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

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Image: CNN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was updated on January 29, 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A potentially lifesaving algorithm in Allegheny County, PA

broken arm
Image: New York Times

In August 2016, Allegheny County Pennsylvania (which includes Pittsburgh)  became the first US jurisdiction to use a predictive algorithm to screen every call to the child abuse and neglect hotline. In a brilliant article for the New York Times Magazine,  science writer Dan Hurley clearly explains how the tool works and how it changes current practice. Hurley’s account suggests that Allegheny’s experience is a hopeful one for the county and for children nationwide.

Hurley introduces the Allegheny Family Screening Tool, an algorithm developed by leading child welfare researchers in concert with DHS policymakers. To develop the algorithm, the authors analyzed all referrals made to the county child abuse hotline between April 10 and April 2014. For each referral, the authors combined child welfare data with data from the county jail, juvenile probation, public welfare, and behavioral health programs  to develop a model predicting the risk of an adverse outcome for each child named on each referral. (A more technical description is provided by the authors here.) The end product was an algorithm that calculates a risk score between 1 and 20 for each child included in a referral.

The policymakers and developers chose to use the algorithm to supplement, not supplant, the clinical judgment of hotline workers. Only if the score exceeds a certain threshhold does it trigger a mandatory investigation; below that level the risk score it provides another piece of data to help the hotline worker decide whether to assign the case for investigation.

Among the most important takeaways from Hurley’s article are the following:

  1. Before the development of the new algorithm, Allegheny County had experienced a series of tragedies in which children died after maltreatment reports had been made to the hotline but screened out. The problem was not incompetence or poor training. Hotline workers simply cannot within the 30 minutes to one hour allowed for decision making investigate all the historical data on all family members from numerous agencies with which they may have had contact.
  2. Evaluation data shared with the reporter show that implementation of the Allegheny County Screening Tool resulted in more high-risk cases being screened in and more low-risk cases being screened out. Hurley provides a real case example. A teacher reported that a three-year-old child witnessed a man dying of an overdose in her home. Department records showed numerous reports to the hotline dating back to 2008 about this family, including allegations of sexual abuse, domestic violence, parental substance abuse, inadequate food, physical care, hygiene and medical neglect. Nevertheless, the hotline worker was poised to screen out the case as low risk. The tool, however, calculated a risk rating of 19 out of 20, causing an investigator to go out to the home. Eventually, the mother was found to be unable to care for the children due to her continuing drug abuse, and they were placed with family members, where they are doing well.
  3. County officials were astute in awarding the contract to develop a predictive algorithm. Several other jurisdictions have gone with private companies such as Eckerd Connects and its for-profit partner Mindshare, which has a predictive analytics tool called Rapid Safety Feedback (RSF). The details of RSF are closely held by the companies, and the state of Illinois recently terminated its contract  because the owners refused to share its details, even after the algorithm failed to flag some children who later died. The Allegheny Family Screening Tool is owned by the county. Its workings are public and have been published in academic journals. Moreover, its developers, Emily Putnam-Hornstein and Rhema Vaithianathan are acknowledged as the worldwide leaders in their field, with extensive publications and experience in doing similar work.
  4. County officials were also astute in developing and rolling out their model. They held public meetings before implementing the tool, giving advocates a chance to interact with the researchers and policymakers. Choosing to use the tool at the hotline stage rather than a later step such as investigation made it less threatening as the tool is not being used as input on whether to remove the child, simply whether to investigate. In addition, the county commissioned an ethics investigation by two experts before implementing the tool. The reviewers concluded that not only was the tool ethical but that it might be unethical to fail to implement it. The concluded that “It is hard to conceive of an ethical argument against use of the most accurate predictive instrument,”
  5. Many opponents of predictive analytics argue that it institutionalizes racial bias by incorporating data that is itself biased. Supporters have argued that predictive algorithms reduce bias by adding objective algorithms to subjective worker judgments. Preliminary data from Pittsburgh supports the proponents, suggesting that the algorithm has resulted in more equal treatment of black and white families.
  6. Other jurisdictions are already emulating Allegheny County. Douglas County, Colorado has already commissioned Putnam-Hornstein and Vaithianathan to develop an algorithm and California has contracted with them for preliminary statewide work.

Given the Allegheny County algorithm’s promising results, one cannot help wondering whether a similar algorithm should be used at later stages of a case as well. A similar tool could be very useful in aiding investigators in making a decision about the next step in a case. Such a proposal would of course trigger an outcry if used to decide whether to remove a child from home. But like the Allegheny County screening tool, such an algorithm can be used to supplement clinical judgment rather than replace it. Policymakers need not set any level that would trigger a mandatory removal. However, they could set a risk level that requires opening a case, be it out-of-home or in-home. Many children in many states have died when agencies failed to open a case despite high risk scores on existing instruments. Algorithms can also be used to monitor ongoing in-home cases, as Rapid Safety Feedback has demonstrated. Perhaps if and when predictive algorithms are proven to be effective at protecting children they will be integrated into multiple stages and decision points, like the actuarial risk assessments that many states use today.

Identifying the children most at risk of harm by their parents or guardians has been one of the knottiest problems of child welfare. Allegheny County’s experience, as portrayed by Dan Hurley’s excellent article, provides hope that emerging predictive analytics techniques can improve government’s ability to identify these most vulnerable children and keep them safe.

Domestic violence and child abuse: a lethal combination

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It did not take long for the press to discover that Devin Kelley, the the perpetrator of the  recent mass shooting in Texas, had repeatedly assaulted his first wife and fractured the skull of his infant stepson in 2012. He was court-martialed for those offenses, pled guilty, and was imprisoned for a year.

I could not help noting the parallel to the case that I wrote about in my last post–that of Antoine Flemons, who at two months old was beaten to death by his father, Antoine Petty. The post focused on one aspect of this case–the fact the father was known to have abused many other children.  I argued that baby Antoine might have been protected by a broader policy to identify at birth babies born to parents with such a record.

But the revelations about the Texas shooter reminded me of another important aspect of Antoine’s family that put the baby in grave danger.  In an interview with the Washington Post, Antoine’s grandmother stated that her daughter Geneice Petty loved her son but suffered from “battered women’s syndrome.” In other words, she was a victim of domestic violence.

The connection between domestic violence and child abuse is well-documented. Research suggests that “in an estimated 30 to 60 percent of the families where either domestic violence or child maltreatment is identified, it is likely that both forms of abuse exist.”

In the 40 states providing domestic violence data to the Administration Children and Families for its Child Maltreatment 2015 report, 25% of child maltreatment victims were found to have a caregiver who was either a victim, perpetrator or witness of domestic violence.

Co-occurring domestic violence and child abuse can take several forms. In many cases, one parent (usually the father) abuses both the other parent and the child or children. There are other configurations, such as families in which the abused parent in turn abuses the children.

In baby Antoine’s case,  no information has been released to the public. One can speculate in view of the father’s extreme violence that Geneice Petty was afraid to protect her children and that her husband bullied her into covering up his killing of their son.

The key question is what could have been done to prevent the death of Antoine. Historically, child welfare systems have had not responded effectively to domestic violence. Common and problematic patterns have included ignoring or minimizing the domestic violence and, conversely, giving women an ultimatum to leave the abuser or leave their children–a response which often leads women to fear and avoid child protection authorities rather than seek their help.

One study found that “[Domestic violence]appears to have only a minor role in influencing the decisions of child welfare workers; yet, children exposed to [domestic violence] often have multiple contacts with [child welfare services] due to the higher number of repeat allegations of maltreatment.”

The Children’s Bureau has has published a useful manual about how to handle child maltreatment cases in which domestic violence is present or suspected. The manual’s many recommendations provide alternatives to the problematic practices mentioned above.

Unfortunately, we don’t know if Maryland child welfare workers even identified domestic violence in earlier cases involving Antoine’s parents, let alone how they responded. That’s why, as I have said over and over again about all child maltreatment deaths and serious injuries, there needs to be a thorough investigation, a public report, and a proposal for changes in policy and practice to protect future baby Antoines.

 

 

No place for the children: A therapeutic group home closes while foster children sleep in hotels and offices

In my last post, I wrote about Washington State’s critical shortage of foster parents, which is rRuthDykemanCenteresulting in children staying in offices, hotels, and by-the-night foster homes. One of my suggestions was to reinvest in quality group care settings. Unfortunately, the state (along with most of the country) is moving in the opposite direction.

KUOW, Seattle’s public radio station, recently  reported on the closure of a group home that provided therapeutic care to  foster children with “severe behavioral problems and emotional needs.” At the Ruth Dykeman Children’s Center in Burien, Washington 15 children lived in lakeside cottages supervised by staff members, with nurses and psychologists on call.

Unfortunately, foster care ideology has changed and now any family setting seems to be considered better than any  group  setting, regardless of the needs of the child and the quality of the placement. The fact that group settings are more expensive than foster family homes might have something to do with this new bias.

Unfortunately, the type of children that were housed at Dykeman don’t do well in family foster care. Children with behavioral problems and emotional needs tend to bounce from one foster home to another, their behavioral problems worsening with each move.

Nevertheless, group homes have been shuttered around the country. In Washington  state, according to Investigate West, “stagnant reimbursement rates have forced many facilities that contract with the state to reduce capacity or shutter altogether.”

The CEO of Navos, the mental health nonprofit running the Dykeman home, told KUOW that ending the contract for foster care was a source of great anguish to the leadership. But it was not financially sustainable. The nonprofit had been paying more than half the cost of running the home for years.

The Dykeman Center is not closing, but it is now off-limits for foster kids. It will now serve long-term inpatient psychiatric care, which is reimbursed at two to three times the rate, according to KUOW.

Now, the fragile children from the Dykeman Center will be competing with less troubled but still vulnerable foster youth for the dwindling supply of foster homes. Some may bounce from home to home, perhaps spending nights in hotels or pay-by-the-night foster homes where they have to be dropped off late in the evening and picked up early in the morning. Some have already been sent out of state, according to KUOW.

It is hard to conceive of a reality where this makes sense. But in the looking-glass world of foster care, ideology and money-saving work together to trump common sense and common humanity.

To Prevent Further Tragedies, Require Immediate Fatality Reviews

On November 6, 2016, Trinity Jabore was born in the District of Columbia with marijuana in her system and weighing less than five pounds. On December 25 of the same year, Trinity’s lifeless body was taken to the morgue. A pathologist determined that Trinity’s brief life had been one of suffering. She weighed less than her birthweight, she had multiple fractured ribs, and she died from consuming water that had been mixed with condensed milk.

Soon the Washington Post learned that the District’s Child and Family Services  Agency (CFSA) had received multiple calls reporting neglect of other children born to Trinity’s parents. The final call occurred early in the month of her death. A teacher reported that her brother had showed up in school with a bruise under his left eye and stated that his mother had punched him because he “wasn’t listening.” Three weeks later, the investigators had talked to the brother but had not managed to contact his parents. They were still “trying to make contact” when Trinity died.

Trinity’s story is unfortunately very familiar. I have written about the deaths of Zymere Perkins in New York and Yonatan Aguilar in Los Angeles. A recent series published in the Fayetteville Observer revealed that more than 120 North Carolina children have died within a year of a child maltreatment report.  Each of these deaths is the tip of the iceberg of system failure. We have no idea how many children are suffering in toxic homes as you read this column. Tonisha Hora was left in an abusive home for ten years despite repeated calls to CPS about her plight and that of her sister.

The first response to Trinity Jabore’s death should have been for an independent panel to conduct a comprehensive review of her parents’ prior contacts with the child welfare system to determine how she was left unprotected . This review should have been conducted immediately and included recommendations to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Unfortunately, Trinity has been dead for 9 months and no such review has been released. Like other jurisdictions, the District of Columbia has a Child Fatality Review Committee, upon which I serve. But I have been disappointed by the long lag times and lack of thoroughness of these reviews.

The Committee is about to issue its annual report, which will contain reviews of deaths that occurred between 2012 and 2015. It takes some months for the panel to receive notice of child deaths and all the relevant information including pathology reports. Because the panel is understaffed, there is a further delay after cases are received. The District of Columbia Auditor recently found that the percentage of child deaths reviewed by the CFRC has been declining as the panel’s budget has been cut drastically. Similar issues plague other child fatality review teams, such as the one in North Carolina.

There is another problem with child fatality review panels as a mechanism for reviewing systems’ failure to identify children at risk. In about half the states, these teams review all child fatalities, not just those that are due to child maltreatment, or those of children known to child welfare agencies. The District’s panel reviews all fatalities of young people aged 18 and younger, including all premature infants, gun violence victims, children with terminal illnesses, and accident victims. It does not review the actual files but brief summaries provided by overworked CFRC staff. And Trinity’s death will be mentioned only briefly in an annual report devoted to all of the child deaths that were reviewed in the same year.

An internal CFSA review has probably already occurred, but the public will not know about it for some time. It was  in April 2017 that the agency released its review of child deaths occurring in 2014 and 2015. Moreover, Trinity’s death will  be folded into a report on all deaths of children known to CFSA within four years of their death–a total of 30 deaths in 2015.

The death of a child known to the system should be treated like a plane crash or the loss of the space shuttle Challenger. It should be reviewed immediately and exhaustively by experts of the highest caliber. The point is not to allocate guilt or punishment but to change policies or practices to save children in the future.

In the State of Washington, the Children’s Administration (CA) conducts a review when the death or near-fatality of a child was suspected to be caused by child abuse or neglect, and the child had any history with CA (including a hotline report that was not investigated) at the time of death, or in the year prior.  The review committee is made up of individuals with no prior involvement with the case, and typically includes CA staff, ombudsman staff, and community professionals selected from diverse disciplines with expertise relevant to the case. The review committee has full access to all records and files relevant to the review. The agency must release review results within 180 days following the fatality, unless granted an extension by the Governor.

These reports are subject to public disclosure and must be posted on the Department’s website. The Department is authorized to redact confidential information contained in these reports.  In order to promote accountability and the consistent implementation of recommendations, the state’s family and children’s ombudsman is required to issue an annual report to the Legislature that includes an update on the implementation of recommendations issued by fatality review committees.

Every state or other relevant jurisdiction should follow Washington’s example and require a thorough, immediate independent review of all all cases of children children who die, are seriously injured or disappear (as in the case of Relisha Rudd in the district of Columbia) when there is a family history with CPS. This should be a requirement for federal funding.

No more children should suffer because of agency incompetence, extreme family preservation ideology or underfunding. Let us take the first step and ensure all of these terrible cases are investigated immediately and acted upon fast.