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

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

Source: The Detroit News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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