Why America needs an Interstate Child Abuse and Neglect Registry

HeavenWatkinsOn May 18, 2018, a little girl named Heaven Watkins was found brutally beaten to death in her  home in Norfolk Virginia. Three months earlier, Heaven was hospitalized with third-degree burns that kept her in the hospital for six days and required skin grafts. Child Protective Services in Norfolk was reportedly called but they decided not to intervene to protect Heaven.

Investigations from KARE 11 in Minneapolis and 13News Now in Norfolk revealed that Heaven  was removed from her parents four years before in Minnesota due to concerns about physical punishment, sexual abuse, drug sales and guns in the home. Virginia DSS has refused to tell reporters whether its workers knew of the family’s history in Minnesota. The haunting question is whether Virginia would have done more to protect Heaven had they known of her history in Minnesota.

Heaven was not the only child in the care of a parent who was known to Child Protective Services in another state. A 2012 report by The Oregonian  discussed several other children who died of abuse after investigation that did not unearth their family history in other states. Heaven’s story has triggered renewed calls for an interstate registry of child abuse and neglect. Had a registry existed, Virginia would have known the troubled history of this family and might have opted at least to provide supervision if not to remove the children.

The establishment of an interstate registry of child abuse and neglect was actually mandated more than a decade ago by the same legislation that mandated the national registry of sex offenders. Section 633 of the Adam Walsh Child Safety and Protection Act of 2006 required the Secretary of Health and Human Services to create a national registry of substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect. Yet this registry was never created.

Congress never appropriated funds to establish the registry but it did designate funds for a feasibility study that was also mandated under the act. A Research Report on the feasibility study and a report to Congress based on the results were published in 2012–six years after passage of the Act. The conclusions of the report were somewhat discouraging as to the potential benefits of a national registry. But interestingly, the underlying research reports had a much more positive view of the feasibility and potential benefits of the registry.

In the report to Congress, HHS  emphasized the barriers to developing a functional registry. These include the Adam Walsh Act’s prohibition on including any information other than the perpetrator’s name, the need for stronger due process requirements in some states if the database were to be used for employment checks (which is not the purpose envisioned by the statute), the need to provide funding or other incentives for states to participate, and the need for legislative changes in many or most states. These are serious barriers indeed but could be addressed, albeit with new legislation and funding that would not be trivial to obtain.

Unlike HHS, the authors of the feasibility study addressed the barriers but gave first billing to the conditions that allow for the development of a registry. In the final paragraph of the research report states that “The foundations for a national registry already exist in the child protective services field given that nearly all States maintain the necessary data on child abuse and neglect perpetrators. The technical capacity of the States also supports the feasibility of a national registry.” The authors go on to discuss the barriers, but give first billing to the conditions that support the registry.

In its report to Congress, HHS concluded that even if the barriers to an interstate registry could be resolved, the registry would provided limited information “beyond what is already available from existing single state registries” and therefore “the added safety benefit of a national registry of child maltreatment perpetrators would be quite limited.” HHS concluded that a decision on whether to implement the registry should “consider whether this or alternative child safety investments would be most effective in promoting the well-being of vulnerable children.” The clear implication was that alternative investments would be advisable.

HHS drew its conclusion about the limited safety benefit of a registry from the prevalence study mentioned above. The researchers used the numbers of perpetrators with incidents in more than one state to estimate how many interstate perpetrators would be identified by a registry.  Using information from 22 states with about 54% of the U.S. population, the researchers estimated that 7,852 perpetrators of child maltreatment in 2009 (or 1.5% of all substantiated perpetrators) had any substantiated maltreatment incidents in another state within the preceding five years.

HHS  described 7,852 as a small number, and therefore concluded that there was  “no evidence of a widespread phenomenon of child maltreatment perpetrators who offend in multiple states.” Moreover, HHS added that most of these perpetrators had “a single additional substantiation for child neglect (rather than for physical or sexual abuse) in a single additional state.” Moreover,  just half of one percent of child maltreatment deaths in states participating in the study was attributed to a perpetrator who had a substantiated maltreatment report in another state (4 in total).”

HHS’ interpretations suggest a low valuation of children’s lives and freedom from suffering. Almost 8,000 interstate perpetrators in a year could be considered a large number, even if most of them were substantiated for neglect and not abuse. The downplaying of neglect is a common trope among critics of CPS intervention. but neglect can be equally dangerous and often coexists with abuse that may not be substantiated.  “Just” four deaths in one year is a hard description to stomach while wondering if even one of these deaths could have been prevented with an interstate registry. Moreover, each death implies an unknown but larger number of injuries, and even more children living in pain and fear.

While dismissing the prevalence study’s estimates as “small,” HHS failed to mention the conclusion in a separate report on the prevalence study that the number of positive matches from states’ use of a fully functioning national registry would be much larger than the estimates above would indicate. That’s because the registry would be most commonly used during an investigation before a substantiation decision has been made, and the investigators would be  looking for a substantiation in just one state. Therefore, the researchers concluded that the registry would likely yield “several times the number of matches” that the study found for interstate predators.

HHS also downplayed the benefits found by the Key Informants Survey–the other part of the feasibility study. Of the 36 states participating in the Key Informants Survey, 25 states said participating in a national registry would save time, and 22 states thought it would “provide more timely knowledge that would be useful in assessing child safety.”  The authors of the research report concluded that “There appears to be significant interest in a national registry, primarily because States already have to inquire about possible prior perpetrator status from multiple States.” In the report to Congress, on the other hand, HHS did not report that there was significant interest by states’ in a registry. Instead, the agency reported that survey results indicated that the primary benefit of the registry would be to save time, and then cautioned that this time-saving benefit might not occur.

Similar to the key respondents, the authors of the feasibility study concluded that an interstate registry might be most useful in saving staff time and resources “resulting from the speed and efficiency of making all interstate inquiries, the vast majority of which will not find a match.” The authors added that this could enhance child safety due to faster processing of maltreatment cases. This conclusion was not included in the report to Congress.

Of course an interstate registry could not be produced quickly or on the cheap. Creating and activating it would be a multiyear effort that would have to begin with the amending of the authorizing legislation to include at least sex and date of birth in addition to perpetrator’s name. Many states would need to change their legislation as well in order to eliminate statutory barriers to participation. As the authors of the feasibility study indicated, convincing a “critical mass of states” to participate quickly might require incentives, such as funds to offset costs for initiating a registry. Clearly, an infusion of federal funds for this purpose would be a necessary incentive.  Perhaps Congress could make participation in the registry mandatory in order to receive federal child welfare funds under CAPTA or better still the Social Security Act.

It is concerning that HHS under the last Administration produced such a distorted view of the Congressionally-mandated feasibility study of an interstate child abuse and neglect registry.  It is my hope that this issue can be revived in the current Congress, perhaps as part of the reauthorization of CAPTA. Our children deserve no less.

 

 

Why No One Saved Gabriel Fernandez

Gabriel Fernandez
Image: LATimes.com

On September 13, 2018, a Los Angeles County judge denied a motion to dismiss felony child abuse and falsification of records charges against four former child welfare caseworkers in the 2013 death of ten-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.  The charges, filed in 2016, marked the first time Los Angeles caseworkers were criminally charged for misconduct connected with their work, and is one of only a few similar cases nationwide.

If Gabriel’s case is one of the few child deaths to result in prosecution of state workers, the egregious nature of the state’s failure explains why. A brilliant article by investigative reporter Garret Therolf shows that for seventh months, evidence of Gabriel’s abuse steadily accumulated. Yet again and again, the Los Angeles Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) failed to intervene. Some of the worst errors are listed below.

  • Gabriel’s mother had been the subject of at least four calls to the child abuse hotline, had abandoned one child, and had lost custody of a son a year older than Gabriel. Yet, this record was never reviewed by workers investigating multiple reports of suspicious injuries to Gabriel.
  • Each time investigators came to the home, they interviewed Gabriel and his siblings with his mother in the room, against agency policy and common sense. And each time they did so, he recanted his previous statements. Even after he came to school with his face full of bruises from being shot by his mother with a BB gun, he recanted and told the investigator the injuries were from playing tag with his siblings. In the face of visible evidence, the investigators repeatedly chose to believe the repeated recantations
  • Investigators never spoke with neighbors or school personnel (other than the teacher who reported the abuse) but according to Therolf the abuse was known widely among school staff.
  • A computer program had found Gabriel to be at “very high risk” of abuse, requiring that the case be “promoted,” usually involving asking a court to require services or foster care. But the investigator, backed up by her supervisor, referred Gabriel’s mother to voluntary family services. Gabriel’s mother Pearl Fernandez withdrew from these services after three visits.
  • During the brief period of voluntary services, Gabriel wrote several notes saying he wanted to kill himself. Gabriel’s therapist informed the caseworker and supervisor, but they took no action.
  • The therapist had grown concerned that Gabriel was being abused, but her supervisor told her not to call the hotline so as not to jeopardize the mother’s participation in the voluntary case.
  • After three visits, Pearl Fernandez asked for her voluntary case to be closed. The caseworker accepted her decision, stating that there were no safety or risk factors for the children. Contrary to policy, her supervisor signed off on the case closure without reading the file.
  • After the case was closed, a security guard at the welfare office saw Gabriel covered with cigarette burns and other marks and being yelled at by his mother. The called DCFS twice and got lost in the automated system. The 911 operator gave him the non emergency line, which he called. He was later told that a sheriff’s deputy had gone to the home and seen nothing wrong.
  • Gabriel’s teacher, who had lost hope of any rescue from DCFS, called the DCFS investigator one more time late in April when Gabriel showed up looking worse than she had ever seen him. One eye was blood-red, skin was peeling off his forehead, and other marks were on his face, neck and ear. Her call was never returned. Gabriel had only about a month left to live.

Investigators later learned that during the weeks before his death, Gabriel  was spending days and nights locked in a cabinet with a sock in his mouth, hands tied, a bandanna over his face, and handcuffs on his ankles. His solitude was interrupted by vicious beatings and torture sessions in which his siblings were required to participate. On May 22, Pearl and Aguirre tortured Gabriel a final time with a BB gun, pepper spray, coat hangers and a baseball bat. When they finally called 911, paramedics found two skull fractures, broken ribs, several teeth knocked out, BB gun pellet marks, cigarette burns on his feet and genitals, a skinned neck, and cat feces in his throat.

Therolf poses a key question regarding Gabriel’s death: “Was [the] failure …to protect Gabriel an isolated one—the fault of four employees so careless and neglectful that they allowed a child to suffer despite a series of glaring warning signs? Or was it a systemic one, the result of a department so ill-equipped to safeguard children that tragedies were bound to happen?”

While Therolf does not actually answer the question, his report offers a number of key findings and insights that point strongly in the direction of systemic factors as the prime contributors to the failure to protect Gabriel. Therolf found that many of the errors made by investigators, such as failure to interview children alone or to speak with witnesses outside the family, were prevalent in Los Angeles County. Sadly, many of the same failures were evident in the very recent case of Anthony Avalos, also in Los Angeles. And we also see similar failures , and in cases around the country, including Kansas, New York, and Oregon.

The systemic factors that cause these failures fall into two major categories–resource constraints and ideological factors.

Resource Constraints

Child welfare involves a balancing act between too much intervention  or “erring on the side of child safety” as Therolf puts it and too little or “erring on the side of family preservation.”  Striking this critical balance requires a combination of  knowledge, skill, and time. In other words, as Therolf puts it, “it requires a highly trained workforce with the resources to carry out a thorough investigation in every case.” Therolf rightly contends that most agencies don’t have these resources. One has only to read the constant stream of news reports of overwhelming caseloads and poor training of child welfare workers around the country. All of this reflects the unwillingness of taxpayers and legislatures to provide what is needed to protect children. Inadequate funds mean caseloads are too high and salaries are too low, both resulting in low standards for caseworkers.

More funding and could buy both lower caseloads and higher salaries, which are necessary to obtain more qualified investigative workers. After reading so many similar stories, and recalling my own rudimentary training as a Child Protective Services (CPS) worker I am beginning to think that ultimately CPS Investigation should be a specialty in Masters in Social Work Programs. Students would learn advanced interviewing skills and how to assess the truthfulness of children and adults rather than, for example, believing children when they recant allegations with their parents in the room.  Alternatively, CPS Investigations could be folded into the growing field of Forensic Social Work. In any case, a Masters-level specialization could be required in order to be a CPS worker, also adding a needed level of prestige to an important, difficult and hard-to-fill  job.

Ideological Constraints

Inadequate resources might result in a random distribution of agency errors between those that involve too much intervention and those that involve too little. But the dominance of a particular ideology may skew the errors in one direction or another. And Garrett Therolf alludes to the rise of an ideology prioritizing family preservation nationwide and particularly in California during the years preceding Gabriel’s death. This ideology contributed to the decline in foster care numbers around the nation and particularly in Los Angeles, where Therolf reports the number of children in foster care fell from about 50,000 in 1998 to 19,000 in 2013. Much of this decline occurred during the tenure of DCFS administrator David Sanders, who later went on to lead Casey Family Programs, a foundation worth over two billion that has played an outsize role in national child welfare policy. The same year that Sanders took over at Casey, it declared a new goal to reduce the number of children in foster care by half by 2020.

Therolf was right to point a finger at Casey Family Programs. In my post about the death of two children by child abuse in Kansas, I wrote about how Casey leverages its massive wealth to affect policy directly, bypassing the voting public. It provides financial and technical assistance to state and local agencies, conducts research, develops publications, and provides testimony to promote its views to public officials around the country. Through its wealth in an underfunded field, Casey has been able to directly influence policy at the federal, state, and local levels.

Therolf points out that opinions on child welfare often cut across traditional political groupings. While Casey tends to support progressive causes, its emphasis on family preservation is often shared by conservatives who desire to reduce the government’s incursions on parental authority and at the same time to reduce spending. Working together, Casey and the George W.  Bush administration created a waiver policy that allowed child welfare agencies to direct unused foster care funds toward family preservation services–a policy change which created an incentive to reduce the use of foster care. Therolf links this incentive to the drastic decline in the Los Angeles County foster care rolls between 1998 and 2013, stating that “When Gabriel came to the attention of DCFS, the chances of an abused child being placed in foster care were “lower than they’d been in many years.”

Perhaps all of the factors that led up to Gabriel’s death can be summed up by a striking statement by the supervisor on Gabriel’s case, who is currently standing trial in Gabriel’s death. He told Therolf that he had  “concluded long ago that some of the children who depended on the department would inevitably be injured, if not killed.” He expressed frustration that administration and the public expected him to prevent all such deaths. This is not an acceptable attitude. It is true that a child welfare agency cannot prevent deaths among children who are unknown to the agency. But to expect that children will die under the agency’s watch–that is a low expectation indeed. We must do better by our most vulnerable children.

 

 

Sibling Separation: An Unintended Consequence of the Family First Act?

siblings.pngI recently read a book that should be a must-read for all involved in child welfare policy. In Etched in Sand, Regina Calcaterra tells of being left at the age of eleven to care for her two younger siblings while her mother disappeared for weeks at a time. When she was home, her mother savagely beat the children. Chronically malnourished and living in fear, Calcaterra was responsible for feeding, clothing, and protecting her younger siblings–and making sure they looked clean and well-fed so as not to draw the attention of the authorities who might place them in foster care.

Despite her horrific childhood, the goal of Regina and her older siblings, as she said in an interview for Youtube TV, “was to never to be picked up by the authorities because when the authorities found out how we were living, they would separate us.” When Regina was finally unable to satisfactorily explain the results of a savage beating, the children were indeed taken into care and separated.

No maltreated children should have to hide their plight in order to avoid separation from each other. Yet, this is undoubtedly the situation facing many children even while you read this. I myself know two girls who, for fear of being separated, remained for two years with an uncaring guardian who diverted her guardianship stipend to her own needs. The girls only recently broke the silence, and were removed from this toxic home.

Sibling relationships are known to be critically important in emotional development in childhood and beyond, as documented in a useful publication from the Child Welfare Information Gateway. In abusive and neglectful families, sibling relationships can be even more important as siblings support each other through adverse circumstances.

Keeping siblings together in foster care provides an important element of continuity for children who have already suffered a traumatic removal from the home they had known. As the the brief cited above puts it, “For children entering care, being with their brothers and sisters promotes a sense of safety and well-being, and being separated from them can trigger grief and anxiety.” Some studies have reported poorer outcomes for children separated from their siblings in foster care.

We don’t know how many siblings are separated in foster care. Older studies indicate that a large proportion of foster children were separated from at least some of their siblings, but the proportions varied by location. Current, national data are not available.

In most cases siblings are separated for no other reason than the lack of foster homes that can accommodate siblings, especially larger sibling groups. There is a nationwide shortage of foster parents, but foster parents who are able to take more than two siblings are even more scarce.

In some states, like North Carolina and Florida, family-style group homes have been an important vehicle for keeping siblings together.  Many of these homes, such as Crossnore School and Children’s Home in North Carolina and A Kid’s Place in Florida provide highly enriched services to their residents with the help of public and private philanthropic funding. These homes often use a family-style model based on houseparents that mimics a family home. Group homes are serving sibling groups in many other states, including CaliforniaTexas and New York.

Unfortunately, the recently passed Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) threatens these important havens for sibling groups and may result in mass separations of siblings. That’s because FFPSA eliminates federal funding for placement of children in congregate-care settings such as group homes beyond two weeks, unless an assessment shows that a child’s needs cannot be met with family members or in a foster family home. Moreover, group facilities must meet criteria as “Qualified Residential Treatment Programs” designed to meet the needs of “children with serious emotional or behavioral disorders.”

FFPSA is based on the widely-held belief in child welfare circles that most children do better in a family than in another type of setting. However, experts such as Dave Bundy, President and CEO of the Children’s Home Society of America, believe that it is better to keep siblings together in congregate care than to split them up among separate foster homes.

Moreover, many legislators and executives pressing for closing group homes have much more than children’s best interests at heart. The greater cost of congregate care has clearly contributed to its growing unpopularity and to the bipartisan support of FFPSA. But these comparisons are often deceptive.  Facilities like  Crossnore and the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches provide therapists, case managers, after-school activities, and other services, such as therapeutic riding. Moreover, they bring in substantial private funding in addition to state support. And no matter how expensive they are, they cannot cost more than keeping children in hotels and offices when there are no homes for them, which is happening around the country.

Siblings have already been separated due to the policies against congregate care that have already taken hold in some states. From 2006 to 2015, Sonoma County Children’s Village was a haven for 24 foster children, including sibling groups, who  lived in four homes staffed by “village parents,” with surrogate grandparents living in onsite apartments. But after California began to limit group home placements for children requiring high levels of care, the village had to close.  Sixteen children, including a group of seven siblings, had to leave. The children were devastated. They sent out appeals to the likes of Barack Obama and Taylor Swift, but to no avail.

There is another approach to housing large sibling groups which in practice looks very similar to family-style group homes. Some child welfare agencies contract with private agencies, such as Neighbor to Family in Florida and Georgia, that provide homes where siblings can live together in foster care. Some of these programs actually provide larger houses in clusters or “neighborhoods” to foster parents willing to care for large sibling groups but who don’t have the space. This clustering provides the added benefit of community support and shared facilities for recreation and other activities. Such programs include the SOS Children’s Villages in Illinois and Florida. New homes are currently being built in locations around the country including Oklahoma,  and Southwest Florida. However these programs are too few and far between to make a dent on the national problem of sibling separation in foster care.

Perhaps all the group homes that keep siblings together could eventually be replaced by family foster homes with housing provided by public and private agencies. The feasibility of this approach would have to be investigated; it might be even harder to find good foster parents than it is to find good houseparents, because the latter generally have a schedule that allows time off to return to their own residences, while being replaced by a substitute couple. In any case, such a transition would take years to accomplish and could not occur in the short period preceding the implementation of the FFPSA provisions, which go into effect on October 1, 2019. States can apply for a two-year delay in implementing these provisions but then they must forego the opportunity to received federal matching funds for services to prevent foster care placements. (For a detailed explanation, see the “Cliffs’ Notes on Family First” from the Chronicle of Social Change.)

The sponsors and supporters of FFPSA likely had no idea that sibling separation might be a consequence of their legislation. Once they understand what they have done, I hope they will consider amending FFPSA to make  congregate care allowable for sibling groups and provide a new funding stream to encourage jurisdictions to build foster home communities where siblings can thrive together.

 

No, family separations are not all the same

child protectionThere is an old political adage that you should “never let a crisis go to waste,” meaning that a crisis can awaken public interest and create an opportunity to advance policies that might otherwise be unachievable.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for instance, was able to pass much of his New Deal – including a dramatic expansion of the country’s social safety net via the Social Security Act – in the wake of the Great Depression with the American economy in shambles and the American public desperate for government support.

Unfortunately, in a cruel twist of irony, some child advocates are now using the devastation wrought by the Trump administration’s separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border to advance arguments undermining a key part of the Social Security Act – support for children who cannot be cared for in their own homes.

Several weeks ago, Sherry Lachman, the executive director of Foster America, authored a Time essay suggesting “family separation is not just a problem at the border.” In this piece, Lachman bizarrely equates the separations at the border with removals of U.S. children from their homes by child protective services, suggesting even the latter are “inherently toxic.”

And last week, Vivek Sankaran associated the two systems, misleadingly citing statements in an opinion piece that were made about the border separations to attack child removals by child protective services – without disclosing that these statements actually referred to the latter rather than the former. Sankaran quotes Dr. Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics at Harvard, as follows: “[T]here is so much research on [child removal] that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.”

Finding it hard to believe that a distinguished Harvard professor would suggest that children should never be removed into foster care, we contacted Dr. Nelson, who explained that his words were taken out of context, as he was referring to separations at the U.S.-Mexico border and not the removal of children from abusive or neglectful homes. Dr. Nelson agreed that any comparison of the two systems is misconceived, noting: “It is inappropriate to compare children experiencing forced separations from their parents in the context of migration to children removed from parental care due to maltreatment (abuse, neglect).

The separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border was an ill-conceived policy that arose from the desire to discourage migration. Rather than being aimed at protecting children, this policy was adopted despite the obvious fact that it would be extremely harmful to them.

The child welfare system, on the other hand, was created to protect children from harm inflicted by their own parents or guardians. It is a sad fact that some homes are dangerous to their own children. Forty-nine states reported 1,700 child fatalities due to abuse or neglect in 2016, and there is wide consensus that this is likely an under count. We don’t know how many more are severely injured but survive; it is doubtless much higher.

And deaths and severe injuries are only the tip of the iceberg. There is extensive literature on the lifelong consequences of child abuse and neglect. These include chronic health conditions, impaired brain development, poor mental and emotional health, social difficulties, juvenile delinquency and adult criminality, alcohol and drug abuse, and an increased likelihood of abusing one’s own children.

Moreover, foster care is a rarely-used intervention by CPS. Most systems try hard to keep children at home by providing services to the parents to help remedy the conditions that caused the maltreatment. In 2016, according to federal data, agencies placed slightly over 200,000 children involved in maltreatment investigations in foster care and provided other post-investigation services to about 1.1 million children and families.

Yes, removing children from their parents is often traumatic to the child. But it goes without saying that in some terrible home situations, the damage to a child of staying in the current home would be greater than the damage caused by removal.

As Dr. Nelson puts it:

Of course we would like to see the biological parents be successful in changing the family dynamics and preserving the parent-child relationship but if that is impossible, and the harms to the child continue, then the child should be removed from the home, either temporarily, if the home situation can be remedied, or permanently.

But, it is of utmost importance to act with alacrity – I think in many cases children are left for far too long in their biological homes and by the time they are placed into foster care or adoptive care, they may be irreparably harmed.

Setting aside the vastly different reasons for, and targets of, family separations at the border and child removals by child protective services, there are huge differences between the two sets of policies. Cathy Senderling-McDonald recently wrote an instructive and comprehensive summary of the distinctions, outlining the vast differences in living conditions, objectives, legal structure and oversight.

Using the suffering of parents and children at the border to denigrate foster care is not merely an illogical comparison, it is a harmful one that can result in suffering, lifelong damage, and even death to children. Moreover, it is offensive to those professionals who have devoted their lives to protecting children, and to the children who have suffered and died for lack of such protection.

Let us be clear: we want to prevent children from being removed from their parents whenever it is safe and appropriate to do so.

But let us be equally clear: until we eliminate serious child maltreatment and endangerment from every home, there will always be a need for foster care to keep kids safe. To pretend otherwise is naïve, dangerous and irresponsible.

This op-ed was published in the Chronicle of Social Change on September 6, 2018. I wrote it with Sean Hughes, the director of government relations for the consulting firm Social Change Partners. 

 

Abuse death of Anthony Avalos after 16 reports: the public needs to know why

Anthony Avalos
Image: Los Angeles Times

On June 21, the suffering ended for ten-year-old Anthony Avalos when his tortured body finally succumbed to years of abuse. The ten year old had severe head injuries and cigarette burns all over his body when his mother found him unresponsive and called 911. Anthony died the next morning. Despite sixteen reports to the Los Angeles Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) or the police, the agencies tasked with protecting Anthony never rescued him from the adults that had abused him for years. Without a new law requiring public disclosure of the details of such cases, the public will never know how Anthony’s peril was missed or what changes are needed to protect future children from his horrible fate.

School administrators, a teacher, a counselor, family members and others called police or the child abuse hotline at least 16 times since 2013 to report abuse of Anthony or one of his six siblings, as revealed in a devastating article by respected investigative reporter Garrett Therolf published by the Los Angeles Times. DCFS received twelve reports between 2013 and 2015, according to its director, Bobby Cagle.

According to these reports, “Anthony or his six siblings were denied food and water, sexually abused, beaten and bruised, dangled upside-down from a staircase, forced to crouch for hours, locked in small spaces with no access to the bathroom, forced to fight each other, and forced to eat from the trash.”

Most of the allegations concerned Anthony. Among the alleged abusers were his mother, Heather Barron, her boyfriend, Karim Leiva, and another family member who was left in charge of the children and was accused of sexual abuse.

According to the sources, only some of the investigations resulted in a finding of child abuse. And even when abuse was found, the children were only once placed with an uncle and aunt, from whom they were soon removed and brought back to their mother over protests from the relatives, according to the aunt. She reports that she started making calls to DCFS in 2015 when she noticed injuries the children said were inflicted by Leiva.

Anthony’s father, a Mexican citizen, reported that Anthony asked to live with him but his mother refused. Aware that Anthony was being treated badly, he repeatedly gave case workers his contact information in Mexico. But he never heard back.

Instead of placing Anthony with his father or aunt and uncle, DCFS workers opened at least two cases to help Anthony’s mother improve her parenting while the children remained in the home. But these cases where closed without any resolution of the safety threat to these vulnerable children.

These horror stories of deaths of children after multiple serious allegations to police and child welfare agencies never seem to end.   The first step in preventing more tragedies is to conduct a detailed case review to identify the critical decision points where an opportunity was missed. It is likely that DCFS has already begun such an internal review. But it will be shared only with the county Board of Supervisors, which will hold it close.

This state secrecy is not unique to Los Angeles. Only a few states provide for the release of information about agency interactions with children who died of abuse or neglect. Texas’ Office of Child Safety posts reviews of fatalities but only when a child died of abuse or neglect during an open case. Florida requires an immediate investigation of a child’s death if the family was involved with CPS in the past year and posts the review if the child was found to have died of abuse or neglect.  In Washington, the Children’s Administration (CA) conducts a review (by experts with no prior involvement in the case) when the death or near-fatality of a child was suspected to be caused by child abuse or neglect, and the child had any history with the CA at the time of death or in the year prior. These reviews must be completed within 180 days and posted on the agency’s website.

The Washington legislation, which requires reviews for families having history with child welfare within the past two years, is the broadest and most useful requirement. However, the universe of cases covered should be increased to include families that had contact with the child welfare agency within the past five years at a minimum. The last report on Anthony’s family was made in April 2016, more than two years before Anthony’s death, according to a statement by Bobby Cagle, the DCFS Director.  After the sixth abuse report concerning Yonatan Aguilar (also in Los Angeles County), Yonatan was locked in a closed for over four years until he was found dead in 2016.

Reviews should also be required for cases of children who suffer severe injuries due to abuse or neglect as well as cases of chronic severe maltreatment that was allowed to continue despite reports to CPS. These would include another Los Angeles County case recently in the news when a jury awarded $45 billion to a girl who suffered two years of sexual abuse after child welfare workers left her in a home with an a accused molester. We need to know how these errors happen as well.

A requirement that all states conduct and post such reviews of children who died should also be added as an amendment to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which is expected to be reauthorized in 2018. When an agency egregiously abdicates its responsibility to protect children, the public must know how and why it happened. Only then can they hold their government accountable for making the changes necessary to prevent such tragedies in the future.

This post was updated on July 27, 2018.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Abusive parents are using homeschooling to avoid detection

Hart family
Photo: Associated Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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