parent put it,

….if parents are unable to work their case plan, then the 15 of 22 months rule must be followed so kids don’t languish in care for years. This is a way-too-common occurrence. Parents are given many chances to work their case plan while their children languish in care, being passed back and forth between families and living in instability.”

Advocates for children in foster care should be asking Congress to strengthen the 15/22 rule, not repeal it. Perhaps there could be different timelines for children of different ages, as has been suggested by Cassie Statuto Bevan, who helped draft ASFA. Children who come into care as teens may not want their bonds with their parents to be disrupted. But the youngest children need to achieve permanency even faster than what is prescribed by ASFA. Infants and young children placed in foster care should not spend their most crucial developmental period in limbo awaiting a parent’s eventual cure.

OCA’s central finding was that “Harmony’s individual needs, wellbeing, and safety were not prioritized or considered on an equal footing with the assertion of her parents’ rights to care for her in any aspect of the decision making by any state entity.” This finding certainly encompasses DCF’s failure to seek timely permanency for Harmony. But OCA’s specific findings and recommendations regarding time to permanency are not as well-developed as they could have been. OCA has one finding regarding permanency as it relates to DCF, but it is quite weak, stating that “the delay in achieving permanency for Harmony impacted her well-being.” OCA goes on to explain that the delay caused trauma for Harmony, which in turn resulted in the disruption of her pre-adoptive placement. In reality, If Harmony had been adopted soon after she had spent 15 months in foster care, she would have found safety and stability in a loving home. The failure to pursue adoption within 15 months of Harmony’s placement in foster care did not just damage her emotionally; it resulted in her disappearance and possible death.

Strangely, OCA made no recommendation to DCF regarding reducing the time to it takes to achieve permanency for children in foster care. There was no mention of the 15/22 rule and the failure to enforce it or follow the procedures designed to ensure its observance. It is only in the section on the legal process that OCA stated (but did not label as a “Recommendation”) that “For children whose parents will not accept services or to whom children cannot be safely returned to their home within the first two years of their removal, DCF should expeditiously move toward another permanency plan.”7

OCA had a number of other findings and recommendations. The Office rightly highlighted DCF’s exclusive focus on Sorey as a potential caregiver for Harmony throughout most of the life of the case, resulting in the failure to complete an assessment of Montgomery and his wife and develop an appropriate service plan for them. This was particularly important in light of Harmony’s disabilities, which required that a caregiver be able to provide adequate care. Clearly, DCF should have done more to engage Montgomery during the first 15 months of the case. If he and his wife had been assessed and provided with an appropriate service plan, perhaps they would have been ruled out as as caregivers long before the fateful hearing. This failure to engage Montgomery resulted in OCA’s only recommendation directed at DCF, which was that “DCF should develop a comprehensive plan to ensure both parents are adequately assessed and receive the support and access to services needed so that their child(ren) can achieve permanency.”

OCA devoted the bulk of its findings and recommendations to the legal process, and specifically to the many problems with the February 2019 hearing that resulted in Harmony’s placement with her father. Clearly, the placement of Harmony with her father in the absence of any assessment of him or his wife or any examination of their home was the immediate cause of the the tragic outcome. But that hearing, conducted over four years from Harmony’s entry into foster care, should have never taken place. OCA’s findings regarding the process are certainly worth consideration, but there should have been much more attention given to the need to ensure permanency for children much earlier.

Despite the flaws in its findings and recommendations, the OCA report is invaluable for its revelation of the problems in social work and legal practice that led to the disappearance and probable murder of Harmony Montgomery. Harmony’s story should be a cautionary tale for anyone supporting, or considering the value of, proposals to repeal the Adoption and Safe Families Act, or at least the requirement that states initiate a termination of parental rights after a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the last 22 months. Rather than eliminated, that provision needs to be strengthened by reducing the scope of the exemptions that make it toothless and perhaps by adjusting it according to the age of the child. No other child should be subjected–by a system designed to protect children– to the suffering that Harmony underwent while in the system and after leaving it.

Timeline of Harmony’s case based on the OCA report

DateMonths in Foster CareEvent/Activity
June 2014Harmony is born. DCF receives three reports of substance abuse and neglect by her mother. A case is opened
August 2014DCF receives two more reports. Harmony is removed.
January 20155Harmony meets her father for the first time, in prison, and is returned to her mother
April 2015Harmony is removed from her mother again due to substance abuse
July 20158Harmony meets her father for the second time, in prison; Harmony’s permanency plan changed to adoption
September 201510Harmony’s father is released from prison and moves to New Hampshire
February 201615Harmony has spent 15 months in foster care out of the last 22 months
September 201622Adam Montgomery contacts DCF for the first time since his release from prison a year earlier
October 201623Harmony meets Adam Montgomery for the third time.
February 201727Harmony’s permanency plan is changed back to reunification. After visiting with Harmony once a month for five months, Adam Montgomery stops responding to DCF’s efforts to schedule further supervised visits.
March 201728Harmony is returned to her mother for the third time. Over the next few months she has unsupervised weekend visits with her father.
September 201728Adam Montgomery contacts DCF after a seven-month lapse, and has one supervised visit with Harmony.
January 201828Harmony is removed from her mother for the third time due to substance abuse.
August 201835Adam Montgomery resumes supervised visits after a lapse of 11 months.
December 201839Harmony’s goal is changed back to adoption.
February 201941A Juvenile Court Judge awards custody of Harmony to Adam Montgomery. One week later, Montgomery takes her to New Hampshire and DCF involvement ends.
September 2021A person known to Crystal Sorey contacts the New Hampshire child ause hotline to report that she has not seen Harmony since April 2019.
December 2021Manchester police announce Harmony’s disappearance and their search for her. She has not yet been found.
Notes to Table: For purposes of calculating months in foster care, All dates assumed to be the first of the month

This commentary was updated on June 8, 2022 to incorporate the results of a federal study entitled Freeing Children for Adoption within the Adoption and Safe Families Act Timeline.

Notes

1. Child welfare law and policy refer to “reunification” with a parent even if the child has never lived with that parent.

2. According to OCA, “the Foster Care Review panel kept a permanency goal of reunification for Harmony but for the first time changed their focus of reuniting Harmony with Ms. Sorey to placing her with Mr. Montgomery.” But OCA explained in an earlier text box, foster care review panels make recommendations, not decisions. Therefore this statement appears to be inaccurate.

3. The ICPC is an agreement between the states that allows a state considering placement of a child in another state to request a home study of the family with whom the child will be placed.

4. This goal change raises many questions which are not addressed in the OCA report. It is not clear why the goal was changed so soon after the team reportedly agreed to continue the goal of reunification with a new focus on Adam Montgomery. This discrepancy could be related to OCA’s confusing statement that a Foster Care Review panel made the decision to continue the goal of reunification but shift the focus to Adam Montgomery. Perhaps that panel only recommended this new focus. According to OCA, the panel also recommended convening a Permanency Planning Conference (PPC), which is the body empowered to change the goal and which indeed did change the goal to adoption.

5. According to OCA, Harmony’s attorney supported custody for Montgomery because she was bound to advocate for the expressed wishes of the four-and-a-half-year old, not her best interests.

6. While federal law and DCF policy speak of initiating a TPR petition, Massachusetts law prescribes “dispensing with parental consent,” as described in the previous note. Some jurisdictions, in order to avoid creating “legal orphans” through a TPR, take this approach of dispensing with parental consent to an adoption or guardianship. The practical result would be the same, ending parental rights.

7. In its list of recommendations for the courts, OCA strangely includes a recommendation for the agency, stating that “DCF should review and determine the length of time from permanent custody to a final adjudication of adoption, guardianship or return to parent for a child in order to ensure that the case achieves a safe and expedient resolution.” In addition to being misplaced, this is a very weak statement of what needs to be done.