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 Timesthat 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.
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.
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.
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.
In a previous post about the tragic story of the Hart family I listed multiple system failures that allowed the children to remain in an abusive home for years. In response to a public records request from multiple media outlets, the Oregon Department of Human Services released records from Child Protective Services (CPS) and police investigations of the Hart family. These records show that Oregon had extensive information about the children’s situation but still did not act to protect them.
The Hart family had reportedly lived in Oregon for just three months when a family friend called Oregon DHS to report that she was worried about the children after an incident at her home on June 28, 2013. The Harts were staying with the caller and she ordered pizza. Jennifer Hart gave each child, ranging in age from 8 to 15, one slice of pizza and some water. But in the morning, all the pizza was gone. Hart became angry. She stated that none of the children would be eating breakfast as none confessed to eating the pizza. All six children were made lie on an air mattress with sleeping masks on their faces for five hours as punishment. The caller said that the children had appeared to get taller, but not gain weight, over the 5 to 7 years since their adoption. The caller also indicated that the Harts had been investigated in Minnesota for withholding food from the children. The Harts pulled the children from school after the investigation but the caller doubted there was any education going on. Instead, Jennifer Hart took the children across the country for weeks attending music festivals and frequently had them pose as a happy family for Facebook. The caller stated that the children were terrified of Jennifer Hart, their primary caregiver. Sarah was outside the home working during the day, but her loyalty was totally with Jennifer.
Because of missing pages in the Oregon record, we do not know the date of this report or how much time elapsed before DHS received a second report on July 18, 2013. An anonymous caller reported that the six Hart children appeared malnourished. The caller provided a Minnesota license plate number which enabled the hotline screener to identify Jennifer and Sarah Hart. The screener contacted Minnesota’s child welfare agency and quickly learned that the Harts had adopted their six children from Texas. A Minnesota social worker told the Oregon screener that Texas “seems to do a lot of adoptions through [a now defunct local agency}, even when the child welfare office has not approved the placement.”
The Oregon screener learned that Minnesota had received six separate abuse and neglect allegations against the Harts in 2010 and 2011, all of which came from the school regarding Abigail or Hannah Hart. Three of the allegations involved physical abuse. and three involved food deprivation. On November 15, 2010, the school reported that six-year-old Abigail had “bruising on her stomach area from her sternum to waistband, and bruising on her back from mid-back to upper buttocks.” Abigail reported that Jennifer Hart beat her, but it was Sarah who said she was responsible for the marks. The beating reportedly resulted from a penny found in Abigail’s pocket, which her parents thought was stolen. The Harts “agreed to in-home therapy, parenting and counseling, and a variety of skill building activities.”
There is no information about whether the Harts really participated in these services, but a report came in the next month (December) that Hannah had a bruise she attributed to Jennifer Hart, saying that Jennifer hit her “all the time.” Two reports came in January, one saying that Hannah had been asking classmates for food. The final report stated that Hannah reported to the school nurse that she was hungry. During the investigation, the children reported being deprived of food as a form of discipline. As part of an assessment, six-year-old Abigail, who reportedly looked like she was two, was taken to the doctor, who “said she is just small, and being adopted, we don’t know their bio family history.” The Minnesota worker reported that when the parents were asked about the children’s hunger and their complaints about withholding food, they said the children were adopted, were “high risk kids,” and had food issues. The allegation apparently was confirmed and the Harts participated in services (perhaps the same services that were ordered pursuant to the November 15 report) but no information is provided about those services and whether the children were assessed to be safe before case closure. When that case was closed, and the services were “concluded” the family pulled their children out of school and eventually left the state for Oregon.
The Minnesota social worker told the Oregon screener that the problem was “these women look normal.” They knew what to tell professionals about special needs, adoption and food issues, to get them to “assign the problem to the children” rather than the parents. The Minnesota worker also understood that the children were at particular risk because “without any regular or consistent academic or medical oversight” and without reviews from the State of Texas, the children risked “falling through the cracks.”
After the Oregon screener spoke to the Minnesota staff, the case was approved for investigation by CPS. A CPS worker tried unsuccessfully to visit the family and found out eventually that the children were traveling with Jennifer Hart. Two Oregon CPS workers finally interviewed the parents and children on August 26, 2013–over a month after the report was received. All of the children appeared small, but their mothers reported that they had been small when they were adopted. Hannah Hart, 11 at the time, had no front teeth and the parents stated she had knocked them out in a fall and had to wait another year for dental work. All six children denied that they had been abused. According to the investigative report, “the children provided near identical answers to all questions asked.” For example, they all reported that they were punished by being required to meditate for five minutes. “All of the children, except Devonte, were very reserved, and showed little emotion or animation,” according to the CPS worker’s report. The investigator also observed that the children looked at Jen Hart for permission to answer a question. The investigator was clearly not fooled by the identical answers. She later told one of the callers that the children had clearly been coached on what to say. Nevertheless, the children’s failure to report the abuse, even though it was characteristic of abused children who fear their caregivers, may have sealed their doom.
One of the family friends interviewed by CPS stated that Jennifer Hart viewed the children as “animals” when they came to her, and herself as their savior. The Harts displayed this “savior” mentality in their descriptions of the children when they were adopted. For example, they reported that when they adopted Devonte at the age of six, he could say only two words, both of which were expletives. They reported that he did not know where his fingers and toes were and was violent. They reported that Abigail was diagnosed as “borderline mentally retarded” at the age of two but had made “great strides” since that time. And they reported that Jeremiah was labelled “globally delayed” and possibly autistic, and could not even use a fork, but was currently functioning normally. As described in my earlier post, this exaggerated emphasis on the children as defective and the parents as saviors fits the pattern of the “white savior” as described by writer Stacey Patton.
The Harts agreed to a CPS request to take the children to a doctor to evaluate their weight. The doctor faxed the children’s growth charts to DHS along with a letter indicating “no concerns” even though five of the six children were so small that their heights and weights were not listed on growth charts for their age. The social worker was curious enough about this lack of concern that she spoke to the doctor, who , like the doctor in Minnesota, explained that she had no previous data or records for the children, and apparently therefore had no basis for concern.
The case was closed on December 26 with a disposition of “unable to determine, which means that there are some indications of child abuse or neglect, but there is insufficient information to conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that child abuse or neglect occurred.” It was concluded that all of the children were “safe.” Nevertheless, in the section related “Vulnerability,” the investigator indicated that the children “are completely dependent on their caregivers and do not have regular contact with any mandatory reporters, as they are home schooled.”
The Hart case brings together many different barriers to our ability to protect abused children not just in Minnesota, Oregon and Washington but all over the country. In my post, How to Prevent More Hart Cases, I identified a number of policy areas where change is needed in many or all states and localities, to save children like the Harts. In all of these areas, policy and practice needs to be changed in order to shift away from the current extreme focus on parental rights to a more balanced approach which gives child protection equal or greater emphasis. Here is an updated version of the list based on the new information from Oregon:
Improve Vetting of Potential Adoptive Families. The new information from Minnesota adds more evidence that improved vetting is necessary, at least in some states. The second set of children were adopted despite the fact that the parents were investigated for abuse of one of the first set of children. Moreover, Minnesota staff told Oregon DHS staff that Texas arranged many adoptions through a particular agency, even when not supported by Minnesota’s child welfare agency. We need to know more about how adoptions could be organized against the wishes of the child welfare agency in the adoptive child’s state, and whether such adoptions continue to occur.
Monitor adoption subsidy recipients. The new information confirms that the Harts received almost $2,000 a month in adoption subsidies–money that clearly enabled them to live. All agencies paying adoption subsidies should verify periodically that the children are alive and well and still living in the adoptive home. Submission of an annual doctor visit report, and/or an annual visit by a social worker could be used for such verification.
Regulate homeschooling. The Minnesota records confirmed that the Harts removed all their children from school after their child abuse case was closed in Minnesota. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), an advocacy group for homeschooled children, recommends barring from homeschooling parents convicted of child abuse, sexual offenses, or other crimes that would disqualify them from employment as a school teacher. CRHE also recommends flagging other at-risk children (such as those with a history of CPS involvement) for additional monitoring and support and requiring an annual assessment of each homeschooled child by a mandatory reporter.
Adopt universal mandatory reporting and educate the public about reporting child maltreatment. The new information does not change the fact that the Harts’ neighbors in Washington witnessed clear indicators of maltreatment months before the family went off a cliff. If they had reported their observations earlier, the children might have been saved. However, Minnesota and Oregon reporters were more conscientious, and the children were failed by CPS; hence the next recommendation.
Revamp the investigative process. We have seen that social workers in Minnesota and Oregon had a very clear idea of the dynamics of the Hart household, and how the parents manipulated professionals to shift all blame to the children. Nevertheless they were not able to act on this knowledge to protect the children. There are several reasons that arise from the characteristics of child protective services in most or all states. First, action such as opening an in-home case or removing a child is contingent on the abuse allegation being confirmed. But that is very difficult to do, especially when children deny the abuse, as abused children often do. It is likely that many actual cases of abuse are not substantiated. Research has found little or no difference in future reports of maltreatment of children who were the subject of substantiated or unsubstantiated reports. We need to move away from substantiation as a trigger for action to protect children. Another problem is the bizarre distinction between risk and safety which is made in most or all CPS systems. That children could be labeled “safe” even when at risk, as happened in Oregon, is obviously ridiculous. This false distinction has contributed to the deaths of Adrian Jones in Kansas, Yonatan Aguilar in California, and doubtless hundreds of other children around the country.
Establish stricter criteria for case closure. In Minnesota, one or two cases were opened and the Harts were required to participate in services. We know in retrospect that none of the services worked to change the Harts’ parenting style. It appears that the parents continued their pattern of abuse and food deprivation while the services were being provided. State and local agencies need to revise their criteria for case closure to make sure that they are not leaving the children in the same unsafe situation they were in before the case opened. Agencies must be required to do a rigorous assessment of the children’s safety, which includes checking in with all service providers as well as the children and other professionals who have contact with them.
Encourage doctors to err in the direction of protecting children. The similar response from doctors in Minnesota and Oregon to these malnourished children (saying that they don’t know if there is a reason for concern because lack of historical data) suggests a pattern of reluctance by medical professionals even to express concern that abuse or neglect may be occurring. For a doctor to say that he or she has no concerns because of the lack of information is backwards. Pediatricians need to express concern until given reason to believe otherwise. The American Academy of Pediatrics should issue guidance to this effect, but this needs to be followed up by consequences for doctors who fail to protect their patients
In my earlier post, I recommended interstate information sharing as a way to prevent future Hart cases.The new information reveals that Oregon DHS was able to obtain information about the Harts’ abuse record almost as soon as they began their investigation. The State of Washington found out about the Harts only three days before the fatal event, so information sharing was unlikely an issue. Thus, a failure of information sharing appears not to have been a major factor in this case, even if it has played a role in other cases where abusive families moved from state to state. One of the family friends who reported the abuse of the Hart children has launched a petition campaign for an national child abuse registry. This proposal deserves support and might save many children in the future, even if it would not have helped the Hart children.
On April 26, I attended a briefing on Capitol Hill about “Innovations and Opportunities to End Child Maltreatment Fatalities.” None of the measures suggested above were mentioned, even though they are responses to system breakdowns that have occurred again and again in child maltreatment fatality cases. Until we are willing to address the current imbalance between the rights of parents and those of their children, children will continue to suffer and die just like the Harts.
April is child abuse prevention month, and many organizations are offering recommendations on how to prevent child maltreatment. Typically these recommendations do not include one approach that may promise the most success–prevention of teenage, unplanned and closely spaced pregnancies.
Sarah Brown, founder of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (now Power to Decide) gave a lecture in December 2015 that brought home this unfortunate omission. She reported being struck by “the total absence of pregnancy planning, spacing and prevention in virtually all discussions of how to improve overall child and family well being.” As she put it, many groups concentrate on services after the child is born, but “rarely do they mention the time when decisions are made about when with whom and under what circumstances to become pregnant or cause a pregnancy.”
There is no lack of research on the connection between pregnancy timing and child maltreatment. There is a strong association between child maltreatment and the mother’s age at the birth of the child. California researchers Emily Putnam-Hornstein and Barbara Needell found that babies born to mothers who were under 20 were twice as likely to be reported to child protective services (CPS) by the child’s fifth birthday as those born to mothers 30 or older. Among children referred to CPS by age five, almost 18 percent were born to a teenage mother and 50 percent were born to a mother younger than 25. Among children with no CPS contact, only 8 percent were teen births and 30 percent were born to a mother under 25.
There is also strong evidence that family size and child spacing are correlated with child maltreatment. Putnam-Hornstein and Needell found that children who fell third or higher in the birth order were more than twice as likely to be the subject of a report as first children. Moreover, a large study published in 2013 found that women who gave birth to another child within 24 months of the previous child were 80 percent more likely to have a substantiated CPS report.
And research suggest that the interaction between birth order and maternal age creates the highest risk for a child maltreatment fatality. A study using linked birth and death certificates for all births in the U.S. between 1983 and 1991 found that the most important risk factors for infant homicide were a second or subsequent infant born to a mother less than 17 years old. These infants had 11 times the risk of being killed compared with a first infant born to a mother 25 years old or older. A second or subsequent infant born to 17 to 19-year-old mother had nine times the homicide risk of the first infant born to the older mother.
And setting the research aside for a moment, anyone who has worked for or with CPS, or in foster care, knows the prevalence of larger families with closely-spaced children in the system, often with a mother that started childbearing as a teen. The same pattern has been observed among families that experience a child fatality.1
It is truly unfortunate that the number of children in families that are involved in child welfare is not among the data required to be reported to the federal government by states. It is highly plausible that if these data were collected we would see a big difference.
If it is not the lack of research, why do supporters of child maltreatment prevention fail to include family planning and contraception in their suggestions? In part, Sarah Brown says of child advocates in general, it may be that they simply don’t think of it. But in large part, says Brown, it is because they fear getting in trouble and becoming mired in controversy about abortion or sex outside marriage. In addition to the issues raised by Brown, it is likely that others avoid this topic because of the shameful legacy of past attempts to control the population of minority groups.
But people who care about the future of African American children should not allow this racist history to prevent thinking clearly about what is best going forward. There are few if any policies that could be more helpful to the future of black children and the elimination of racial disproportionality in foster care placement than ensuring that black women have access to the most effective methods of contraception so that they can determine their own futures.
Family planning and contraception need to be included in the discussion about child maltreatment prevention. We have made great progress in teen pregnancy prevention. The teen birth rate has fallen dramatically from 59.9 per thousand in 1990 to 24.2 per thousand in 2014. While research suggests that reality TV shows and the last economic recession contributed to the decline in teenage pregnancy, better information about preventing pregnancy and the availability of more effective methods have doubtless contributed to the drastic decline.
The Colorado Family Planning Initiative, initiated with the help of a private funder, improved access to highly effective methods of contraception by training public health providers, supporting family planning clinics and removing the barriers to obtaining Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives (LARC’s). As a result of this initiative, the state’s teen birth and abortion rates were cut in half in just five years, with big financial savings to the state. Because younger mothers are so much more likely to abuse or neglect their children, this initiative should yield lower maltreatment rates now and into the future.
Upstream USA, a nonprofit organization, hopes to expand the Colorado program nationwide, starting with Delaware. Delaware’s Contraceptive Access Now (CAN) is a partnership between Upstream and the State of Delaware to decrease the incidence of unintended pregnancy. CAN works to ensure that all women get same-day access to all methods of birth control, free or at a nominal cost. They are also working to eliminate administrative and reimbursement barriers so that women can access LARC’s immediately after giving birth, taking advantage of a crucial opportunity to provide this critically important service.
Imagine if these initiatives could be expanded nationwide, combined with a public information campaign to explain the benefits of planning, spacing and timing pregnancy for both children and their parents.
Few child welfare experts have noted the link between family planning and child welfare. One of the few is Judge Patricia Martin of Illinois, a member of the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF). Martin included teen pregnancy prevention, especially in high-poverty neighborhoods and among youth in foster care, as one of the recommendations in her dissenting report.
Family planning experts also rarely if ever mention the potential of their programs to reduce child maltreatment. The more immediate benefits of increased opportunities for women and reduction in taxpayer funding for cash assistance and other services are more than enough to justify spending on helping women plan their childbearing.
The link between child abuse prevention and family planning is clear. I hope that the word will spread and that child welfare advocates and family planning advocates can work together for increased resources to help young people plan their childbearing based on their readiness to be parents.
Educated, the new memoir by Tara Westover, deserves to be read by anyone who is concerned about child abuse and neglect. Born in 1986, Westover tells her story of being raised with her six siblings by a paranoid, bipolar survivalist father and her mother, a midwife and herbalist, in a Mormon community at the foot of a mountain in Idaho.
Westover had no birth certificate until the age of nine. Her parents did not remember her birthday and had to obtain her christening and baptism certificates from Salt Lake City. She had no medical records because she had never seen a doctor or nurse. She got her first vaccinations at the age of 22. Westover never went to school until she entered college at the age of 17. She spent her summers bottling peaches and her winters working in her father’s junkyard.
Westover’s mother initially attempted to teach her children at home, but by the time Tara reached school age any pretense of home education was gone. One of her brothers taught her to read, but that’s where her education ended. Instead of going to school, Tara became a member of her father’s junkyard crew. On her first day, he threw a steel cylinder into a sorting bin, unaware that she was in the way, hitting her in the stomach. On another occasion he ordered her to get into a bin filled with 2,000 pounds of iron. He then used a massive forklift to raise the bin 25 feet in the air with her in it. She was impaled by an iron spike and thrown some 20 feet to the ground. With a wide gash in her leg her father sent her home so her mother could stop the bleeding with home remedies.
Doctors and hospitals were avoided as tools of Satan, even though the family had an unusual number of severe injuries due to their lifestyle. Westover’s mother suffered a traumatic brain injury when her brother fell asleep at the wheel driving through the night from Arizona. (No member of the family wore seatbelts.) In another overnight driving accident, Tara blacked out and her neck was “frozen” for a month. Her seventeen year old brother received third-degree burns to his leg when he spilled gasoline drained from cars on his jeans, and later lit a cutting torch. Ten-year-old Tara treated him by immersing his leg in a trash can filled of water. His parents debrided the burns with a scalpel and treated his fever and agony with ice and herbs. When Tara had tonsillitis, her father directed her to stand outside with her mouth open for 30 minutes each day.
Westover’s brother “Shawn” (a pseudonym) began to abuse her when she was about 15. When she refused his commands or otherwise displeased him, he would drag her by the hair to the toilet, dunk her head, and twist her wrist until she apologized, breaking it one one occasion. and calling her a whore. This went on for a decade. She later found that he had done the same to her older sister. Westover’s mother witnessed the abuse but later sided with her father in refusing to accept Tara’s account. “Shawn” eventually went on to inflict similar treatment on his wife. Westover is currently estranged from her parents and some of her siblings because she confronted them about her brother’s violence and abuse.
Tara’s older brother Tyler (to whom the book is dedicated), who had been in school before his father withdrew his older children, had escaped to college and encouraged her to follow the same route. He told her about the ACT test, showed her how to access the internet, and completed her application to Brigham Young University (BYU) for her. Tara taught herself algebra and grammar and scored high enough to gain admittance to BYU.
BYU was a new world for Westover. In one of her first lectures on Western art, she asked what the Holocaust was and her teacher and classmates thought she was making an inappropriate joke. Although initially lost and bewildered, her passion for learning enabled her to excel despite having to work multiple jobs to pay for her schooling. Westover graduated from BYU magna cum laude in 2008, receiving “the most outstanding undergraduate” award from the history department. She won a prestigious fellowship to Cambridge University, where she earned her PhD in intellectual history and political thought at the age of 27.
Educated highlights two of the issues that were most recently raised by the Hart and Turpin cases–homeschooling risks and failure to report maltreatment.
Homeschooling. “Homeschooling” for Tara was first and foremost educational neglect. She was given no formal education and was reliant on a few old textbooks to try to teach herself. It was only her exceptional ability and desire to learn that allowed her to make up for lost ground in college or beyond. “Homeschooling” allowed her to be exploited as a child laborer during school hours, In addition, it deprived her of contact with professionals who might have questioned her various injuries from work and from her brother’s abuse and reported them to the authorities.
Failure to report maltreatment: As in the cases of the Harts and Turpins, nobody reported this family to CPS, even though many family members and residents of their town were aware of the dangerous conditions and educational and medical neglect, if not the abuse, to which these children were subject. Westover’s paternal grandmother argued passionately with her son against his choices to avoid school and medical care. Many members of the community had worked for Westover’s father, been injured and quit or were fired. They were well aware that the children were being forced to work under these conditions instead of going to school. The family attended Mormon church weekly with nearly everyone in the town, and it is inconceivable that other members were unaware of the children’s situation. Westover got to know others in the community by participating in musical theater. She reports that people in the community “reached out to her,” but she never spoke to a social worker or any other person who could really help.
Why did nobody report? The same reluctance to interfere and fear of reprisal that influenced neighbors and family of other maltreated children like the Harts and Turpins probably played a role in this case. But the culture of this particular rural, Mormon community likely made reporting to a government agency unthinkable. Many residents may not even have known that there was an agency to receive such reports. Unfortunately, this type of community is more likely that others to harbor more families living off the grid and failing to meet their children’s fundamental needs.
The key question in the end is this: What, if anything, could be done to save Tara and her siblings from the extreme neglect they all suffered as well as the abuse endured by Tara and her sister? Two possibilities come to mind.
Regulate Homeschooling: There is very little regulation of homeschooling in Idaho,. The state requires that parents who homeschool must provide instruction in “subjects commonly and usually taught in the public schools of Idaho.” However, there are no requirements regarding notification of the relevant authorities, parent qualification, instruction time, bookkeeping, or assessment requirements. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, an advocacy group made up of homeschool alumni, recommends that parents be required to provide annual notification of homeschooling, and maintain academic records for each child; students’ academic progress should be evaluated and reported annually and failure to make adequate progress should result in intervention; homeschooled children should meet the same medical and immunization requirements as children who attend public schools; and students should be assessed annually by mandatory reporters. These measures might have protected Westover’s older siblings after they were withdrawn from school. However, someone would have to report the four younger children’s existence to the educational authorities to trigger these protections. Thus, reporting–either to educational or child welfare authorities–becomes crucial
Encourage Mandatory Reporting: To prevent future cases like that of the Hart children, I have recommended universal mandatory reporting accompanied by a robust public information campaign to inform adults about the signs of maltreatment and the obligation to report any reasonable suspicion of maltreatment. But in a small Mormon community like the one where Westover grew up, this many not be enough. Perhaps states like Iowa and Utah could enlist the Mormon church to help promote the message about the importance of reporting abuse and neglect, including educational neglect.
Most people who read Tara Westover’s memoir will marvel at how she managed to escape her deadly background and become an academic superstar and successful writer. But not all children have the strength and gifts Tara had, and she paid a high price in suffering and lifelong scars. So I hope people will also think about how to save future Tara Westovers. It takes a caring community to protect a child whose family is a source of danger instead of protection.