Child Welfare Myths: Black/White Disproportionality in Child Welfare is due to Racist Child Welfare System

Graph: http://www.childrends.org

According to federal data, black children were 13.8 percent of the total child population in the United States in 2014. Yet, they constituted 22.6 percent of those identified as victims of maltreatment, and 24.3 percent of the children in foster care. In Minnesota, the disparities appear to be even greater. Citing these disparities, two legislators have proposed the Minnesota African American Preservation Act.

The Act would create an “African American Child Well-being Department” within the Department of Human Services to receive notification of all cases involving African-American children and “directly  oversee, review, and consult on case plans and services” offered to these children. It would also create an African American Child Welfare Oversight Council.  Similar to the Indian Child Welfare Act, it would set a higher bar for removing African American children from their homes than white children and require greater efforts to reunify children once removed from their families.

The bill’s sponsors argue that racial disparities in child welfare are caused by differential treatment of minority families in terms of how allegations of maltreatment are investigated, resolved, and responded to. This is belief, which was supported by early research, has become accepted by the child welfare establishment.

The idea of racial bias in child welfare found support in the first two National Incidence Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect, which were published in the 1980s and 1990s. These studies, which attempt to count all episodes of abuse and neglect rather than just those that are reported and substantiated, suggested that there was no difference in black and white child maltreatment rates. The study authors suggested that black families received differential treatment by child welfare systems, resulting in their over-representation in these systems.

Starting about 2004, a coalition of foundations, nonprofits, and academics formed around the idea that this disproportional representation of black children in child welfare stemmed from a racist system. This coalition launched a well-funded campaign to reduce the representation of black children in child welfare and especially foster care. They issued reports, held conferences, and provided training and technical assistance to help states analyze their disproportionality problems.

As a result of this work, agencies around the country have adopted strategies like staff retraining, creating special administrative structures to advance racial equity, and special data collection efforts. As a social worker in the District of Columbia, I was subjected to multiple, often poor-quality trainings that tried to help me discover my hidden biases so that they would not affect my treatment of families. 

The fact that child welfare workers in many jurisdictions are disproportionately African American has not influenced the consensus in favor of such strategies, as pointed out in an excellent article by Naomi Schaefer Riley. When I pointed out in a training class that most District of Columbia child welfare social workers were African-American, I was told that did not matter, as Black social workers could be as racist as white ones.

But a cascade of new research has cast grave doubts on the accepted theory of disproportionality. The third (larger and more rigorous) National Incidence Study published in 2010 estimated that black child maltreatment rates are almost twice as high than those of whites. Further analysis showed that this difference was present in the earlier study, but due to small sample sizes, the differences were not statistically significant and hence not reported.

conference, convened in 2011 by Harvard, Chapin Hall, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the National Court Appointed Special Advocates, brought together leading scholars on child welfare and race in front of an audience of child welfare leaders from around the country. A research brief summarizing the conference that has since been removed from the Chapin Hall website concluded that “there is a significant black/white maltreatment gap, one that roughly parallels the gap in official maltreatment reports. This evidence contradicts the belief that black children are included at high rates in the child welfare system because of bias.”

The brief’s authors based their conclusions on the National Incidence Study as well as other empirical work reinforcing the conclusion that child maltreatment rates are significantly higher for black children. They suggested that the higher rate of maltreatment among African-Americans stems from the history of slavery and racism, which led to higher poverty and concentration in impoverished neighborhoods characterized by crime, substance abuse, unemployment, and limited community services.

In other words, disproportionality is rooted in racism. But It’s not a racist child welfare system that results in disproportional representation of black children in the child welfare system. Rather, it is the racist history of our country that has created the difference in child maltreatment which in turn resulted in disproportional representation.

The researchers concluded that trying to reduce racial bias in the system is not the way to address the inequity between blacks and whites in child welfare. Instead, we need to address the underlying social conditions. And until we can do that, we need to protect children, both by preventing maltreatment and by providing appropriate protective services.

Since the Harvard conference, the evidence continues to accumulate that black and white maltreatment rates differ. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics concluded that the child abuse fatality rate for children aged four and under was 8.0 per thousand African-American children, compared with 2.7 per 100,000 white children.

Unfortunately, many child welfare agencies, advocates, and legislators, including the sponsors of the Minnesota legislation, are either unaware of, or do not want to recognize, the new consensus among researchers. As The Los Angeles Times put it:

“Many left the [Harvard/Chapin Hall] conference believing that any caseworker bias against black families accounted for only a small portion of the disparity in foster care rates … Yet, Los Angeles County officials pressed forward with programs that assumed that racial bias was a significant cause for the high rate of [foster care placement] of black children.”

As I have written in the past, Native American children have been victimized by a similar type of reasoning. The Indian Child Welfare Act has been responsible for separating Indian children from loving foster families and placing them with relatives they do not know. On some occasions, these relatives have hurt or killed them.

This focus on reducing alleged systemic bias may do more harm than simply wasting child welfare resources on bureaucracy and training. If black children are more likely to be maltreated, equalizing black and white representation in the child welfare system would leave many black children in danger of years of suffering or even death. As Naomi Schaefer Riley put it, “No it’s not racist to save minority children’s lives.”

 

 

Family Separation at the Border: The Ultimate Anti-Child Policy

immigration-impact-sue-family-border-1024x683
Image: Iimmigrationimpact.com

Child Welfare Monitor has not yet addressed the current crisis of family separations at the border because it generally focuses on the child welfare systems run by the states and counties. But for a blog with child welfare in its name and a mission of supporting a child-centered policy, this omission is no longer tenable. Below we attempt to answer some frequently asked questions and provide links to further information.

What is the cause of the upsurge in family separations at the border?  The separations resulted from a policy change by the Trump Administration. On May 7 Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the government would criminally prosecute anyone who crosses the border illegally, including those stating that they are seeking asylum. As explained in more detail by the New York Times and  Vox.com, families that arrived here illegally were traditionally placed in immigration detention centers and brought before immigration courts. Sending parents to jail rather than immigration facilities requires the separation of parents from their children, who cannot be housed in jail with their parents.

How did the Trump Administration decide to separate children from their families? The New York Times discusses the evolution of the new policy in an article published on June 16.  In an attempt to stem the flow of unauthorized arrivals, the Obama Administration vastly increased the detention of immigrant families, opening new facilities near the border where families were held while their cases were being considered. But courts ruled that children could not be detained indefinitely and would have to be released within strict time limits. In 2016 a court ruling held that this applied to families as well. As a result of this ruling, families were being released to await processing of their cases in a policy dubbed “catch and release” by the Trump Administration, which was determined to put an end to this policy. It considered but initially discarded the idea of separating children from their parents after remarks by John Kelly suggesting this policy touched off a swift backlash. But Trump advisor Stephen Miller never gave up on the idea. And when border crossings took a sharp upward turn in May, his boss agreed to give it a try.

How many children have been separated from their parents under the new policy implemented by the Trump Administration? The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported on June 15 that 1,995 minors have been separated from their families at the border between April 19 and May 31.

What happens to the children? After being separated from their parents, these children are being designated as unaccompanied minors and placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. ORR’s child-caring system is overwhelmed. Its facilities were 95% full by June 7 mostly with children who arrived without their parents.   A hastily-constructed “tent city” in the port of entry of Tornillo TX was housing 100 unaccompanied minors by June 15, only a day after the administration announced the location. Almost 200 unaccompanied children are being held in old warehouse in South Texas, confined in cages created by metal fencing, according to the Chicago Tribune. Reporters observed one cage holding 20 children. One advocate told reporters she met with a teenager who had been taking care of a traumatized four-year-old for three days. She also reported observing facility staff scold a group of five year olds for running around in their cage where there are no toys or books. The head of the American Academy of Pediatrics told Tribune reporters about observing a toddler in a 60-bed facility who had been taken from her mother the night before. She was crying uncontrollably and pounding her fists but the staff were not allowed to pick her up and comfort her.

The New York Times reported that the Administration on May 10 issued a call for proposals from “shelter care providers including group homes and transitional foster care” to accommodate an expected surge of separated children. One agency, Bethany Christian Services, is providing foster placements for about 100 migrant children in Massachusetts and Michigan and was planning to expand into other states in response to the proposal. The Times visited one of the children sent to Michigan, a five-year-old boy who was separated from his father after arriving in El Paso from Mexico late in May. The child was put on a flight to Michigan, and placed in a Bethany Christian Services foster home. The little boy came with a trash bag filled with dirty clothes and two sketches of his family. The first few nights he cried himself to sleep Then the crying turned to “just moaning and moaning” according to his foster mother. For the first two days the little boy would not shower or change his clothes. According to the article the little boy was sleeping with the sketches under his pillow and asking every day when he would see his father.

What is the age of the children who are being separated from their parents? A homeland security official told the New York Times that the administration had “drawn a bright line” against removing babies from their parents because the government cannot appropriately care for them. But the official would not provide a specific age below which children would not be separated from their parents. Bethany officials told the Times that the agency had taken charge of an 18-month-old girl who had been separated from her parents. A three-year-old boy taken from his mother at the border cried inconsolably all the way to Michigan and for the first few days at his foster home. He has now bonded with his foster mother ensuring another traumatic separation is in his future.

What is the impact on children of the new policy? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stated in a letter to the Administration that the fear and stress the children will experience due to the separations, in the absence of the significant adults in their lives, can harm their developing brains and their short and long-term health . “We ask you to put children first and not exacerbate their suffering by the additional trauma of being separated from their parents,” entreated the pediatricians.

The New York Times reports that even within the Trump Administration there is considerable unease about the policy of separating families at the border. Even the President recognizes the distasteful nature of the family separations, which is why he has falsely tried to blame it on Democrats. Child Welfare Monitor urges its readers to join the AAP, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Laura Bush, and other child advocates and people of conscience in telling the Administration to put an end to this cruel and inhumane policy that can have lifelong effects on the development of thousands of children.

 

 

Opioid Crisis: Removing Infants from Mothers on Medication Assisted Treatment is Misguided

MAT
Image: drugabuse.gov

An NPR story (New Hampshire Mothers Struggling with Opioid Addiction Fight to Keep their Children) aired on June 2, 2018, introduced us to Jillian Broomstein, a New Hampshire mother whose two-week-old infant was removed from her by the state’s child welfare agency. Broomstein was on methodone to combat her addiction to heroin and it was working. She had not taken heroin for months.

Methadone is one of the two medications that is used in Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) for Opioid Use Disorder.  MAT is “the use of medications in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies to provide a whole patient approach to the treatment of substance use disorders.” The medications commonly used to treat opioid addiction in pregnant women include methadone and buprenorphine.

Research has shown that MAT is the most effective treatment for opioid use disorder, at least doubling the rates of abstinence from opioids compared with treatments that use a placebo or no medication. MAT has been recognized by the World Health Organization as the most effective treatment for opioid use disorder. Moreover, MAT is the treatment the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends for pregnant women with opioid use disorder.

Concerns about MAT for pregnant women arise from the fact that their infants may experience neonatal abstinence syndrome. But as the lead author of the ACOG guidance states, “Concern about medication-assisted treatment must be weighed against the negative effects of ongoing misuse of opioids, which can be much more detrimental to mom and baby.” MAT increases adherence to prenatal care and drug treatment and reduces the risk of pregnancy complications. Abrupt withdrawal from opiates or safer substitutes means a mother is more likely to relapse, thus making it less likely that she can reunify with her child. Neonatal abstinence syndrome, on the other hand, is treatable and does not appear to have lasting effects.

Bias against MAT among professionals working with substance-abusing families has been documented often. An excellent federal study, discussed in an earlier post, found that MAT is not always understood or accepted by child welfare professionals, judges or even in the substance abuse treatment community. One reason for such bias may be that many professionals have past experience with other types of drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, for which MAT is not available

Information on state policies regarding reporting, investigation, and placement of infants exposed to methadone and buphrenorphine is not readily available. A report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration suggests that New Hampshire is not alone, indicating that child welfare agencies “may use a positive toxicology result for methadone or buprenorphine at birth as a presumptive cause for child removal.”

In some states, on the other hand, these cases may not even be reported or investigated. Pennsylvania law requires reporting only if the drug is illegal, although individual hospitals may choose to report other cases. In Massachusetts, for example, the Department of Children and Family Services can screen out a report involving a substance-exposed newborn if the only substance affecting the newborn was methadone, buprenorphine or naltrexone and if the substance was used as part of a treatment program.

But do we know that methadone and buprenorphine are consistent with safe parenting? Unfortunately, there seems to be  no research evidence on this question. We do know that with stable dosing, methadone and buphrenorphine does not cause the euphoric “high” associated with heroin and prescription painkillers.

Removing infants from their mothers who are participating in MAT has many negative consequence. It disrupts the critical attachment process between infant and mother. It may lead discouraged mothers to go cold turkey in order to get their children back. This may lead to relapse and permanent loss of the children.

Instead of automatic removal of the children, new mothers on MAT should be supervised by CPS for at least six months to ensure that they are capable of safe parenting. During that period they should receive intensive services akin to those provided by Kentucky’s Sobriety Treatment and Recovery Teams (START), a program that has been in municipalities in New York, Indiana, Georgia and North Carolina. Each family is paired with a specially-trained CPS worker and a mentor who is in long-term recovery. Caseloads are limited and each family receives weekly visits from both the CPS worker and the mentor for the first 60 days. START has been rated as a promising practice by the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare.

Most states, particularly those ravaged by the opioid epidemic, are reporting critical shortages of foster homes. Preventing unnecessary foster care placements, in addition to the obvious benefits for parent-child attachment and long-term sobriety of the parent, will allow these homes to be available for children who really need them.

Texas children adopted out-of-state: what happens when the push for adoptions goes too far?

 

On May 24, 2018, the Chronicle of Social Change published “Bigger in Texas: Number of Adoptions and Parents Who Lose Their Rights.” Reporter Christie Renick points out that Texas has received 15% of the federal adoption incentives that have been given out since the program began in 1998. According to federal data, Texas has about seven percent of the foster children in America, so it has received over twice its share of adoption incentives based on foster care population.

So what is Texas doing differently from other states? Renick suggests that it is a combination of the state’s aggressive push to terminate parental rights along with an emphasis on placing kids with kin. But Renick does not address another factor that may contribute to Texas’ adoption success. And that is the number of Texas children who are adopted by families in other states. Texas is exporting many of its unwanted children.

Child advocates became aware of this issue in the wake of  the violent death of Jennifer and Sarah Hart and most likely all six of their adopted children when their car drove off a California cliff on March 26, 2018. We soon learned that Jennifer and Sarah Hart were living in Minnesota when they adopted their six children from the Texas foster care system. Three of the siblings were adopted in 2006 from Colorado County, Texas and another set of three in 2009 from Harris County, which includes Houston.

Oregon’s release of files from a 2013 investigation following the family’s move to Oregon provided limited information about these adoptions.  An employee of the Department of Human Services (DHS) in Douglas County, Minnesota told an Oregon investigator that  “the State of Texas works with this Permanent Family Resource Center…Texas seems to do a number of adoptions through this agency, even when the Child Welfare Office has not supported the placement.”

The Minnesota employee’s comment was somewhat misleading because the Minnesota child welfare agency does not approve adoptions of children from another state. Instead, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS)  requires that out-of-state homes  be approved for adoption by “agencies licensed or certified to approve adoptive home studies in the state where the home is located.” Apparently the Permanent Family Resource Center (PFRC) was such a licensed agency.

An internet search provides skimpy information about PFRC, which dissolved early in 2012. According to a 2008 article in the Fergus Falls Journal, PFRC was founded by Maryjane Westra and Kristy Ringuette in 2000 with a focus on placing children from foster care with permanent adoptive parents. PFRC’s archived website and its Twitter page are still online. Eerily, its Twitter avatar is a photograph of Markis and Devonte Hart. The internet archives contain a document with profiles of families approved to adopt children, including Jennifer and Sarah Hart, pictured with Markis, Hannah and Abigail, the first set of siblings they adopted. The Harts were described as a “fun, active family” that was “eager to open their hearts and their home to adopted children.”

PFRC emphasized its openness to all potential adoptive families. Westra told the reporter that in forming the agency, “they wanted to expand the range of adoptive families to include those that had the will but needed a little help along the way.” On its Frequently Asked Questions page, PFRC said that it “wants successful families and are not interested in ‘weeding people out.’ A home study is your opportunity to speak about your strengths so the best possible match is made.” “We can always use families. You don’t have to be a perfect family, there is no perfect family,” Westra told the Fergus Falls Journal.

And PFRC was as good as their word. The agency apparently approved the Harts for adopting the second sibling set even though five months before the adoption was finalized, Hannah came to school with a bruised arm and said that Jennifer had hit her with a belt, resulting in a police report and an investigation by Douglas County Social Services. It is not clear if PFRC knew of the incident. But it probably happened during the trial period for the second adoption, during which the agency should have been very carefully monitoring how the family was adjusting to the second set of three siblings.

The addition of three children aged three or under could have precipitated great stress for a family that already had three young children aged about 10, 6 and 5. But PFRC staff and adoptive families often adopted large numbers of closely-spaced children. Westra cited a family that adopted a twelve-year-old and two toddlers. Three years later, they returned and adopted six more children. “It’s heartwarming when that happens,” Westra told the reporter. Of the 16 families approved to adopt, three already had 5 children and four (including the Harts) had three children. Claudia Fletcher, an adoption worker for PFRC, has 12 adopted children and writes about her life in a blog entitled Never a Dull Moment: my Journey as a Foster and Adoptive parent….12 Kids in 12 Years.

The appropriateness of larger families for adoption is a controversial issue. There is strong evidence that child maltreatment increases with family size and more closely spaced children. Having more children, and children closer together in age, can result in increased stress. Moreover, many adopted children, especially those who are older than infancy, need even more attention than other children their age. It is clear from discussions on adoption websites that mainstream adoption agencies are often reluctant to work with larger families. Clearly, PFRC did not have a problem with large families becoming even larger through adoption.

The scanty information about PFRC raises many questions. Was the home study process for the Harts flawed? Were there signals that could have been picked up by a more sophisticated and critical staff? Are there other children adopted through PFRC who are languishing in abusive homes? Are there other agencies around the country that are not interested in “weeding families out?” Adoptions records are sealed, so we probably won’t ever know the answers to most of these questions.

Child advocates told KPRC Houston’s Syan Rhodes that the Hart children’s fate was the result of “a state desperate to remove kids from the system.” And Texas is not the only state where this desperation may lead to adoptions that should never have taken place. States are graded by the federal government as well as outside groups on the size of their foster care caseloads and the time it takes to achieve permanency. Getting children off the rolls also saves money that would be spent on case management and other services and vacates desperately needed foster homes. And then there are of course the federal incentives from which Texas has benefited so consistently.

There were 5,413 adoptions consummated in Texas in 2017. According to Houston’s KPRC, 320 of these children were adopted out of state. That’s a lot of kids to worry about every year.

We don’t want kids to languish in foster care, but we don’t want to adopt them out to abusers. So what is the answer?  Keep children at home with support if it is safe, place them with relatives if appropriate, but recognize that aging out of foster care would have been a better fate than what the Hart children suffered.

This article was modified on June 4, 2017 at 5:30 PM in response to a correction issued by KFRC Houston regarding the number of adoptions by out-of-state families. The number that was originally attributed to the Houston area was actually statewide. 

 

 

 

 

Let’s recognize that foster care is a job–and pay accordingly

Being Beautiful Foundation
Image: Being Beautiful Foundation Facebook Page

 

May is Foster Care Month, and nobody deserves more honors than our nation’s great foster parents. But unfortunately, there are not enough of these true heroes to go around. Part of the problem is the myth that undergirds foster care in America: that fostering is not done for financial gain.

I have known several great foster parents. They include Mr. and Mrs. A, who must have attended every train-related attraction to feed their foster son’s fanaticism. There was Ms. B, who continued to host her two foster kids for weekends–and give them money–for years after they returned home to their mother. There are Mr. and Mrs. C, who never missed a parent conference or school event and who got their foster kids into a high-performing public charter school. For these great foster parents, foster care is a calling. Unfortunately, there are not enough of them.

For every Mr. A, Ms. B or Mrs. D, there is a Ms. X, who had never in an entire year been to her foster child’s school for a meeting, back to school night, or to see her in a performance. The child was never able to attend an evening activity at her school because the foster parent would not take her. Ms. X even refused to pick her up when she was throwing up; I had to go. Then there was Ms. Y, who refused to go to a meeting with her foster child’s teacher and therapist to improve the child’s school performance. She said, and I quote, “If I cared, I would go, but I don’t care.”

Ms. Y  worked the 3:00 to 11:00 shift, leaving for work about the same time her foster child arrived from school and not returning home until the teen was–or should have been–in bed. Most other foster parents worked full-time and were out of the house from early morning until after 6 pm. Most of them, unlike “real” parents, insisted that they could not take off work for any reason related to their foster child, be it a medical emergency, a school meeting, or a therapist’s visit.

It is time to stop pretending. A significant proportion of foster parents are fostering for the money. Some of them also like children, but they would not do it if not for the income. We pretend that fostering is an act of love, and therefore we pay foster parents only the amount we deem to be enough to support the child. That ensures that many children will not be supported adequately, since the foster parents are going to take their “salary” off the top before spending any money on the children.

The results of this fiction are visible everywhere. Of the 26,000 teens responding to a survey of New York youth in foster care in January 2018, nearly a quarter reported “lacking clean and appropriate clothes to wear, shoes that fit, and three meals per day.” This is not acceptable.

Our foster children need more than mediocre or bad foster parenting. Most of them have undergone trauma or serious neglect that has harmed their developing brains. And all have undergone the trauma of removal from their homes. They all need extra stimulation and therapeutic parenting, not benign indifference or worse.

Social workers are another casualty of bad and mediocre foster parents . I left my job as a foster care social worker after five years because I could no longer parent 10 troubled teenagers. After my fifth visit to the psychiatric emergency room with a child whose foster parent would not take them, I knew I could not do it any more.

Why aren’t these foster parents dismissed? As almost everyone knows thanks to daily news articles, there are not enough foster parents to provide homes for all the children in care. The nationwide foster parent shortage around the country is resulting in children sleeping in offices and hotels and bouncing from one inappropriate placement to another.

As a result of this crisis, agencies are unwilling to dismiss foster parents who are not doing their job, or even worse. Every year I had to fill out an evaluation of each foster parent. But when I said that Ms. X or Ms. Y should be dismissed, my superiors never listened. On May 18 Dahn Gregg, a social worker with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS)  reports that she wrote a letter to her supervisors claiming that the agency is placing children in unsafe foster homes. She told Channel 9 that these were families with serious mental health issues, homes where methamphetamine was used and sexual offenders were in and out of the home. Three days after writing the letter, Gregg was fired. (Oklahoma has been praised for doubling its number of licensed foster beds while other states are losing foster home capacity.)

What can be done? People talk about increasing kinship care and foster parent recruitment. Those are important strategies but unlikely to close the gap. Relatives are already bearing much of the caregiving burden and we cannot forget that many kin may may share the dysfunctional parenting styles of birth parents. We cannot accept unsuitable or even dangerous caregivers out of desperation.

We need to think about recruiting a new population–people who would not think of being foster parents unless they were paid a salary so that at least one adult per household could forego full-time work. This might bring in people who want to work with youth and might otherwise seek a job in human services. It might include mothers or fathers who want to stay home with their own children as well as their foster kids.

To make professional foster care economically feasible, foster homes could be larger, housing four to six children. Examples of such programs include Neighbor to Family, which provides professional foster care to sibling groups in the same home. Some  programs provide housing to foster parents in “foster care communities” which provide the added benefit of community support and programmatic resources on site. These include SOS Children’s Villages in Illinois and Florida, and  Pepper’s Ranch in Oklahoma. Some large foster homes, such as the Being Beautiful Foundation in Philadelphia, are licensed and funded as group homes.

One might worry that paying foster parents more would bring out of the woodwork even more people who are in it for the money. To prevent this, standards and training requirements for professional foster parents would have to be much higher than for traditional foster care.

Child welfare leaders at all levels need to begin a conversation about professionalizing foster care. Clearly, professional foster care is more expensive than traditional foster care. But considering the long-term costs (in welfare, criminal justice, and loss of economic activity) of not addressing the needs of the traumatized children in care, the money would be well spent.

 

 

Abusive parents are using homeschooling to avoid detection

Hart family
Photo: Associated Press

On April 25, 2018, Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) issued a stunning report. Using data from six school districts, OCA found that over a third of children removed from school to be homeschooled lived in families that had been reported at least once for abuse or neglect. This is the first publicly released data to suggest the extent to which homeschooling may serve as a vehicle for abusive parents to isolate their children from scrutiny by other adults.

The Child Advocate’s report was a follow-up to its investigation of the tragic death of Matthew Tirado.  On February 14, 2017 , Matthew died of homicide from prolonged child abuse and neglect by his mother. While Matthew was never formally withdrawn from school (though he had not attended for a year), OCA found that his mother was able to withdraw his sister from school after numerous reports by the school district alleging abuse and neglect in the home.

To determine whether other children from families that were the subject of child abuse allegations were withdrawn from school, OCA collected data from six Connecticut school districts, the Hartford District where the Tirados lived and five other districts selected for their diversity. Their analysis showed that over three school years, 2013-2016, 380 students were withdrawn from the six districts to be homeschooled. Of those students, an astonishing 138 (or 36%)  lived in families that were the subject of at least one prior accepted report of abuse or neglect. Most of these families had multiple prior reports, ranging from two to 30 reports. 11% of the withdrawn children belonged to families with four reports or more.

Executive Director Rachel Coleman of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) is not surprised by this percentage. She cites an unpublished study conducted in another state, which produced similar results. Coleman also cites the groundbreaking study of torture as a form of child abuse by Barbara Knox and colleagues. Of the school-aged victims they studied, 47% had been removed from school under the pretext of “homeschooling,” although no education was taking place in these homes. According to the researchers, this “homeschooling” “appears to have been designed to further isolate the child and typically occurred after closure of a previously opened CPS case.”

Like the parents in Connecticut and those studied by Knox, Jennifer and Sarah Hart removed their six children from school as soon as Minnesota CPS closed their last case in 2011. The school had made six reports concerning food deprivation and physical punishment, two of which resulted in findings of abuse. With their withdrawal from school, the children had lost their best advocates. They continued to endure starvation and cruel discipline until their deaths in 2018.

The OCA report suggests that “homeschooling is used to conceal abuse more frequently than has been commonly thought,” as Rachel Coleman puts it. With 1.7 million children being homeschooled today, it is possible that hundreds of thousands are living in abusive situations.

Abusive parents must not be allowed to withdraw their children from school on the pretext of homeschooling them. Legislators must act to require schools to report all withdrawals for the purpose of homeschooling to Child Protective Services (CPS) to be cross-checked for previous reports. Parents with at least one substantiated abuse or neglect report should not be allowed to homeschool. Parents who have been the subject of an unsubstantiated report could be allowed to homeschool, subject to frequent monitoring by the school district or CPS.

The powerful homeschool lobby will object to any such regulation of homeschooling. In California, a massive outcry from homeschooling parents killed a very modest bill to require annual fire inspections of all home schools, prompted by the Turpin case.  The Home School Legal Defense Association has stated that “abuse is horrible and must never be tolerated. But imposing regulations that treat all home-schooling families like criminals is unjust.” Nobody is suggesting that homeschooling parents be treated as criminals. Rather, they should be treated a little more like schools.

“Steady March Toward Child Fatality Prevention” leaves Many Endangered Children Unprotected

sad child
Image: socialworkhelper.com

In an April 26 Opinion piece in the Chronicle of Social Change, Teri Covington congratulated the child welfare establishment for a “steady march toward child fatality prevention,” citing new developments on the federal, state and local levels. Earlier that week, new details came out about a case involving six child abuse fatalities that had transfixed the nation. But any mention of the Hart case–or how we can address fatalities and near-fatalities from chronic and severe child abuse–was conspicuously missing from the article and the briefing conducted by Covington’s group on the same day.

On April 23, newspapers across the country carried new headlines about Jennifer and Sarah Hart and their six adoptive children, who drove off a California cliff to their deaths in March. The new information, released by the State of Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS), revealed that DHS knew of the Hart parents’ extensive CPS history in Minnesota and had convincing evidence of maltreatment in Oregon but was still unable to determine that abuse had occurred.

The Hart case may have been unusual in the sheer number of system failures involved, but none of the specific features of the case is unusual. In January, the 13 Turpin children who were saved from death by abuse and starvation by the extraordinary bravery of one child. Within the past year, we’ve learned about Brook Stagles in New York, Evan Brewer in Kansas, and many other children who were allowed to suffer ongoing torture and abuse because of failures of the community and the systems designed to protect them. And those are only the cases that made the headlines. We will never know how many other children have suffered and perhaps died of chronic and severe abuse without ever being discovered.

In the article and briefing, Ms. Covington cited a number of actions by federal, state, or local governments that fulfill one or more of the 100 recommendations of Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF). First and foremost according to Covington was the passage of the Family First and Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), which she hailed as a “seismic change,” because it makes resources available for the first time for services to prevent children who have already been abused or neglected from entering foster care. It’s hard to see how the passage of FFPSA could help victims of chronic and severe child abuse. The view that virtually no abused child should enter foster care may be one reason why many abused children are eventually killed by their parents. Moreover, it is hard to see how FFPSA will make the kind of difference expected by its advocates, since states are already funding the same services through funding streams like Medicaid and TANF.

Covington also mentioned the addition of $60 million in CAPTA funds in the current fiscal year for safe plans of care for drug-exposed infants as “another major federal improvement.” This is a good step that might aid in early identification of some children at risk of abuse, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the need.

Several state and local initiatives mentioned by Covington are steps in the right direction to identifying victims of chronic and severe child abuse. These include the introduction of predictive analytics, improved data sharing between agencies, and more interagency planning and action.

However, conspicuously missing from Covington’s narrative are a set of major reforms that need to occur if we are to avoid more tragedies due to severe and chronic abuse. Some of these reforms are listed below:

  1. Improve vetting of potential adoptive parents. Jennifer and Sarah Hart arranged the adoption of their children through a Texas agency that reportedly put together adoptions against the wishes of the child welfare agency. Moreover, the second set of children was adopted even though the parents had already been investigated for abusing one of the first set. Agencies must not let their desperate search for homes for children considered to be hard to adopt lead them to disregard the future outcomes for these children.
  2. Monitor children whose parents receive adoption subsidies. Given the disproportionate number of serious cases of child maltreatment among adopted children and a valid state interest in the well-being of children supported by the state, parents receiving adoption subsidies should be required to document annually the child’s well-being through a social worker or doctor visit.
  3. Monitor homeschoolers and ban homeschooling by known child abusers. It is all too frequent for parents who have been substantiated for child abuse to withdraw their children from school as soon as their case is closed and they are no longer under the supervision of the child welfare agency. Parents with a record of abuse should not be allowed to homeschool their children. In addition, since homeschooled children appear to figure disproportionately in serious cases of abuse, all homeschooled children should have at least annual contact with a mandatory child abuse reporter such as a teacher, doctor or social worker.
  4. Adopt and promote universal mandatory reporting. Only 18 states and Puerto Rico require all adults to report suspected child abuse or neglect; most states require only certain professionals to do so. And even in the universal reporting states states (including Texas, where neighbors did not report the numerous red flags surrounding the Turpin family), it is unlikely that people know or observe the law. It should be mandatory for all adults to report any reasonable suspicion that a child is being maltreated and this duty should be promoted through a massive public information campaign.
  5. Demand greater accountability from mandatory reporters, as CECANF recommended. Incredibly, an Oregon pediatrician who saw the Hart children at the request of DHS reported that she had “no concern” that five out of six were so small and thin that their weights and heights did not even appear on the growth charts for children their age. CECANF recommended that mandatory reporting training and competency should be a requirement for licensure when applicable. Licensees and their agencies should be responsible for maintaining and refreshing their competency. And doctors who fail to fulfill their responsibilities should lose their licenses.
  6. Revamp investigations. Agencies need to separate the determination of whether abuse has occurred (which can be difficult when frightened children are coached to lie) from the decision to protect vulnerable children. Furthermore the definition of “safety” needs to be changed in many states. Often, a child deemed to be at high risk can be simultaneously labeled as “safe.” Thorough investigations also require manageable caseloads, which in turn require sufficient funding, which is not available in many states.
  7. Interstate registry: In child maltreatment death cases like that of Adrian Jones, parents have been able to escape detection by moving to another state. States should be required to participate in an interstate registry of child maltreatment reports and findings. This was recommended by foster care alumna and 2017 Congressional intern Tonisha Hora, who along with her sister suffered ten years of severe abuse before she was rescued by CPS.
  8. Reform in-home child welfare services so that meaningful services are provided and feedback is obtained from providers about parents’ progress. No case should be closed unless a state obtains credible testimony from service providers, the children and other professionals who know the family that parental behaviors have changed. Again, this require manageable caseloads and adequate funding.

Why were none of these proposals mentioned in the article and briefing? The most direct cause is that only one of these proposals (holding mandatory reporters accountable) was recommended (in part) by CECANF. But that just begs the question of why they were not among the CECANF recommendations.  There are three reasons I can identify:

  1. More children die of neglect than abuse. Of the children who were reported to the federal government who died of maltreatment in 2016, 75% suffered neglect and 44% suffered abuse either exclusively or in combination with another maltreatment type. At the briefing, a speaker from the Virginia Department of Social Services stated that unsafe sleep was the primary driver of child fatalities in Virginia, so the department was concentrating its fatality prevention work on safe sleep. Of course we should promote safe sleep, but we can’t ignore those children who die of severe and chronic child abuse because they are fewer in number.
  2. Many of these measures would draw intense political opposition for ideological reasons or because they would require increased spending. Homeschooling parents and adoptive parents have been adamantly opposed to any monitoring of their children. Doctors would virulently oppose greater penalties for malfeasance. Beefing up child welfare systems would cost money and systems around the country are struggling to obtain enough funds to meet increasing needs.
  3. The narrative currently embraced by the child welfare establishment is that all parents want the best for their children and that all children do best with their parents, no matter how abusive or neglectful. Perhaps that is why there has been so little response to the Hart tragedy and similar tragedies from the agencies responsible for protecting children.

The child welfare establishment needs to recognize that there are some parents to whom the prevalent rosy attitude simply does not apply. Ms. Covington opened her article by stating that deaths of children from abuse and neglect increased by more than 7 percent from 2015 to 2016. We don’t know how many of these deaths stemmed from severe and chronic child abuse. If there is such a thing as “a fate worse than death,” then years of torture by the people who are supposed to protect you qualifies. As you are reading this, how many children are being deprived of food, chained to their beds, or being beaten? One is too many, and political barriers should not be allowed to prevent action.