New Jersey to foster parents: thanks but no thanks!

Foster Parents Needed As COVID-19 Pandemic Strains Families is a typical headline these days, as illustrated in an article from Illinois. The pandemic has imposed new impediments to recruiting and retaining foster parents, including fears of exposure to COVID-19, loss of employment and income, and concerns about supervising virtual schooling. But these issues do not seem to be affecting New Jersey, where prospective foster parents are told that they are not needed, thank you very much! While the state credits its efforts at child abuse prevention and family preservation for its lack of need for foster parents, the explanation seems to lie elsewhere. Over the course of five years, the state has cut in half its rate of confirming allegations of abuse and neglect–resulting in a similar fall in the number of children entering foster care. This is a big change, and one that demands explanation in order to ensure that the agency is continuing to fulfill its mission of ensuring children’s safety in New Jersey.

Would-be New Jersey foster parents who click on “Be A Foster Parent” on the website of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) are greeted with the following message: “Thank you for your interest in becoming a resource parent to children and youth in state care.  Due to the COVID19 Pandemic and its impact on operations, DCF has suspended all new inquiry submissions at this time. Please continue to check our website for any updates.” This is an odd message indeed, as it seems to imply that the pandemic has made recruitment and licensing impossible. But agencies around the country have adapted quickly to move vetting and training online in order to enable new foster parents to enter the pipeline. Not so New Jersey.

When we asked DCF why foster parents are being turned away, we received the following reply from DCF Communications Director Jason Butkowski. “[W]e did experience a 19.17% reduction in out-of-home placements from 2019 to 2020.  This is attributable both to New Jersey’s statewide prevention network and our ongoing work to preserve families and keep children and parents together in their homes while receiving services.”

Interestingly, a message sent earlier to prospective foster parents gave a different answer. In May, 2020, would-be foster parents received a message saying, “In New Jersey, the number of youth in foster care continues to be reduced each year because we are focusing first on kinship placements,” as quoted in an article by Naomi Schaefer Riley. We asked Mr. Butkowski which explanation was more accurate–prevention and family preservation or kinship placements–but received no answer.

So what is going on in New Jersey? Certainly, foster care numbers have been decreasing. According to the data portal maintained by Rutgers University, annual entries to foster care fell from 5,504 in 2013 to 2,525 in 2019, as shown in the chart below. The rate of decrease in foster care entries became even steeper between 2018 and 2019, with a decrease of 23.7 percent in the number of entries in that one year alone. The total number of children in foster care dropped from a high of 7,775 in May 2014 to 4,463 in February 2020–before the pandemic closures occurred. So what could be causing this drastic decline in foster care placements and caseloads?

Source: NJ Child Welfare Data Hub, available from https://njchilddata.rutgers.edu/portal/entering-placement-reports#

One possibility might be a decline in child abuse and neglect, which Butkowski is implicitly assuming by attributing part of the fall in foster care cases to DCF’s “statewide prevention network.” In that case, one might expect reports to child abuse hotlines to decline significantly. But according to monthly state reports, calls to child abuse hotlines hardly changed between 2014 and 2019, decreasing very slightly from 165,458 to 164,417. Of course we cannot be sure that reports are an accurate measure of child maltreatment; but one might expect a significant reduction in hotline calls if a large reduction in maltreatment were occurring.

DCF’s Butkowski also credited the agency’s work to “keep children and parents together in their homes while receiving services” as a reason for declining foster care entries. It is true that most substantiations of abuse or neglect do not result in foster care. Instead, DCF works with many families in their homes to help them avoid future maltreatment. But DCF has been emphasizing in-home services for years. Of all the children who were under DCF supervision in foster care or in-home services, the percentage receiving in-home services rather than foster care was 84.7 percent in May 2014 and 90 percent in February 2020. So children were somewhat more likely to receive in-home services in 2020 than in 2014, but the difference was small and not likely to explain the big fall in the foster care rolls.

So with hotline calls basically unchanged, and only a slight increase in the emphasis on in-home services, how did New Jersey manage to reduce its foster care entries by almost half in six years? One can think of the child welfare process as a funnel, starting with referrals, the child welfare term for hotline calls. As we discussed, those have fallen only slightly. Only some referrals are screened-in and accepted for investigation; many are rerouted or receive no action because hotline workers determine that they do not concern abuse or neglect. But a reduction in screened-in referrals is not part of the explanation for New Jersey’s drop in foster care placements. New Jersey reported that 60,934 referrals were screened in in FFY 2019, compared with 59,151 in FFY 2013–a slight increase.

The next step in the child welfare funnel is investigation, and here the count shifts from the number of referrals to the number of children. According to data submitted to New Jersey to the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and published in Child Maltreatment 2019, the number of children receiving an investigation in New Jersey increased slightly from Federal Fiscal Year (FFY 2015) to FFY 2019–from 74,546 to 78,741. However there was a stunning drop in the proportion of these children who were found to be abused or neglected (known as “substantiation” in the child welfare world). In FFY 2015, 13.0 percent of the children who received investigations (or 9,689 children) were found to be abused or neglected. In FFY 2019, only 6.5 percent of the children receiving investigations (5,132 children) were found to be victims of maltreatment. In other words, among the children who were involved in investigations, the proportion who were found to be maltreated dropped by half. Similarly, the number of children found to be maltreatment victims dropped by 47 percent. (This is very similar to the 44.6 percent decrease in foster care entries between those years shown in the Rutgers data portal cited above).

Note: The substantiation rate is the number of children found to be maltreatment victims divided by the number of children who were the subject of CPS investigations. Data are from Child Maltreatment 2019, available at https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/documents/cb/cm2019.pdf

It turns out that aside from Pennsylvania, which is not comparable to other states because it does not report on most neglect allegations, New Jersey had the lowest rate of substantiation per 1,000 children of all the states in FFY 2019. Only 2.6 children per 1,000 were found to be maltreated, compared to a national rate of 8.8 children per 1,000. In FFY 2015, this rate was 4.9 per 1,000 children in New Jersey–almost twice as high.

How did the number and percent of children found to be victims of child maltreatment drop so much in New Jersey over a four-year period, despite little decline in hotline calls? We asked DCF this question but received no reply. In the notes it submitted to ACF with its 2019 data, DCF acknowledged a decrease in the number of substantiated victims of maltreatment and stated that this is consistent with a continued trend–but provides no explanation. Perhaps policy or practice has changed to make it more difficult to substantiate abuse or neglect, through a change in definitions or in the standard of proof, or perhaps in training or agency culture. But such a change was not mentioned either by Butkowski or in DCF’s submission to ACF.

Let us revisit DCF’s previous message to foster parents saying that “In New Jersey, the number of youth in foster care continues to be reduced each year because we are focusing first on kinship placements.” This is an interesting statement because it implies that these kinship placements are not through the foster care system. It is important to understand that children can be placed with relatives in two ways. A child can be found to be a victim of maltreatment and placed with a relative, who becomes licensed as a foster parent. In New Jersey, 1,619 foster children (or 41 percent of the 3,951 children in foster care) were living with licensed kinship foster parents in November 2020. But these children are included in the state’s count of children in foster care, so they cannot account for the caseload drop. DCF must have been referring to something else.

Perhaps DCF’s earlier message to foster parents referred to the agency’s increasing use of a practice called “kinship diversion.” As described in an issue brief from ChildTrends, kinship diversion is a practice that occurs during an investigation or an in-home case when social workers determine that a child cannot remain safely with the parents or guardians. Instead of taking custody of a child, the agency facilitates placing the child with a relative. If this occurs in the context of an investigation, kinship diversion may result in a finding of “unsubstantiated” even when abuse or neglect has occurred, on the grounds that the child is now safe with the relative. We have no idea how widespread this practice is in New Jersey or nationwide since neither New Jersey nor other states report the number of these cases. However, the system of informal kinship care created by diversion has been called America’s hidden foster care system and nationwide it appears to dwarf the provision of kinship care within the foster care system.

There are many concerns about kinship diversion, as described in an earlier post: caregivers may not be vetted or held to the same standards as foster parents; they and the children they are caring for do not receive case management and services; they do not receive a foster care stipend and may have to depend on much-lower public assistance payments; there is nothing preventing caregivers giving children back to the parents without any assurance of safety; and parents are not guaranteed the due process rights and help with reunification that come with having their children in foster care. Because of the various concerns around kinship diversion, litigation has been filed in several states challenging this practice.

There is one other possible explanation that comes to mind for DCF’s foster parent surplus–dropping foster care rolls due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We removed data from the time of the pandemic from the above discussion to avoid confounding its effects with those of policy and practice changes but we need to ascertain whether the pandemic’s impact on calls to the hotline has affected entries into foster care. As in most states, hotline calls in New Jersey fell sharply in the aftermath of school closures and other pandemic measures. The number of child maltreatment referrals between March (the onset of school closures and quarantines) and November 2020 (the last month for which data are available on the DCF website) was 98,306, compared to 131,344 in the same period of 2019–a drop of 25 percent, based on monthly reports from DCF. It is likely that fewer calls from teachers now teaching virtually were a major factor behind this drop in hotline calls.

Entries into foster care also fell sharply in the wake of the pandemic. Foster care entries dropped from 1,949 in March through November 2019 to only 1,211 in the same months of 2020–a drop of 37.9 percent–which may have reflected in part the reduction in hotline calls and in part the continuing decrease in foster care entries that we have described. But the number of children in care did not drop nearly as much as entries into care. Between February and November 2020, the total number of youth in care decreased only 11 percent from 4,463 to 3,951. This drop is surprisingly low–in fact it is less than the decrease in the foster care caseload during the same months of 2019 (16.1 percent). The small size of this caseload decline reflects the fact that foster care exits dropped even more than foster care entries. Exits from foster care dropped from 2,754 in March through November 2019 to 1,661 in the same months of 2020. That is a drop of over 1,093, when the drop in foster care entries was “only” 738.[1] As a result, it appears that the number of children in foster care was higher, rather than lower, due to the pandemic. Therefore, it does not appear that the pandemic contributed to the decline in demand for foster parents.

One might expect to hear expressions of concern, or at least interest, in the recent precipitous drop in the number and rate of substantiations and in the foster care caseload from the court-ordered monitor charged with ensuring that New Jersey’s child welfare system is fulfilling its mission of protecting children. Since 2006 New Jersey has been operating under a settlement agreement in a lawsuit filed in 1999. The Court Monitor is Judith Meltzer, Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP). In its most recent report, CSSP praised DCF for maintaining its progress toward meeting all the benchmarks required to exit the lawsuit, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. Ironically, the report mentions DCF’s progress in “Prioritizing Safety.” The report does not mention the precipitous drop in foster care entries or substantiations before the pandemic or the fact that the state is turning away prospective foster parents.

New Jersey may be the first state to have stopped accepting applications for foster parents, and the reasons cited by DCF do not seem to explain this unusual event. Careful study of DCF data shows that the rate at which allegations of abuse or neglect are substantiated has been cut in half, and that there has been a similar reduction in entries into foster care. This cut in the substantiation rate could be due to policy or practice changes making it harder to confirm child maltreatment or it could be due to an increased tendency to place children with relatives without establishing officially that maltreatment has occurred. Without an adequate explanation from the state, the extent to which either of these factors is driving these trends is unknown. It is imperative to know the explanation of this trend to ensure that DCF’s new policies and practices are not compromising its mission of keeping children safe.

[1]: Reasons for this drop in foster care exits may include court shutdowns and delays and suspension of services parents need to complete their reunification plans.

Declining child abuse? The misuse of data in child welfare

Lowest number of maltreatment victims in five years, crowed the Administration on Children and Families (ACF), summarizing its annual report, Child Maltreatment 2019. Child welfare newsletter The Imprint eagerly repeated the claim, claiming that the Number of Child Abuse and Neglect Victims Reached Record Low in 2019. The venerable Child Welfare League of America followed suit in its Children’s Monitor saying “Data Shows Decline in Child Abuse in FY2019.” It is only by reading the report that one learns that the decline was not actually in the number of victims of abuse or neglect. Instead, it was a decline in the number of children who were found by Child Protective Services (CPS) to be abused or neglected, which is not the same thing at all.

Child Maltreatment, the Children’s Bureau’s annual report on child abuse and neglect, is based on data from the states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico collected through the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS). Child Maltreatment 2019 is based on data from Federal Fiscal Year (FFY) 2019, which ended September 30, 2019. (Note that these data reflect the year before the inception of the coronavirus pandemic.) Displayed below is a summary of four key national rates reported by ACF between 2015 and 2019. The first indicator shown is the referral rate, which describes the number of calls and other communications describing instance of child maltreatment per 1,000 children. Next is the screened-in referrals rate, which includes referrals that are passed on for investigation or alternative response. Once screened in, only some reports are referred for investigation, and the third set of bars represents children who received an investigation per 1,000 children. The fourth group shows the rate of children found to be abused or neglected–or those who received a substantiation. Let us go over these numbers in more detail.

*Note that Investigation and Substantiation Rates are based on number of children, not referrals
Source: Child Welfare Monitor tabulation of data from Child Maltreatment 2019, available from
https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/documents/cb/cm2019.pdf

Total referrals: A referral is a call to the hotline or another communication alleging abuse or neglect. In 2019, agencies received an estimated total of 4.4 million referrals, including about 7.9 million children. The “referral rate” was 59.5 referrals per 1,000 children in FFY 2019. This rate has increased every year since 2015, when it was 52.3 per 1,000 children. It is worth noting that the referral rate differs greatly by state, ranging from 17.1 referrals per 1,000 children in Hawaii to 171.6 per 1,000 children in Vermont, as shown in the report’s state-by-state tables. These differences in referral rates may stem from cultural differences regarding the duty to intervene in other families, differences in publicity for child abuse hotlines and ease of reporting, or temporal factors like a recent highly-publicized recent child abuse death.

Screened-in referrals (reports): A referral can be either “screened in” or screened out because it does not meet agency criteria. In FFY 2019, agencies screened in 2.4 million referrals, or 32.2 referrals per 100,000 children. This was a decrease in the rate of screened-in referrals per 1,000 children after three straight years of increases. This percentage of referrals that were screened in varied greatly by state, ranging from 16 percent in South Dakota to 98.4 percent in Alabama. States reporting a decrease in screened-in referrals gave several reasons, such as a change in how they combine multiple reports and a decision to stop automatically screening in any referral for a child younger than three years old.

Children who received an investigation (child investigation rate): Once a report is screened in, it can receive a traditional investigation or it can be assigned to an alternative track, which is often called “alternative response” or “family assessment response.” (Two-track systems are often labeled as “differential response.”) This rate represents the number of children who received an investigation as opposed to an alternative response. Only an investigation can result in a finding of abuse or neglect; an alternative response generally results in an offer of services. Like the referral rate, the investigation rate increased from 2015 to 2018 and then decreased in 2019. This rate also varies widely between states and over time. Some states eliminated or expanded their differential response programs in 2019, resulting in more or fewer investigations, as described in the report.

Substantiation: A “victim” is defined in NCANDS as a “child for whom the state determined at least one maltreatment was substantiated or indicated; and a disposition of substantiated or indicated was assigned for a child in a report.” The report’s authors refer to the number of such children per 1,000 as the “victimization rate.” But clearly substantiation does not equal actual victimization. The difficulty of making a correct decision on whether maltreatment has occurred is well-documented. Stories of families with repeated reports that are never substantiated or not confirmed until there is a serious injury or even death are legion. So are reports of parents wrongly found to be abusive or neglectful. Therefore, we have chosen to use the term “substantiation rate” instead of ‘victimization rate.” This rate varies greatly by state, from 2.4 per 1,000 children in North Carolina to 20.1 in nearby Kentucky.[1] The national substantiation rate in FFY 2019 was 8.9 per 1,000 children, down from 9.2 per 1,000 in FFY 2019 and FFY 2015. States reported a total of 656,000 (rounded) victims of substantiated child abuse or neglect in FFY 2019–a decline of four percent since 2015.

So does this decline in the number and rate of substantiations really connote a decline in child abuse and neglect? The range in substantiation rates among states argues against this idea. Unless states differ by almost a factor of 10 in the prevalence of child abuse and neglect, these numbers must reflect factors other than the actual prevalence of maltreatment. And indeed the report’s authors acknowledge that “[s]tates have different policies about what is considered child maltreatment, the type of CPS responses (alternative and investigation), and different levels of evidence required to substantiate an abuse allegation, all or some of which may account for variations in victimization rates.” Changes in these policies and practices can account for changes in these rates over time. Moreover, changes in all the earlier stages of reporting, screening, and assignment to investigation or alternative response contribute to changes in the substantiation rate. In 2019, screened-in referrals and investigations per thousand-children both decreased, which clearly contributed to the decrease in the substantiation rate.

It is interesting to note that while referrals increased every year between FFY 2015 and FFY 2019, both screened-in referrals and investigations decreased in FFY 2019. This suggests a general tendency among states to be less aggressive in responding to allegations of maltreatment, perhaps in accord with the prevalent mindset among child welfare leaders nationally and around the country, as discussed below.

Understanding the difference between “victimization” and “substantiation” and the many possible causes of a decrease in this rate reveals the deceptiveness of ACF’s statement that “[n]ew federal child abuse and neglect data shows 2019 had the lowest number of victims who suffered maltreatment in five years.” Lynn Johnson, the HHS assistant secretary for children and families, is quoted in ACF’s press release as saying that “[t]hese new numbers show we are making significant strides in reducing victimization due to maltreatment.” Unless Johnson and the ACF leadership intended to mislead, it appears they are woefully ignorant of the meaning of these numbers.

Most regular leaders of this blog already know why ACF wants to support the narrative of declining child maltreatment. The current trend in child welfare policy, regardless of political party, is to oppose intervention in families. Republicans who oppose government spending and interference in family life have made common cause with Democrats who think they are reducing racial disparities and supporting poor poor families by allowing parents more freedom in how they raise their children, even if it means leaving children unprotected. Members of both parties came together to pass the Family First Act, which encoded this family preservation mindset into federal law.

Child Welfare Monitor has pointed out many other instances where ACF or by other members of the child welfare establishment in the interests of supporting the family preservation mindset. For example, we wrote about the Homebuilders program, which was classified by a federally-funded clearinghouse as “well-supported” despite never having been proven effective for keeping families together. In fact, Homebuilders had to be classified as well-supported because it was one of the key programs touted by ACF and others in promoting the Family First Act and other policies promoting family preservation.

So if ACF’s “victimization” data do not in fact tell us what is happening to abuse and neglect rates, what else is available? We call on Congress to pass an overdue re-authorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and include a fifth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect. Data for the last study was collected in 2005 and 2006; it is high time for an update which should put an end (at least temporarily) to the misuse of NCANDS data as an indicator of trends in child maltreatment.

President Biden has called for ending a “culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.” We hope that ACF under its new leadership, as well as the rest of the child welfare establishment, will take these words to heart and commit themselves to truth and transparency from now on.

[1]: Pennsylvania has a substantiation rate of 1.8, even lower than that of North Carolina, but in Pennsylvania, many of the actions or inactions categorized as “neglect” are classified as “General Protective Services” and not included in the substantiation rate, making its data not comparable to that of the other states and territories.

[2]: Massachusetts did not provide data on FFY 2019 child maltreatment fatalities.

What can happen when a child is left in an abusive home: the sad case of Lisa Montgomery

Lisa Montgomery: Mercury News.com

Many Americans recall the horrific case of Bobbie Joe Stinnett, who in 2004 was strangled to death, her belly sliced open, and her baby removed. There is no doubt that the perpetrator was Lisa Montgomery, who brought the baby home, announcing that she had given birth. What most of us don’t know about is the nightmarish childhood that led to Ms. Montgomery’s crime, and the extent to which family members and authorities knew of her suffering and did not take action.

On January 12, Lisa Montgomery is scheduled for execution–the first woman to be executed on federal death row for 70 years. In a hearbreaking op-ed published by the New York Times, writer Rachel Louise Snyder explains Lisa’s hellish upbringing and the multiple failures that allowed the torture to continue.

As Snyder describes, Lisa Montgomery was born to a family “rife with mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression.” Lisa’s father left the family when she was a toddler. Her family moved once a year or more, spending time Washington, Kansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma. Lisa’s mother, Judy Shaughnessy, abused her “in extreme and sadistic ways,” according to interviews with nearly 450 family members, neighbors, lawyers, social workers, and teachers. She was forced to sit in a high chair for hours if she did not finish her food. Her mouth was covered with duct tape so frequently that she learned not to cry. According to her mother, her first words were: “Don’t spank me, it hurts.”

Lisa’s older half sister, Diane Mattingly, told Elle Magazine that Lisa’s mother hit them with brooms and belts. She forced Diane to eat raw onions until she cried and once stripped her naked and put her out of the house in freezing temperatures, telling her not to come back. She made nightly trips to a bar, leaving the girls with “babysitters” who raped Diane, whose “sole purpose in life” was to protect her little sister. At the age of eight, Lisa lost her sole protector when Diane was removed from this home and placed in foster care with a loving family. Diane reports that she vomited all the way to the foster home, knowing the fate that awaited four-year-old Lisa without her protection.

Lisa’s stepfather, Jack Kleiner, a “rampant alcoholic,” began to assault her sexually when she was about 13. He built a “shed-like room” next to the family’s trailer in Tulsa Oklahoma and kept her there. He brought friends over to rape her, “often for hours, often three at once.” As if that was not enough, Lisa’s mother began to prostitute her to pay household bills.

When she was 18, Lisa married her 25-year-old stepbrother, the son of her mother’s fourth husband, who also raped and abused her. By the age of 23 she had four young children (whom she in turn abused and neglected) and suffered from episodes of mania and psychosis. She eventually remarried. In the years before her crime, she repeatedly claimed to be pregnant and then to have lost the baby–despite the fact that she had been sterilized after the birth of her fourth child. One week before Christmas in 2004, Lisa Montgomery arrived at a meeting she had set up with a pregnant dog-breeder, Bobby Jo Stinnett, ostensibly to adopt a puppy. Instead, she took Stinnett’s life and left with her child.

Lisa Montgomery most likely suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and by the time she was arrested for her crime she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder, psychosis, and traumatic brain injury. Scans of her brain showed damage and abnormal patterns in the areas responsible for regulating social and emotional behavior and memory, which can be affected by trauma. Her “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACES) score was 9 out of 10 and global functioning score showed “severe impairment in daily activities.”

Perhaps the most shocking information in Dr. Snyder’s article is the extent to which many people in authority knew of her abuse and did nothing.

  • Lisa’s older sister was sent to foster care due to abuse or neglect, but there was no help for Lisa. In any child welfare system, Lisa’s life should have been investigated as well. If she was not removed, her family should have at least been monitored. (Her sister says she was afraid to say anything to her foster parents, not wanting them to know of her history of rape and abuse for fear they would send her away. She has regretted this decision for all her life.).
  • An A student in elementary school, Lisa was placed in special needs classes in middle school. An administrator thought this academic deterioration might be due to “deep emotional trauma” but it appears that the school took no action to uncover or report the underlying cause.
  • As a teenager, Lisa told her cousin, a deputy sheriff in Kansas, about being raped by Kleiner and his friends. He told investigators that he knew she was telling the truth and still regrets taking no action.
  • When Lisa’s mother divorced Jack Kleiner, she forced Lisa to testify about the rapes for their divorce proceedings. The mother sat unmoved during Lisa’s testimony. A social worker found Lisa’s claims believable and turned the file over to the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office, where no action was apparently taken.

It is difficult to understand how so many people in positions of authority knew about Lisa’s plight and did not interfere. The family’s repeated moves from state to state may have been part of the answer, as by the time a pattern was observed the family might have been gone. The events are too far in the past to determine who failed and why. But Lisa’s fate is a cautionary tale against ignoring any suspicion of child abuse.

Sadly, many child welfare leaders and advocates are currently recommending that state intervention in abusive and neglectful families be scaled back or even eliminated, just one more swing of the national pendulum on child welfare. There are concerns about the tendency for teachers and community members to over-report minor concerns that do not rise to the level of abuse. There are also criticisms that some systems are too quick to remove children from their homes instead of trying to help the parents take better care of their children. A new coalition calls for the elimination of “the forcible surveillance and separation of children from their parents.”

Lisa’s case tells us why we must not eliminate mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect. If anything, we need to enhance training for mandatory reporters in order to increase the reporting of real maltreatment while reducing unnecessary reports. However, given the extreme costs of continuing abuse, it is better to tolerate some frivolous reports than to miss future Lisa Montgomerys.

Nor do we want to eliminate the forcible removal of children from their homes, as some child welfare critics propose. Rather, in the words of former child welfare administrator BJ Walker, systems must learn “to differentiate between the small fraction of parents who have neither the skill nor will to keep children safe [like Judy Shaughnessy], and those who have the capacity to learn, and overcome existing vulnerabilities and limitations.”

Lisa’s story is particularly timely now because abused children are more isolated than ever while school buildings in many places are closed due to COVID-19. Reports to child abuse hotlines dropped drastically around the nation as schools closed, but there is reason to believe that the job loss, deaths, and social isolation caused by COVID-19 have led to increases, not decreases, in child maltreatment. Who knows how many Lisas are suffering in silence now?

Studies have documented the relationship between child abuse and many of the adverse outcomes endured by Lisa Montgomery, including brain damage, diminished executive functioning and cognitive skills, poor mental and emotional health, post-traumatic stress, and adult criminality. Ending the suffering of children should be enough reason to require reporting and investigation of child maltreatment, the huge costs to society of severe child maltreatment provide another incentive to make sure severe maltreatment is found and stopped. If Lisa Montgomery could have been saved, Bobbie Joe would have been saved as well.

Note to my faithful readers: Please excuse the long gap in time since my last post. I’ve been busy working on my local blog, Child Welfare Monitor DC. That blog contains posts that are specific to the District of Columbia but may be of interest to observers of child welfare around the country. Please check it out and consider subscribing!

America loses champion for a child-centered child welfare system

GellesRichard Gelles, one of the nation’s leading child welfare experts, died late in June of brain cancer, as reported by the Chronicle of Social ChangeGelles’ death deprives the nation of one of its leading child welfare scholars, and one of the few remaining spokespersons for a child centered approach to child welfare.

Richard Gelles played an important role in the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1996 through the publication of  The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children’s Lives. This book told the  story of a 15-month old boy who was murdered by his abusive mother. David’s parents had an open child welfare case when he was born, due to their severe abuse of his sister Marie when she was six weeks old that left her with lifelong disabilities.  While Marie was still in foster care, the parents were reported to the child abuse hotline twice for abusing David. In closing their investigation without removing David or opening a case, agency workers ignored two huge red flags–the grievous injury to six-week-old Marie and the failure by her parents to comply with the agency’s reunification plan, resulting in the termination of their parental rights to their daughter. Three and a half months after the case was closed, David was dead.

According to Gelles, David’s death could be traced to the doctrine requiring that agencies make “reasonable efforts” to keep or reunite abused and neglected children with their parents. Without any definition or timeframe, efforts to keep children like David with their birth parents often cross the line separating reasonable from unreasonable. Gelles argued that David’s death could also be traced to “the larger ideology behind ‘reasonable efforts,’ ‘the sacrosanct belief that children always (or nearly always) are better off with their biological parents.”

In his testimony at a 1995 Congressional hearing, Gelles argued that the current obsession with family preservation should be replaced for a “child centered child welfare system” where abused and neglected children would longer remain for years in abusive homes, nor would they languish for years in foster care. Instead, the goal of a child-centered child welfare system would be “to terminate parental rights, when appropriate, quickly enough so that (1) children are not permanently harmed, physically or psychologically, and {2) make children available for adoption earlier enough in their lives so that they are ‘adoptable.'”

Gelles’ perspective was incorporated into several changes made by ASFA, as described by  former Hill staffer Cassie Statuto Bevan in an Urban Institute compilation on ASFA ten years after its passage. The requirement for “reasonable efforts” was moderated by requiring that such efforts must maintain the child’s health and safety as the “paramount concern.” Moreover, a  deadline was placed on reunification efforts, requiring a state to file for termination of parental rights after a child had been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months. ASFA also allowed states to bypass reasonable efforts altogether in extraordinary cases, such as when parents have committed a felony assault resulting in serious injury to the child or another child–clearly an exception that could have been applied in David’s case.

While it appears that ASFA has resulted in shorter stays in foster care as Gelles hoped, the impact of the provisions designed to protect children from dangerous parents appears to have been less than their authors hoped. Agencies make frequent use allowable exceptions to the 15-month time limit for termination of parental rights and rarely use the provisions that allow them to forego reunification plans. In order to make the system more child-centered, these provisions should be strengthened. Unfortunately, we seem to be going in the opposite direction.

There is a groundswell of attacks against ASFA,  with critics claiming that 15 months is not enough time for with problems like drug addiction to address them, especially if services are not immediately available. Some critics even denounce the law as racist because they say it penalizes black parents, ignoring the needs of black children for safety and permanency. Contrary to the child-centered perspective Gelles promoted, these advocates prioritize parents’ rights over children’s needs to be placed in a loving home quickly enough to avoid permanent damage and early enough in their lives to be likely to be adopted.

In The Book of David and in his testimony, Gelles also criticized the investment of a billion dollars in unproven “intensive family preservation programs” to keep families together. These new programs, such as the well-publicized Homebuilders, were intensive, short term, crisis intervention services designed to address parental behaviors that are putting their children at risk. Gelles pointed out that there was no research evidence to support the success of intensive family preservation programs at preventing foster care placements, let alone keeping children safe–which was not even evaluated. And from a theoretical perspective, Gelles pointed out that intensive family preservation programs would be effective for only those families with a low level of risk and a high level of readiness to change. To assume that these services could work for all maltreating families was unrealistic. 

Sadly, the same programs that were supported without evidence in the 1980’s are being supported again with more baseless claims of research support. As reported in a recent post, Homebuilders is once again being promoted as effective in keeping families together, although the research is no more convincing than that of the 1980s. Recently Homebuilders was approved as a best practice that can be funded by the Family First Act, based on only two studies. One of the studies focused on a program that did not follow the Homebuilders model and worked only to reunify families already separated by foster care—not prevent foster care placement which is the main purpose of Family first. The second was a study of Homebuilders family preservation programs and according to its authors failed to demonstrate any favorable program impacts. 

Why invest in a program that has failed to document success over several decades of research? The renewed push for family preservation has once again taken over the child welfare world. With the passage of the Family First Act, allowing billions in funding for programs that keep families together, there is a desperate need for programs to spend that money on. The federal clearinghouse established to approve programs for this purpose has demonstrated that its standards for calling a program “well-supported by the evidence” are low indeed. And that is not surprising, since there are few such programs that have been shown to be effective in helping abusive and neglectful parents change longstanding and often intergenerational patterns. And so the story starts again.

As we face increased backlash against ASFA and increased incentives to spend billions of dollars on unproven family preservation programs, Richard Gelles’ keen analysis and advocacy for children will be greatly missed.

 

 

Schools and agencies should reach out to at-risk children before schools close

COVID reportingThe COVID-19 pandemic is having a disastrous effect on the systems designed to protect children from abuse and neglect, as discussed in an earlier post. With children being isolated from teachers and others who might report suspicions of maltreatment, a  drastic decline in calls to child protection hotlines has been reported nationwide. This decline calls for equally drastic measures to identify at-risk children before schools close for the academic year.

The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis has given rise to widespread fears of increasing child abuse and neglect, as well as domestic violence. The stress imposed by job and income loss, unmet basic needs, school closures, and fear of sickness all are likely to lead to increases in child abuse and neglect. Older children who are too young to care for siblings safely may be nevertheless left in charge. Research suggests that child abuse increases during natural and economic disasters and the current crisis combines both.

Reports from emergency rooms suggest that the fears about increased child abuse are warranted. Hospitals in Texas, Florida, Philadelphia, Maryland and Washington DC have reported more children coming to emergency rooms with serious child abuse injuries, such as head trauma and fractures, that require hospitalization. A spokeswoman for the American College of Emergency Physicians told the Washington Post that members “nationwide have reported treating more serious injuries in a week than they are used to seeing in a month.”

At the same time as abuse and neglect appear to be increasing, social distancing is separating children from the professionals and others who might notice abuse or neglect and report it to authorities. As a result, calls to child abuse hotlines around the country have dropped drastically since the national lockdowns began. Child Welfare Monitor has collected reports of drops in the number of hotline calls from 37 states and the District of Columbia, most of which are reporting decreases of 50 percent or more.

The drop in child abuse and neglect reports is not a surprise. The largest source of such reports is education staff, who made 21 percent of such reports around the nation in 2018 according to federal data. With schools closed, some children are in contact with their teachers  through video apps, where signs of abuse or neglect are harder to spot than in person. But that is the best case. Not all schools are using video applications to run virtual classrooms (known as “synchronous” education) and relying instead on “asynchronous” teaching methods where teachers record lessons and post assignments, which students in turn email or upload.

Whatever the nature of online education, many children are participating sporadically or not at all. The New York Times heard from many teachers around the country that fewer than half of their students were participating. Not surprisingly, participation has been lowest in schools with many low-income students, who often lack access to computers and the internet. These are the same students who are most likely to be victims of abuse or neglect. Many systems, in conjunction with internet providers, have distributed computers and made free internet available to families that lacked these resources but it is not clear how successful these efforts have been in bridging the digital divide.

Despite the reduced access to students, many teachers are making special efforts to monitor their most vulnerable students.  The Washington Post reported on a teacher in Virginia who added a pop-up prompt to her power-points asking children how they are feeling on a scale from red (awful) to orange to yellow to blue (perfect). Staffers for Danville County Virginia public schools who are delivering meals to students try to take the opportunity to engage with families and lay eyes on the children.  Teachers are still making reports to hotlines, although certainly these reports are fewer in number. For example, as reported in Child Welfare Monitor DC, teachers made 30 percent of the 897 hotline calls received by the Child and Family Services Agency between March 16 and April 18 of this year, as compared to 52 percent of 2,356 hotline calls during the same period of 2019.

Aside from teachers and education personnel, other important reporting sources also have less access to children during this crisis situation. This includes medical personnel, who are seeing few children for routine appointments, as well as friends, family members, and neighbors.

Once schools close for the summer, the best opportunity to identify children at risk of maltreatment will be gone. Therefore, we urge schools and child welfare agencies to work together to identify these children before schools close for the summer.  School personnel could  make efforts to reach all students who has not been in regular contact with their teachers via telephone, text, email, or other means available.  Any student that they cannot reach even after several tries using more than one method could be referred to child protective services to be contacted through a home visit if necessary.

One official who has seen the need for action has been Sheriff Alex Villanueva of Los Angeles County, which has seen a 50% decline in calls to its child maltreatment hotline since the lockdown began. The county has been the site of numerous deaths of children known to the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), including the death of Gabriel Fernandez, which was the subject of a widely viewed documentary. Stating that “We do not want another Gabriel Fernandez,” Villanueva announced a plan to have patrol officers check up on high-risk children who  have not been in contact with their schools. Apparently the Sheriff was planning to reach out to schools reminding them of their mandatory reporting duties and announcing that deputies would be available to do welfare checks on children for whom schools express concern.

The Sheriff’s plan was rejected by DCFS on the grounds that sending uniformed officers to check on families without a specific allegation of abuse or neglect would only exacerbate their stress and not necessarily improve safety for children, as DCFS Director Bobby Cagle told the Los Angeles TimesChild Welfare Monitor agrees that police officers might not be the most appropriate professionals to do these welfare checks.  But instead of rejecting the idea of reaching out to these children and their families, DCFS could have worked with the schools to identify and reach out to these students, as suggested above.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. While child welfare agencies would not normally consider sending out workers to check on children with no specific allegation of abuse or neglect, it is crucial that we take advantage of the quickly disappearing window of opportunity to reach children that have not been in regular touch with their teachers during the societal lockdown. Child welfare agencies should work with schools to identify these children before schools close, leaving abused and neglected children completely at the mercy of their caregivers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Impact of coronavirus on child welfare: a one-sided federal view

afScreen Shot 2020-04-18 at 12.58.40 PM.pngThe coronavirus is affecting every aspects of the child welfare system and its ability to achieve its three major goals–safety, permanency and well-being. In our last post, Child Welfare Monitor discussed the threat posed by social distancing to the safety of abused and neglected children who are not involved with the child welfare system. For children in the system, especially those who are in foster care, the disruptions posed by the response to the coronavirus pandemic pose a great threat to their hopes for permanency. Two top officials of the federal Children’s Bureau have expressed great concern about the effects of the crisis on permanency and their hopes that the states will prioritize family reunification both during and after the period of social distancing. Unfortunately, their formulation of the issue reveals a one-sided analysis of the problem. Moreover, they seem to have no interest in the safety of children trapped in their homes with abusive or neglectful parents.

Federal officials have rightly expressed their concern that the coronavirus pandemic will extend some children’s stays in foster care. There are three major reasons this might happen, as described in an excellent article in the Chronicle of Social Change. Services to parents, such as mental health, drug treatment, and parenting skills programs, are threatened by the pandemic. Some may have shifted to virtual services, but not all parents have the technological wherewithal to participate. Other services might not be provided at all. Secondly, reunifications must be ordered by a court, and courts have been drastically affected by the crisis. Most court buildings are closed; many are conducting virtual hearings but only for hearings deemed essential and able to be conducted virtually.

Third and perhaps most important, most visits between children in foster care and their parents have become virtual, conducted through apps like Facetime or Skype. But virtual visits are difficult with infants and young children, and for older children they cannot substitute for extended visits. Moreover, virtual visitation does not allow the normal progression from shorter and supervised visits to longer unsupervised ones, culminating in reunification as parents are able to prove that they can manage the children for extended periods of time.

The timelines written into law by the Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA) could result in termination of the rights of parents who through no fault of their own were unable to comply with their court-ordered case plans. These timelines require that a state must file a petition for Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months, with certain exceptions. If these timelines were strictly interpreted, the COVID-19 crisis could result in the termination of many parents’ rights because they would have been unable to complete services or demonstrate appropriate parenting skills by the end of the 15 months.

It must be noted, however, that the ASFA timelines are often honored more in the breach than in the observance even in normal times. The law allows them to be exceeded if there are “compelling reasons” to determine that TPR is not in the best interests of the child. Under these auspices, many parents have been given much more time to work toward reunification. As a social worker in the District of Columbia, this writer saw numerous cases in which children were reunified with their families after much more than 15 months in foster care.

Last week, the Chronicle of Social Change published an impassioned column by Jerry Milner, associate commissioner of the U.S. Children’s Bureau and his special assistant, David Kelly. Milner and Kelly argue that the virus itself should not be a reason to keep parents and children apart.

Despite our strong preference that all measures be taken to continue in-person family time for children in foster care and their parents and siblings, there will undoubtedly be instances where such family time is not provided. In some instances that may be appropriate due to the presence of the virus in the resource family home or home of the parent. In many more instances, there will be no known safety threat.

It appears that Milner and Kelly are advocating for in-person visits whenever there is no virus in the home of the foster family or birth parent. Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia became the focus of ridicule when he claimed on April 1 to have just discovered that as much as 25 percent of those with coronavirus might have no symptoms but still transmit the virus to others. Perhaps Milner and Kelly not yet learned about that finding. Moreover, one wonders what they would suggest if their recommendation resulted in the wholesale desertion of foster parents afraid of the risks of exposing the children in their custody to one or more family members each week.

Down the road, when families begin to bump up against their ASFA time limits, Milner and Kelly urge states to make use of the statutory exception allowing them not to file for TPR if there is a compelling reason to believe such filing would not be in the best interests of the child. That may be a reasonable prescription in many cases, considering how often this justification is used even in normal times. However, Milner and Kelly go on to anticipate attempts by unnamed nefarious forces to “use the crisis to serve their own interests or those of their constituencies. There will be those whose implicit or even explicit biases are drawn out into the light.” Thus, Milner and Kelly continue the practice of calling anyone who prioritizes the rights of children over those of their parents as racist, as Child Welfare Monitor pointed out in an earlier post.

Milner and Kelly take the opportunity to argue against the ASFA permanency timeline, arguing that it was “more the result of negotiation than what we know about the importance of parent-child relationships, recovery and trauma.” Yes, the ASFA timeline was the result of political forces, but in the opposite way from that claimed by Milner and Kelly. The earlier drafts of AFSA contained shorter timelines for younger children based on what we know about child development. These shorter timelines were eliminated because they would have made the bill impossible to pass.  Milner and Kelly warn that “child development and bonding will be used in arguments not to return children to their parents and to expedite adoptions in instances where families did not have a fair chance.” By denying the importance of bonding instead of acknowledging there is a conflict between two important values, Milner and Kelly betray that their position is based on ideology, not analysis.

Despite their misguided recommendations and hyperbolic statements, Milner and Kelly are right about the threat to timely permanency posed by social distancing and its effects. But they ignore that the social distancing imposed by the coronavirus is having a very different effect on children who have been abused and neglected but are not involved with the foster care system. Although there are strong reasons to believe that abuse and neglect are increasing, reports to child abuse hotlines are down as much as 50 percent around the country because children are not seeing the adults who usually report concerns about child maltreatment, especially school and medical personnel.  This crisis has drawn considerable media attention, as Child Welfare Monitor has described, and states and nonprofits have taken action to publicize the signs of child abuse and urge teachers who see children online and other workers who see children in person to be alert for the signs and ready to report to child protective services hotlines. But even during Child Abuse Prevention Month, Milner and Kelly have nothing to say about this issue and have issued no guidance for states and counties.  It is obvious that their minds are elsewhere.

Two of the major goals of child welfare–safety and permanency–are often in conflict. It takes wise leadership to navigate the narrow channel between endangering and separating them from the parents they love. Sadly, we are not blessed with such leadership on the federal level in these troubled times.

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When social distancing can kill: child protection during a pandemic


NJbridgethegapSocial distancing is essential to break the back of  the coronavirus pandemic. But for children who are at risk of abuse and neglect, social distancing means social isolation and the loss of any hope of rescue from their desperate circumstances. It is important for child welfare agencies to reach out to the general public and those workers still seeing children with special messages about warning signs of maltreatment and how to get help.

For children living in abusive or neglectful homes, the pandemic is a perfect storm. On one hand, abuse and neglect are likely to increase due to parental stress and more time spent together in close quarters due to social distancing. Research suggests that child abuse increases in times of economic or natural disasters.

At the same time as families are under increased stress and spending more time together, children are not being seen by mandated reporters, especially teachers and school staff.  One in five reports comes from education personnel, according to the most recent federal data; hence the annual summer falloff in reports and the uptick every October. Today, almost every school building in the country is closed. While many schools are conducting online classes, the New York Times has reported that fewer than half of students are participating in some schools. Absence from virtual classrooms seems to be especially high in schools with many low-income students, who often lack access to computers and the internet. Some students and parents have completely fallen out of touch with their schools. And these are precisely the students who are more likely to be abused or neglected.

Reports about declines in hotline calls have appeared from almost every state, with calls in dropping often by half and in some jurisdictions by as much as 70 percent since schools shut their doors.1 School closures cannot explain this entire decline. Clearly other possible abuse reporters, such as law enforcement, health personnel, neighbors, and family members are seeing less of children as well.

At the same time, there is reason to think that child abuse is increasing during the pandemic.  A three-year-old Fort Worth boy who died from “severe child abuse” on Easter morning was the third child in less than a month to die at Cook Children’s Hospital, according to the hospital. Since March 13, eight children have been admitted to the hospital for severe child abuse and three have died. The hospital normally sees six child abuse deaths in an entire year. The Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital in Orlando, has seen a spike in child abuse cases. According to the medical director, the hospital normally sees one or two trauma cases a month. But in the last few weeks, eight children were brought to the hospital with severe injuries due to abuse. At Children’s National Medical Center in Washington DC, 86 percent of children coming to the Emergency Room with injuries suggesting child abuse between March 15 and April 20 had to be hospitalized compared to 50 percent in the same period of last year.

Ironically, April is Child Abuse Prevention month, when government and nonprofit agencies work to increase public awareness about child abuse and neglect and the need to report it. Unfortunately, a recent study casts doubt on the effectiveness of public education efforts to date. A nationwide survey conducted during the pandemic found that a large majority of Americans are not willing to report excessive physical punishment to the police or CPS. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC)  surveyed 1,004 adults nationwide on March 27 to 29, in the midst of the crisis. They found that only 19% of adults say they are “very likely” to report a parent who is “excessively spanking or physically punishing their child” to child protective services. Only 36 percent of adults say they are very likely to contact the police if they see a stranger doing the same thing. Among the reasons given for their unwillingness to report, 68 percent of respondents cite that it might make things worse for the child, 35 percent cite the risk to their own family, and 30 percent say it is “none of my business.”

These survey results, with or without a pandemic, are frightening.  As Mary Pulido of NYSPCC puts it, “If what you see in public is enough to even make you think about calling the authorities, think of what that child could be enduring at home, behind closed doors.” But these results should not be surprising to those who are aware of past cases of egregious child abuse which were not reported despite obvious red flags.  For example, the media has reported on the failure of family and neighbors to report major concerns about treatment of the 13 Turpin children, who were imprisoned, starved, and physically abused by their parents over many years. 

What we know about the reluctance of people to report their concerns about children’s treatment suggests the need for a much more concerted effort for the long-term. Such an effort should be led by the federal government and implemented at the state and local levels. It should aim to increase knowledge of the signs of child abuse and neglect and convince citizens that it is their obligation to report, as described in an earlier post. Such a campaign would be more powerful if all citizens were required to report when they fear that a child is being harmed.

For this time of pandemic, we cannot hope for an immediate sea-change in attitudes, but governments can integrate messaging about child abuse and neglect into their communications with the public about the pandemic. Special efforts should be made to encourage teachers who are interacting with students online and other essential workers who have contact with children and families. Sadly, the federal Children’s Bureau has not issued any guidance to states and and counties resources and suggestions for how to do this. Such leadership has been left to state and local governments and nonprofits.

In a Call to Action for State Governors, CHILD USA, a national think tank focused on child protection, suggests that Governors should add to all their COVID updates a reference to the need for all adults to be alert for signs of abuse and neglect, along with how to reach the child abuse hotline. Special campaigns such as  #bridgethegap in New Jersey, may be helpful as well. As shown in the poster above, the public is reminded that “It IS your business. Everyone in New Jersey is a mandated reporter.” Readers should reach out to their government executives to urge them to incorporate such messages into their communications with the public. 

Special materials targeted to teachers and other staff may be helpful as well. New Jersey has produced a special message for education personnel asking them to “try to get ‘eyes on’ every child at least once a week.” Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services, in partnership with the Department of Education, has also issued guidance for educators, health care providers and community members for spotting and responding to signs of child maltreatment.

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CHILD USA has issued a list of Tips for Teachers on Child Welfare and Online Safety during COVID-19. This helpful document lists questions to ask students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels to assess their physical safety, online safety, and whether they are getting enough to eat. It also lists key items for teachers to look for when seeing their students online, such as the appearance of the student and the home, and things that the student might say.  And it suggests special efforts to monitor students with issues with drug abuse, mental illness or domestic abuse in their families. All child welfare agencies should ensure that their local school systems distribute this checklist to their teachers.

The document from CHILD USA does not say what teachers should do when they are unable to reach a child and their family, which is probably the case for many of the children most at-risk of maltreatment. Jurisdictions should consider the possibility of treating the inability to reach a child and family after several tries over several days as grounds for a teacher to call the child abuse hotline.

teachersCOVID

States and counties might also try to enlist the only people who are seeing children regularly other than their immediate families–grocery and pharmacy workers and mail carriers. A representative of the Allegheny County Department of Children Youth and Families told a reporter that the agency “plans to pivot its awareness campaign” to focus on these workers. They plan to make sure the workers get the message that “if you see something, say something.” A grassroots campaign run by former child welfare workers in Arizona is also trying to contact the people who are still seeing children, including grocery workers, delivery services, and food banks.

As Angelina Jolie wrote in Time Magazine, “We were underprepared for this moment because we have yet to take the protection of children seriously enough as a society.” This is a major problem which needs to be addressed for the long term, so that next time there is a crisis, we will have a society that is ready to keep its children safe in spite of physical isolation.

This post is being updated daily during the coronavirus crisis include new information.

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When school is safer than home: school closures, home schooling and child abuse

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Takoda Collins’ home: WDTN.com

Among the many frightening consequences of the coronavirus epidemic is one that has received little attention from the media. The loss of school as a safe place and school staff as a second set of eyes on children means an  increase in unreported child abuse and neglect. For home-schooled children, however, this vulnerability is the normal state of affairs.

School closures have a double-edged effect on child maltreatment. First, children are spending more hours with their parents without the respite that the school day affords to both.  Second, these children are isolated from teachers and other school staff who might have noticed bruises or other signs of trauma. According to the latest federal data, one-fifth of calls to child abuse hotlines come from school staff, making education personnel the largest single report source. School staff are such important reporters of suspected child maltreatment that reports to child abuse hotlines typically go down every summer and increase when students return to school. During the coronavirus epidemic, we have already learned of drastic reductions in calls to the child abuse hotline in Los Angeles, Connecticut and Georgia.

As we worry about the impact of school closings on both child abuse and its reporting, it is important to note that one population of children never benefits from the protective role of schools. About 1.8 million children, or 3.4 percent of the school-aged population, were homeschooled in America in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available. Clearly most of their parents are not abusive and want to provide the best education for their children, often at great personal sacrifice.

Nevertheless, for a small proportion of these children, homeschooling provides an opportunity for their abusive parents to prevent their abuse from being detected. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education has collected 456 cases of severe or fatal child abuse in homeschool settings. Many of the families had a history of past child abuse reports and child protective services (CPS) involvement. All too often, the homeschooling began after the closure of a CPS case.

Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate, in a stunning report, revealed that 36% of the students withdrawn from six districts to be homeschooled between 2013 and 2016 lived in families that had least one prior accepted report of child abuse or neglect. The majority of these families had multiple prior reports. In a landmark 2014 study of child torture cases by pediatricians from five medical centers, 29 percent of the school-aged children studied were not allowed to attend school while another 47 percent were removed from school under the pretext of homeschooling, typically after the closure of a CPS case.

From time to time, an egregious case of abuse of a homeschool child makes headlines and and leads to public calls for monitoring or regulation of homeschooling families. One tragic example was the death of ten-year-old Takoda Collins, in Dayton, Ohio on December 13, 2019. Takoda was tortured, raped and murdered by his father. School officials stated that school staff reported their concerns over Takoda’s safety 17 times over several years.  It was only days after the last report that Takoda’s father pulled him out of school under the pretence of homeschooling.

As Takoda’s art teacher told the Dayton Daily News, “I think his father just got tired of us calling him and calling Children Services because people had been calling for years.”  Now Dayton teachers are asking their legislators to require some scrutiny for children who are pulled out of school after they have been the subject of abuse reports.

Raylee Browning died on December 26, 2018 in West Virginia of sepsis after drinking from the toilet after being deprived of water for three days. When Raylee died, she had bruising, burns and lacerations and a torn rectum. She had been removed from school after multiple reports by school staff expressing their concerns about physical abuse and starvation.  H.B. 4440, sponsored by Del. Shawn Flaherty, would prevent parents from withdrawing a child from school to homeschool them when there is a pending child abuse or neglect investigation, and when a parent has been convicted of domestic violence or child abuse or neglect.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, an organization that works to protect homeschooled children from educational neglect and maltreatment, has three recommendations to protect home-schooled children from abuse:

  • Forbid homeschooling by parents who have been previously convicted of any offense that would disqualify them from teaching or volunteering in a public school. Only Pennsylvania currently has such a provision.
  • Flag at risk children–such as those with a history of child-abuse reports–for additional protections and supports.
  • Require that homeschooled students have contact with mandatory reporters once a  year.

Sadly, such laws are often proposed in the wake of egregious cases but fail in the legislature due to vociferous opposition from the homeschool lobby. In Ohio, the death by abuse of another homeschooled boy led to introduction of  Teddy’s Law, which would have required annual interviews of homeschooled children and their parents with social workers, checks to see if homeschool applicants had pending investigations, and delays or denials of permission to homeschool under some circumstances. The bill produced a national outcry from homeschool advocates, including death threats to the sponsors. After entire nation was rocked by the rescue of the 13 Turpin children in California from their imprisonment in a house of horrors that was registered as a home school, two bills to institute protections for homeschooled children failed as well. Similar attempts to protect children after deaths, near-deaths and egregious abuse of homeschooled children failed in Iowa and Kentucky and doubtless many other jurisdictions.

As described in the Washington Post Magazine, the Home School Legal Defense Association is one of Washington’s most effective lobbying groups  – and the current political climate  is in their favor. State homeschooling advocates are vocal as well. The Homeschool Legal Defense Fund is fighting Raylee’s Law and calls it “unconstitutional, un-American, and unnecessary.”

The school closures will eventually end, and we can only hope that the repercussions will not be dire for many children. When they do end, let us not forget those children who remain isolated even after COVID-19 is a bad memory. All children must be protected from maltreatment, even if their parents elect to school them at home.

 

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez: an all-too familiar story

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Image: Facebook.com

On February 26, Netflix released a heartbreaking series, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez.  Directed by Ben Knappenberger, the series centers on  the horrific death of an eight-year-old boy in the Antelope Value of California on May 24, 2013. Gabriel Fernandez died after eight months of torture by his mother and her boyfriend. Despite repeated reports to the child abuse hotline and the Sheriff’s Office, multiple investigations, and even an open family services case, there was no rescue for Gabriel. It was only after his death that the story of his last eight months and the inexplicable failure of the police and social services were revealed.

I wrote about Gabriel’s story in November 2018 in a post entitled, Why No One Saved Gabriel Fernandez. But The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez uses the power of video to bring the case alive in a way that is difficult to do in writing. The unusually calm voice of a mother tells a 911 operator her son is not breathing. An ambulance flies through the late-night streets, carrying an eight-year-old who had been resuscitated by the EMT’s and again in the ambulance and will stop breathing twice more in the ER. A little boy with injuries to almost every part of his small body, which will, in spite of all the heroic efforts by doctors and nurses to save him, finally shut down.

So begins The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. In six excruciating but riveting episodes, The Trials tells the story of the Los Angeles Times investigation into Gabriel’s life and death, the trials of his murderers, and the unsuccessful attempt to hold accountable those professionals who failed him. Times reporter Garrett Therolf recounts learning of the eight-year-old’s death in a crime blog and wondering about the circumstances, being faced with self-protective wall secrecy and stonewalling imposed by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and hearing from  a whistleblower who risked his job to reveal the truth. The prosecutor wheels into court the shockingly small cabinet where Gabriel spent his nights bound and gagged. Isaurro Aguirre sits impassive as a parade of witnesses describe the sweetness of Gabriel and the unspeakable nature of his injuries. Gabriel’s teacher fights back tears as she tells how she contacted CPS every time Gabriel arrived in school with increasingly bizarre and severe injuries. The partner of Gabriel’s uncle tells of the three-day-old infant they took home from the hospital because his mother did not want him, his growth into a joyful four-year-old, who was then raised by his grandparents for the next four years until he was returned to his mother for the welfare money. A bewildered social worker sheds tears of fear for her own future, claiming she had no idea anything was wrong in Gabriel’s home.

I identified two major systemic issues that could have been behind DCFS’ failure to rescue Gabriel. One of these issues–the focus on family preservation at all costs–was addressed in the documentary. The other issue–that of resources–was not. As Garrett Therolf put it in a brilliant article in The Atlantic, child welfare requires a balancing act between child safety and family preservation. Finding this difficult balance requires a highly trained workforce with the resources to carry out a thorough investigation in every case.” Overworked, undertrained, and underpaid social workers simply cannot do it.

Gabriel’s case was far from unique, as the documentary made clear. Two weeks after Isaurro Aguirre was sentenced to death for his murder of Gabriel, and Pearl Hernandez was sentenced to life without parole after taking a plea deal to avoid the death penalty, another little boy was dead of abuse in the Antelope Valley. Ten-year-old Anthony Avilas was allegedly killed by his mother and her boyfriend. His torture and abuse appeared to be motivated at least in part by homophobia, as in Gabriel’s case. And there was a long history of interactions with authorities with no help forthcoming for Anthony. Soon enough news arrived that a four year old named Noah Cuatro had died under similar circumstances in the Antelope Valley. Around California, over 150 children who were known to DCFS have died of abuse or neglect since Gabriel died, as reported in the documentary.

But this is not a California story alone. These cases happen all over the country. The Commission on Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities estimated that a third to a half of the child maltreatment fatalities around the country involved families known to Child Protective Services. I write have written about some of these children whose cases made it to the mass media: Zymere Perkins in New York City,;Matthew Tirado in Connecticut; Adrian Jones and Evan Brewer in Kansas; the six Hart children in Minnesota, Oregon and Washington; Jordan Belliveau in Florida; and most recently Thomas Valva in New York. All were the subject of reports and investigations, and sometimes service cases, but all were allowed to die at the hands of murderous caretakers.

The power of video to bring about public awareness is truly awe-inspiring. Normally my posts are read mainly by academics, child advocates, and child welfare professionals. On February 27, I started to notice some unusual traffic on my blog. Between February 27 and the early morning of March, my posts on Gabriel, Anthony, Noah and other children failed by the state had been viewed over 2000 times. If only the public could keep up this level of interest –perhaps even follow my blog–and insist on adequate funding and an end to the wall of secrecy around child welfare services, we might be able to save the next Gabriel Fernandez.

 

The murder of Thomas Valva: Another innocent child betrayed by Family Court and CPS

Thomas Valva funeralIt’s happened again. Another child is dead after being removed from a loving mother and placed with an abusive father. Another child is dead after more than 20 reports from school officials concerned about his treatment at home. Another child is dead after a judge and child protection workers made the wrong decisions over and over again.

On January 17, as reported by Newsday and other media outlets, police responded to a 911 call at the home of NYPD Officer Michael Valva and his fiancee Angela Pollina in East Moriches, Long Island. The caller stated that eight-year-old Thomas Valva, who had autism, had fallen in the driveway. Police soon learned that there was no fall in the driveway. The night before he died, Thomas and his brother were forced to sleep on the concrete floor of their family’s unheated garage, while outside temperatures fell to 19 degrees, Thomas’ body temperature was 76 degrees at the time of his death in the hospital. A chilling recording obtained by the police records the father mocking his dying son, who repeatedly fell when trying to walk, jeering that he was”cold, boo-[expletive]-hoo.” Valva and Pollina were arrested and charged with second-degree murder, among other crimes. They have pleaded not guilty and are being held without bail.

The facts stated above are clear, but the chronology below had to be pieced together from multiple articles in the media, each containing part of the puzzle. Many questions still remain.

The Family Court Places Thomas in Harm’s Way

A decision by Nassau County Supreme Court Judge Hope Schwartz Zimmerman in the divorce case between Thomas’ parents set the stage for the tragedy. On September 17, 2017, she took Thomas and his two brothers away from their mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, and placed them with their abusive father and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, who also had three girls. Based on court records obtained by Eyewitness News reporter Kristin Thorne, the judge had ordered forensic evaluations of both parents, a normal procedure in a custody case. But Justina Zubko-Valva, Thomas’ mother, refused to be interviewed by the psychologist without being able to tape the session. Due to the “sensitive nature of the testing materials,” the evaluator refused this request and the evaluation was not done.

It is not clear why Zubka-Valva insisted on a videotape of the interview, but she has indicated on Twitter and elsewhere her conviction that there was a conspiracy against her. She and her children paid a high price for her choice. The judge told the court, according to the court papers obtained by Eyewitness News, that “There’s certain things that have to be done in terms of preparing this case for trial … and until that happens I can’t have the trial. So I’m awarding temporary, temporary custody of the children to the father.” The Judge’s reasoning is unclear from the quotes provided by Eyewitness News, but the most plausible explanation is that she gave custody to Valva in order to pressure Zubko-Valva to submit to the evaluation. If that was her goal, it was certainly improper (as children should never be treated as tools to gain a parent’s compliance), and it certainly did not achieve its intended effect.

Ms. Zubko-Valva was by most accounts a devoted mother.  She trekked daily to Manhattan to bring her autistic sons to a special school. Struggling to provide for her children with minimal support from Mr. Valva after their separation, she had taken a job as a correctional officer to make ends meet and keep them on the same health insurance plan as they had before.  Dr. Kim Berens, a behavioral psychologist who worked with the boys told the Daily Beast that Ms. Valva “one of the one of the most loving, caring, devoted mothers I’ve ever met.” The children’s pediatrician and the neuropsychiatrist who examined both boys also praised Ms. Valva. Judge Zimmerman never got to hear from them thanks to Ms. Zubko-Valva’s own refusal to submit to the court-ordered evaluation.

CPS Seals Thomas’ Fate

The decision to place Thomas with his father opened the door to his murder, But it was the egregious failure of Nassau County Child Protective Services (CPS) over the succeeding two years that sealed Thomas’ fate.  After Valva and Pollina gained custody of the boys, they were apparently able to coach them to accuse their mother of abuse. By October 2017, Zubko-Valva was being investigated for child abuse. It appears that CPS actually substantiated the trumped-up charges and brought her to “trial”1 for abuse. The charges were dismissed in April 2018. Thus, the “temporary, temporary” custody stretched to become a long-term arrangement as Ms Zubko-Valva was apparently denied even visitation with her children once the abuse charges were filed or substantiated by CPS.

In the meantime, calls began streaming in from the boys’ school public school, where Valva had moved them from their special program in Manhattan immediately upon gaining custody. The New York Daily News obtained records of “some 20 calls” from Thomas’s teachers while he was living with Valva and Pollina. The calls reported that Thomas and his brother Anthony, who is also autistic, missed school for two or three days at a time, showed signs of physical abuse, and often arrived in school hungry and dirty.

The Daily News found that at least one abuse allegation (that Thomas had a black eye) was substantiated against Valva and Pollina but that CPS concluded that it did “not rise to the level of immediate or impending danger of serious harm. No controlling interventions are necessary at this time.” Another report alleged that Anthony had been coming to school with his backpack soaked in urine. “As a result of the child being soaked in urine, he has a foul odor and he is extremely cold,” the report continued.

Another call reported that Thomas had a welt on his forehead caused when Michael Valva threw a backpack at him. The report continues that Valva “refused to let the two boys be interviewed at school, where they might have felt freer to speak, or to allow the other children in the home to be interviewed.” However, the New York State Child Protective Services Manual states that if CPS is refused access to the home or to any child in the household “the CPS worker, in consultation with a CPS supervisor, must assess within 24 hours of the refusal whether it is necessary to seek a court order to obtain access.” Allowing an abusive parent to deny access to his children effectively neutralizes CPS’s ability to investigate. Why did CPS fail to follow its own procedures?

At least one allegation apparently resulted in CPS monitoring Valva  for a year under a court order that also required him to take parenting classes and “refrain from harmful activities,” according to Newsday. This order was apparently imposed by Suffolk County family court judge, Bernard Cheng, who was also presiding over the child abuse trial of Zubko-Valva, according to the Daily News. (The divorce case with Judge Zimmerman was in Nassau County Supreme Court). But the case closed and the children were left to their fate. It appears that Judge Cheng sensed that something was badly wrong in the Valva household but felt his hands were tied. The Daily News cites the Judge expressing concern in February 2019 about several issues:

  • Anthony arrived at an interview walking bent over at the waist and complaining his backside was sore. His school reported that he arrived with injuries so severe from beatings that officials needed to ice down his buttocks and upper thighs. Judge Cheng indicated that Anthony said that  “his father told him to say he does not get hit at his house.”
  • Ten-year-old Anthony had lost six pounds in one month, and Thomas gained just four pounds in the 12 months of 2018.
  • Teachers at the boys’ school told investigators that the children could not concentrate due to hunger and were looking for food in garbage cans or off the floor.
  • In his April 12 decision dismissing the charges against Ms. Zubko-Valva, the Judge stated that he found the father’s denials of abuse “less than credible,” since his testimony changed when he was asked for more detailed accounts.

But, despite expressing all of these serious concerns, the judge took no action to protect the boys. The attorney for CPS argued at the February hearing that the concerns brought up were “non-issues.” Judge Cheng disagreed with him, stating that the concerns were valid. He also stated, with more knowledge of child development than CPS, that “deterioration in [Anthony’s] level of functioning suggests that his needs are not being met.” But he said he had to rely on the opinions of CPS investigators. This statement is confusing to this former social worker who has more than once been overruled by a Family Court judge. It is hard to say what is more astonishing: that Judge Cheng was aware of so much credible evidence of abuse and did not order the removal of the children despite CPS’s opinion, or that CPS thought the children should be left in this lethal home.

Justyna Zubka-Valva has custody of her surviving two sons now. She was granted that custody by another judge at an emergency hearing following Thomas’ death. But it was too late for Thomas. Inquiries are underway into Judge Zimmerman’s conduct in the case as well as the actions of CPS.

Why were Thomas and his brothers not protected?

More information is necessary to make conclusions about why the system failed. The factors that affected the court case–Ms. Zubko-Valva’s intransigence and the Judge’s inappropriate response–may be specific to this one case.  But widely-known systemic issues with CPS appear to have played into this tragedy.

High CPS Caseloads: As in many jurisdictions, Suffolk County CPS caseloads are too high, with the average caseload at 17.9 per worker at the beginning of 2019, declining to 12.4 by the end of the year, and several caseworker handling more than 30 cases a month. The Child Welfare League of America recommends that CPS workers carry no more than 12 cases at a time.  In addition, Nassau County CPS workers complain that they spend too much time on paperwork instead of investigating allegations–a complaint that this former social worker heartily endorses.

Making it difficult to substantiate abuse: But the overwhelmed CPS explanation can only take us so far. The head of the union representing social workers told CBS-New York that workers did what they were supposed to do in Thomas’s case but their hands were tied. “You can’t remove a child from a parent without having clear cut evidence as supported by the law that will be upheld by the judicial system,” he said.  It is hard to believe that CPS did not consider it had such evidence–and that makes one wonder if a policy of quelling such findings was being imposed from on high. A chilling comment by Jeanette Feingold, director of Suffolk County Child Protective Services illustrates the issue. At an emotional legislative hearing covered by Newsday, she said “We don’t want to take these children. We want to build these families…. We’re not there to rip families apart.” I’ve written before about the exaggerated emphasis on family preservation that has taken hold in most child welfare systems. But with the mother being the primary parent for most of her older children’s lives, it is hard to understand the preference by CPS for Mr. Valva over his wife. 

The need for an independent review

Multiple reviews of judicial and agency conduct are underway, but they may never be available to the public. Or they may end up whitewashing official conduct, like the recent review of child welfare agency responsibility for  the death of Noah Cuatro in Los Angeles. Needed is an independent agency such as the Inspector General for the Department of Children and Family Services in Illinois, which reviews such cases and publishes detailed summaries that are redacted to preserve the confidentiality of living children and innocent adults.

Some analysts say the focus on fatalities is not useful because they are atypical. I disagree. Fatalities and other extreme cases are the tip of the iceberg that is the total universe of abused children. For every fatality, we have no idea how many other children are living with pain and fear even though child welfare agencies or courts have been alerted. These same judges and social workers operating under the same laws and policies hold the fates of hundreds of other children in their hands every year.

A repeating story in New York

Moreover, this cases are not as atypical as one might think. Within two weeks of Thomas’ death, the deaths of two other little boys from abuse after being abandoned by the state made it to the pages of the New York Times. In New York City, Teshawn Watkins was arrested late in January for murdering his six-week old son, Kaseem, after video was found showing him smothering the infant with a pillow. Now New York City’s Administration on Children’s Services (ACS) is facing questions about why the infant was not protected despite his father’s known history of abuse. It turns out that not only was Watkins arrested twice for assaulting the baby’s mother, but he has been investigated four times for child abuse, including a broken leg suffered by one of his two other sons. The two older brothers (now ages 3 and 4) were actually placed in foster care until the police found no evidence of the infant’s abuse. Watkins is being held without bail on Riker’s Island, where ironically Justina Zubka-Valva is a correctional officer.

In the same week, the ACS’ failure to protect another little boy was on display: Rysheim Smith was convicted for the murder of six-year-old Zymere Perkins after ACS disregarded numerous reports that the little boy was repeatedly injured and in constant danger from his mother’s violent boyfriend.  The case shocked the city in 2016 and led to a raft of reforms that apparently failed to protect tiny Kaseem. The New York Times reported on Smith’s conviction for killing Zymere on January 15, Thomas’ death on January 24, and baby Kaseem’s death on February 7. All of the articles were by different reporters. Nobody at the paper seems to be putting the pieces together to expose what appears to be a crisis of children abandoned by the state.

We need to pay attention to these egregious cases for at least two reasons. Only by finding out what went wrong in these cases  can we know how to change policy and practice to prevent future tragedies. But we also need accountability. I’m tired of hearing that we don’t want to punish people or create a climate of fear. It’s not about punishment. It’s about removing people who should not have custody over children’s lives.

This post was updated on February 13, 2020.

 

 


  1. The term “trial” connotes what is called a “neglect trial,” not a criminal trial.