On May 5, New York City firefighters were called to a horrible scene. A three-year-old girl had been locked in a car and the doors had been chained shut. Then the car was set on fire. As reported by the New York Times, the perpetrator had weekend visitation rights with his three-year-old daughter Autumn. Less than two weeks before, Autumn’s mother wrote to the family court in charge of her custody case, that Pereira was “losing a grip on reality and I honestly feel my child is in danger while in his care.” The court did not intervene.
This terrible case is not an aberration. The Center for Judicial Excellence (CJE) has compiled data on 707 children who have been murdered by a divorcing or separating parent since 2008. CJE has documented 98 cases during that time period in which a child was killed by a parent or parental figure after the family court allowed them unsupervised contact with the child despite being warned that the perpetrator posed a risk to the child. But this is likely only the tip of the iceberg as there is no agency that records these cases.
A four-month investigation by Gillian Friedman in the Deseret News found that in many cases family courts are failing to protect children, allowing unsupervised visits or even custody to abusive parents. These decisions are resulting in physical and sexual child abuse and sometimes homicide.
Why would family courts put a child in danger by allowing unsupervised contact with a dangerous parent? One reason, experts told Friedman, is that judges and custody evaluators hired by courts often do not believe the claims of danger from the other parent who is trying to protect the child. As the director of CJE told Friedman, “In custody proceedings, family courts often see a parent’s allegation of child abuse as no more than a tactic to undermine the other parent’s custodial rights to the child — and therefore not a credible accusation.” Several of the mothers interviewed by Friedman reported that their attorneys told them not to allege abuse for fear that these allegations would lead to an adverse custody ruling.
Disbelief of the protective parent is not the only possible factor that causes courts to make decisions that put children in danger. Experts told Friedman that evidence of child abuse is often not conclusive and courts are reluctant to bar a parent from access to a child unless the evidence of past abuse is airtight. Moreover, many judges are overwhelmed. They may see as many as 20 cases a day and may have to make a decision after spending no more than 20 minutes on a case.
Finally, judges may be prioritizing parental rights over child safety and well-being. Even if a judge believes that a parent has been abusive, family court professionals told Friedman that it is very hard to get a judge to deny visitation to a parent. Instead, they will require the abuser to engage in treatment or counseling, while maintaining visitation.
Judges may also think a child is safe with a parent who has abused the other parent but not the child. But placing a child with a parent who has a record of domestic abuse may be dangerous even if that parent had not hurt a child. That’s because the parent may harm the child in order to punish the other parent.
Both mothers and fathers can abuse and kill their children. But domestic violence victim advocates like Joan Meier cite evidence that women are in a disadvantage when alleging abuse in the context of a custody dispute, in part due to the influence of inaccurate beliefs about “parental alienation,” which I described in an earlier post. The “alienation” concept can be used by either parent to connote that the other parent is poisoning the child’s mind against them and has often resulted in the placement of children against their will with a parent that they allege abused them–more often than not, the father.
But fathers’ advocates claim that that family courts are prejudiced against fathers. It seems clear that judicial attitudes have changed over time. As described in a useful article published in 2011 by San Francisco Weekly, family courts were traditionally biased against fathers, believing that children belonged with their mothers. However, as divorce became more common, advocacy by fathers’ rights group has led to the acceptance that children’s time should be split as evenly as possible between parents. While it seems clear that child safety should trump any considerations of equity between mom and dad, it seems that some judges do not agree.
The problem of placing parents’ rights over safety should be familiar to readers of Child Welfare Monitor from our many columns about child welfare agencies and family court judges accepting risks to child safety and well-being in order to keep families together or reunite them. In our experience with such cases. the court and the child welfare agency usually agree about the primacy of parents and the need for children to remain or be reunified with their parents. There are occasional disagreements. Child Welfare Monitor will never forget tearfully trying to convince a judge that my six-year old client would do better with a foster parent who had loved her for two year than with a mother who could not think of one good thing to say about her–to no avail. But in these custody cases it is the protective parent whose pleas to keep the child safe are being disregarded.
Thankfully, there is a growing recognition that family courts are failing to protect children in custody cases, with sometimes tragic results. Last year, Congress passed a resolution stating that “child safety is the first priority of custody and visitation adjudications, “and that courts should resolve safety risk and family violence claims first, before assessing other factors that may affect a child’s best interests. The resolution makes several recommendations to states for improving their court processes, including setting standards for evidence presented in custody proceedings and for the professionals who are accepted as experts.
In 2019, the Governor of Maryland signed a bill requiring the formation of a new workgroup, the first of its kind, to study child custody court proceedings involving child abuse or domestic violence allegations and make recommendations about “incorporating the latest science regarding the safety and well-being of children and other victims of domestic violence.”
It is important for child advocates to become involved with this issue, which has generally been the province of mainly domestic violence advocates. Child advocates around the country should push for legislation like that passed in Maryland to establish commissions to study this issue and make recommendations about how the family courts can be improved to ensure the safety of children involved in custody litigation.
In July 2018, ten-year-old Anthony Avalos arrived at the Emergency Room with fatal bleeding in his brain. His emaciated and battered body succumbed the next day to years of deprivation and abuse. For four years, the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had received 13 reports on suspected abuse of Anthony and his siblings. For part of that period, his family was actually under the supervision of DCFS.
Many commentators saw parallels between Anthony’s death and that of Gabriel Fernandez in 2013 in the same town of Palmdale, in the Antelope Valley section of Los Angeles County. Gabriel was tortured to death by his mother and stepfather after multiple reports to DCFS failed to result in his rescue from this lethal home.
But based on its review of the family’s case file, Los Angeles County’s Office of Child Protection (OCP) concluded that Anthony’s case was “very different” from Gabriel’s. OCP concluded that it could not say that Anthony might still be alive today if the agency had done things differently. In justifying this conclusion, OCP stressed that the family was not under DCFS supervision at the time of Anthony’s death and that it had been over a year since the last report was made to the child abuse hotline concerning the family.
But in his devastating article, The horrific death of Anthony Avalos and the many missed chances to save him, investigative reporter Garrett Therolf shows that DCFS had many opportunities to save Anthony. It also reveals striking connections between Anthony’s case and Gabriel’s. The same private agency counselor had worked with both boys, and had been questioned in court about Gabriel. A caseworker who had been disciplined for his errors in the Fernandez case actually supervised the social worker who managed Anthony’s case.
Garrett Therolf was kind enough to share the DCFS case file with Child Welfare Monitor. In reviewing the file, we were struck by the many red flags that DCFS ignored and the crucial points where the agency could have intensified the surveillance of the family or removed the children to safety. In this post, we highlight our own observations from the case file, complemented by key information obtained from other sources (such as interviews and grand jury transcripts) by Therolf.
The First Calls: 2013 and 2014
Anthony Avalos first came to the attention of DCFS in February 2013, when he was only four years old and reported that his grandfather sexually abused him. The agency substantiated the abuse but did not set up any ongoing monitoring, relying on his mother, Heather Barron, to keep his grandfather away from him.
In May 2014 the family came to the attention of DCFS again when a caller alleged that Barron, who had four children at the time, was hitting the children with hoses and belts and locking them in their rooms for hours. An allegation of neglect (but not abuse) was substantiated. Barron agreed to the opening of a voluntary case, which was open from May 20, 2014 to December 4, 2014. A social worker named Mark Millman was assigned to manage the case.
Under DCFS Supervision: June-December 2014
In June, 2014 a PhD. psychologist who evaluated Barron concluded that she “appeared to have poor parenting skills as shown by her lack of patience towards her two children that displayed energetic behavior….At this time…. the assessor believes that her capacity to provide suitable care for her children is severely limited by her poor parenting skills, poor judgment, and denial and lack of awareness of her mental health issues.” The evaluator recommended a variety of services for Barron. She refused to participate in individual therapy–probably the most essential. But there is no indication that case manager Millman even read the report, let alone followed up to see if the services were provided or successfully completed. Barron did participate in in-home services to improve her parenting skills, which were provided by an agency called the Children’s Center of the Antelope Valley.
Once services got under way, reports from the provider were not encouraging. A July 2014 progress report from the Children’s Center indicated that Barron was “having a difficult time maintaining her composure when the children misbehave.” In its August 2014 report, the agency reported that Barron was overwhelmed. The agency case manager recommended therapy for Ms. Barron but she again refused saying she was not interested in talking about the past.
On October 9, 2014, a counselor at the Children’s Center called the hotline with concerns about the family. The counselor had tried to discuss her concerns with Millman but he seemed to “blow it off.” She reported that Barron, who had recently given birth to a fifth child, was “ very aggressive and angry and showed no nurturing to any of her children, even the infant.” She reported that she observed Barron yanking one child by the arm, yanking her daughter’s hair while brushing it, and calling the children names like “punk” and “bitch.”
The social worker assigned to investigate the new allegations was not concerned. He observed that Barron and her children were ”interacting positively” and “that mother and children had secure attachment as seen by their interaction.” Barron’s admission that she hit the children with a belt and used hot sauce to punish them for talking back did not seem to bother him. It appears that he was influenced heavily by Millman, who expressed no concern for the family. He reported that Ms. Barron “has her hands full and is doing her best….…She does cuss and yell but [is] doing all she can to provide appropriate care.”
The automated risk assessment performed as part of every investigation showed a high risk of abuse and neglect and recommended promotion to a court case. The investigator overrode this recommendation, stating that the children were already involved in a voluntary case and getting services. And somehow, despite the mother’s own admission, the investigator closed the referral as “inconclusive” for physical abuse, as well as emotional abuse and general neglect.
Another Children’s Center therapist called DCFS on November 5, 2014, alleging she overheard one child say “She’s bad because she whips our ass.” The caller said that Barron continued to get frustrated easily. She quoted Barron as telling one of the children, ‘Don’t think, because she is here, I won’t whip your ass.’” This referral was “evaluated out” with no explanation.
Case Closed: December 2014
The voluntary case was closed on December 4, 2014 with the following comments: “The mother has been compliant with services and receptive to outside resources. Although the family has received two new referrals, the allegations were assessed unfounded/ inconclusive. Mother has agreed to continuing counseling for the children.” The agency arranged for the family to receive this counseling through a new agency, Hathaway Sycamores Counseling. There was no indication that the mother had made any progress in addressing her parenting issues. Nor was there a rationale given for directing the counseling toward the children rather than the mother.
Hathaway-Sycamores was the same agency that worked with Gabriel Fernandez, as mentioned above. As Therolf reveals, Anthony was even assigned to the same counselor, Barbara Dixon, who worked with Gabriel. Dixon testified in court that she had observed extensive injuries to Gabriel but did not report them to the hotline, despite being a mandatory reporter. The fact that she still had her job is mind-boggling. According to Therolf, “her case notes show that she counseled [Gabriel] to listen to his mother more attentively and to finish his homework.”
Kareen Leiva Enters the Picture: 2015
As Therolf describes, Barron met Kareem Leiva in 2015 and began a relationship that would last several years and result in Barron’s seventh child. Within months, the father of Anthony’s two-year-old brother reported to police that Leiva was abusing his son. There was no DCFS investigation but DCFS did open a court case involving that child and his parents, resulting in regular visits to the home by a social worker, Mindy Wrasse.
On June 12, 2015, the same father went to the police again after an agency-supervised visit with his son, reporting that his son had bruises on his arm and face. The social worker observing the visit had confirmed the bruising and reported that the child repeatedly said “Mommy is mean” during the visit. The father reported that the child seemed to have bruises at every visit. Ms. Barron reported the two-year-old fell in the shower, and the toddler reportedly confirmed the report. A two-year-old’s ability to confirm this verbally–and to take a shower on his own–shows suspicious precocity for his age. Despite the other siblings giving two different accounts of the bruising, the referral was ruled unfounded on the grounds that all of the children had similar stories. Additionally, the risk of maltreatment was found to be high and the recommendation was to promote to a case. But this recommendation was overriden because there was already an open case involving the two-year-old and his mother. That case closed in October 2016, leaving no DCFS personnel in contact with the family.
The Children Beg for Help: September 2015
On September 18, 2015, the hotline received a call, revealed by Therolf to be from the principal of Anthony’s school, recounting disturbing reports by Anthony of his treatment at home. A similar call came in from a sheriff’s deputy the next day. According to Therolf’s investigation, the children were visiting their uncle, David Barron, and told him about the horrific treatment they received from Barron and her boyfriend, Karim Leiva. David Barron refused to allow his sister to pick up the children and called the police instead. Anthony and his two oldest siblings described to the deputy who responded a litany of horrific punishments by Barron and Leiva. They reported Barron made them. squat against the wall for long periods of time, a torture she called the “Captain’s Chair.” They also described beatings, food deprivation, being locked in their rooms, and Leiva’s hanging Anthony’s brother from the stairs.
When the DCFS investigator met with Anthony, he told her “Heather is my old mom. This is my new house. I am part of the Barron family now. I’m never going to see Heather again. She locks us up in our rooms and makes us starving.”
But sadly, the agency that was responsible for Anthony’s safety did not allow him to stay in his safe “new home.” The investigator spoke with three staff members of Hathaway-Sycamores, the agency providing home-based services to the mother. The three reported that they were “constantly in the home” and that the mother did not hit the children. They said the children did not seem frightened, never talked of abuse, and there were no locks on the doors. The contrast with the reports of the Children’s Center a year earlier is striking. Given what came out after Anthony’s death, it is clear that the providers from the Children’s Center were much more discerning. Or perhaps Hathaway-Sycamores was in the grips of an ideology that values family preservation over child safety–a belief system that has led to many other children being abandoned to a horrible fate. In any case, it is incredible that DCFS was still using this agency after its role in Gabriel’s death.
Heartbreakingly, Ms. Barron was allowed to take the children home from her brother’s house. Not surprisingly, they recanted all the allegations once deprived of the protection of their aunt and uncle. Instead, they said their aunt and uncle told them to make these allegations. The wholesale retraction is suspicious because of the similarity and unusual nature of the allegations and the young age of the children, as well as the number of previous reports of abuse. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the children may have been frightened into recanting their allegations. But the investigator decided that the aunt and uncle were manipulating the children and had instigated the allegations. (Therolf reports that she was new to the job and testified in court that she was unaware that survivors of abuse often retract their accounts.). The allegations were found to be “inconclusive “and the referral was closed with a disposition of “situation stabilized.”
One last chance of rescue missed: April 2016
On April 28, 2016, DCFS received another report, which Therolf learned came from a domestic violence center staffer who was working with Barron. Two of Anthony’s brothers had bruises on their faces. Barron said they had been in a fight, but the boys told the reporter that Karim Leiva made them fight each other. They also reported being locked in their rooms and deprived of food for long periods of time. Barron stated that Leiva had not been in the home since the previous September. In interviews with the investigator, Anthony, his sister, and the five year-old brother all denied the allegations. Anthony and his sister denied that Leiva was in the house or even that they knew him–a denial which should have raised serious concerns to the investigator. Wrasse, the social worker who was monitoring the open case involving Anthony’s brother, said the children definitely knew who Leiva was–and she thought he was coming regularly to the house. The investigator of the previous report also declared definitely that the children knew Leiva.
Despite all these inconsistencies, the allegations were all judged “unfounded” or “inconclusive,” and the disposition was “situation stabilized.” The risk assessment showed a high risk of abuse or neglect and a recommendation to “promote” the case. But the recommendation was disregarded because there was already a social worker on the scene–the same worker who was sure Leiva was coming into the home regularly. Her involvement ended in October 16, and then the children were totally on their own.
There were no more allegations until it was too late for Anthony. At some point, Ms. Barron cut ties with her brother and sister-in–law and moved Anthony to a school that did not know his history. Nobody was left to protect him. It is nevertheless surprising that no reports came from the children’s schools–a fact that deserves further investigation. According to Therolf, Anthony’s teacher noticed that he was “often nervous about something.” Such nervousness is not normal and should have triggered a response. But that is an issue for another post.
June 2018: Anthony’s suffering ends
Anthony’s fate was sealed when he told his his mother that he liked boys and girls. Leiva overheard this conversation. The following night, his siblings later reported, Leiva picked up Anthony by his feet and slammed his head on the floor repeatedly. The next morning, Barron called 911, saying Anthony had fallen. He was taken to the hospital and died the next day.
Anthony’s siblings initially denied any abuse, but as soon as they were questioned by an expert forensic interviewer, they revealed all the horrors that were occurring in the home. As punishment for minor transgressions, they were made to kneel on rice with weights in their hands, were kept awake all night (with water thrown into their faces by Barron or Leiva if they fell asleep), and were whipped with a belt or extension cord on the buttocks or soles of their feet. Anthony was singled out of special punishment. Leiva would pick him up by the feet and slam him on the floor head-first, as he did the night before Anthony died. By dying, Anthony saved his siblings from this nightmare home. They were removed from the home Barron and Leiva , who have been charged with first-degree murder for Anthony’s death.
DCFS had many chances to save Anthony but it wasted them all. This gifted, sensitive, and loving child was condemned to years of suffering ending only with his death. OCP was set up to protect children in the wake of Gabriel Fernandez’s death. It’s sad that this office ended up basically whitewashing Anthony’s. Now we are waiting for their report on why four-year-old Noah Cuatro was killed when DCFS disregarded an order to remove him from his home. Based on the Avalos report, the chances of a thorough investigation by OCP are slim.
When a child is found to be seriously or fatally abused, the perpetrator is often found to be a male caregiver. But a new study using data from pediatric emergency rooms provides powerful evidence of the correlation between caregiver characteristics and the likelihood of abuse.
The new study is the first to compare caregiver features among children with injuries due to abuse to those with accidental injuries. The article was published in the Journal of Pediatrics, and a summary is available online on the Science Dailywebsite. The authors used data on 1615 children under four who were brought to a pediatric emergency department. Overall, 75% of the injuries were classified as accidents, 24% as abuse and 2% as indeterminate.
The differences between the likelihood of abuse versus accident among different groups of caregivers are striking. Abuse was determined to be the cause of injury to only 10% of the children for whom a female was the only caregiver at the time of injury and fully 58% of children who were with a male caregiver when injured. There was a big difference between fathers and boyfriends however; an “alarmingly high” 94% of the children who were alone with the mother’s boyfriend at the time of injury were determined to be abused, as compared to “only” 49% of injured children who were with their fathers at the time of injury.
Analysis of the 83 cases of severe injury (including fatalities) provided even stronger evidence of the connection between male caregivers and abuse. The authors found that “nearly all cases of severe injury in which fathers and boyfriends were present involved abuse, and for fatalities, the fathers and boyfriends were most commonly present as lone caregivers. Mothers were rarely present alone when severe abusive injuries occurred.”
Among female caregivers, one group was more likely associated with injuries and that was babysitters. Fully 34% of the children left alone with babysitters were found to be victims of abuse
The researchers point to several policy implications of their study. First, they highlight the importance of asking who was caring for the child at the time of injury as part of the investigation to determine whether an injury is the result of abuse. Second, they call for abuse-prevention strategies to focus on male caregivers and female babysitters. (Currently, such programs, like shaken baby education, often focus on mothers.)
But the authors do not mention another policy implication that is equally important. Ensuring that all low-income children have access to high-quality early care and education (ECE) is a logical implication of the study.
As I have written in an earlier post, there are many pathways by which ECE can prevent maltreatment. Free, high quality ECE would provide mothers with an alternative to leaving their children with caregivers who are unsuitable to the task–be it boyfriends, fathers, or babysitters. ECE has other child welfare benefits as well. Staff who are trained as mandatory reporters ensures that more adults will be seeing the child and able to report on any warning signs of maltreatment. Quality ECE programs that involve the parents can also improve child safety by teaching parents about child development, appropriate expectations, and good disciplinary practices. They may also connect parents with needed supports and resources in the community and help them feel less isolated and stressed.
Of course the benefits of ECE extend far beyond child welfare in the narrow sense. We are worried about school readiness for low-income children and we know that much of brain development occurs between the ages of 0 and 3. That’s why quality ECE has been such a priority for the early childhood community. But child welfare policymakers have not yet caught onto the importance of ECE as a means of preventing child maltreatment.
An excellent issue brief from the Administration on Children and Families recommends improving access to ECE for families that are already involved with child welfare. That is a great proposal, but the child welfare field is beginning to focus on prevention rather than only treatment. We must explore ways to provide access to ECE among children who are at risk of child abuse and neglect. Expanding access to subsidized child care among lower-income families, because income is so highly correlated with child maltreatment, would be a good beginning.
Prevention is the word of the day in child welfare. A key part of prevention is making sure children spend their time with caregivers who will not harm them.
Another little boy is dead in Los Angeles County after being left in the hands of his abusers by the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS). This time, the victim was four-year-old Noah Cuatro. Noah’s family had been the subject of at least 13 calls to the county’s child abuse hotline. He had been removed from his abusive parents for two years but was returned to him less than two months before he was killed.
Noah’s death is the third since 2013 of child who had been the subject of multiple reports and investigations by child welfare authorities in the remote Antelope Valley of Los Angeles County. In June, 2018, Anthony Avilas was tortured to death by his mother and her boyfriend, who are facing capital murder charges. In 2013, eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez suffered the same fate. His mother is serving a life sentence and her boyfriend is on death row.
At least 13 calls had been made to the county’s child abuse hotline alleging that Noah’s parents were abusing their children, according to a devastating article in the Los Angeles Times.
Although the case file has not been released, sources revealed some of the contents to the Times reporters. In 2014, DCFS substantiated an allegation that Noah’s mother had fractured the skull of another child. In 2016, Noah was removed from his home and remained in foster care for two years. He was ultimately placed with his great-grandmother, who states that she often told DCPS social workers about concerning behavior her granddaughter displayed at her visits with Noah. She also claims that Noah begged her not to let him go.
Once Noah returned home, reports of abuse continued to be phoned in in February, March, April and May 2019. One report alleged that Noah was brought to the hospital with bruises on his back. A report on May 13 alleged that his father had a drinking problem, was seen kicking his wife and children in public, and sometimes when drinking voiced his doubt that Noah was his child.
At least one DCFS social worker took these reports seriously. On May 14, sources told the Times, she filed a 26-page report to the court requesting an order to remove Noah from his parents. And the judge granted that report the next day. But weeks went by–and the order was not implemented, even after new allegations came in that Noah had been sodomized and had injuries to his rectum. Noah died on July 6, more than seven weeks after the order was granted.
We do not know why Noah was not removed, because state law requires that the agency conduct its own investigation before the case file can be released in child fatality cases. We do know from another Los Angeles Times article that DCFS has already changed its policy on court removal orders to say that such a delay should be an “extreme exception” and must be brought to the director of the agency and approved by his Senior Executive Team.
Why so many tragedies in the Antelope Valley? Given its small population, Antelope Valley has a disproportionate number of deaths caused by a parent or caregiver of children already known to DCFS. according to calculations by the Chronicle of Social Change. Nobody knows if this higher death rate is due to cultural or economic features of the area or to challenges in staffing DCFS. Difficulties in attracting and retaining staff in this remote part of the county have been described in numerous reports, most recently an audit of DCFS and a report on the death of Anthony Avalos.
On July 23, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion requiring DCFS to work with other agencies and educational institutions to develop a staffing plan to alleviate staff shortages and turnover in the Antelope Valley. I It also directs DCFS to immediately develop a Continuous Quality Improvement Section and fill approximately 20 positions which will allow for increased case reviews, initially focused on the Antelope Valley section.
These are good steps that are surely needed, given the staffing problems in Antelope Valley. However, until we know the reason the court order requiring Noah’s removal from the home was disregarded, we don’t know if these steps will address the proximate cause of Noah’s death–the failure to remove him from his home when a social worker clearly recognized the need for it. It appears that this removal order was overriden by someone above the social worker – but we need to know why and by whom. This crucial decision may have little to do with staffing problems and more to do with other factors–such as an ideological preference for parents’ rights or a reluctance to remove children.
Sadly, there is no provision in California or LA County requiring an in-depth case review to be released to the public. This never happened in the cases of Anthony Avalos or Gabriel Fernandez. In order to get to the bottom of these horrendous deaths, Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors should pass legislation requiring such a review. Washington’s state’s statute requires 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 Children’s Administration 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. Florida has a similar requirement, as I have described in an earlier post.
The father and siblings of Anthony Avalos filed a $50 million suit against DCFS and one of its contractors only a few weeks after Noah’s death. They allege that the department “was complicit in the abuse and neglect of Anthony and his half-siblings.” The same attorney is now representing Noah’s grandmother, and a lawsuit is sure to follow. How many more deaths will it take before the county can be relied on to protect its vulnerable children from suffering and death inflicted by their parents?
Illinois’ child welfare services to families that are allowed to keep their children have major systemic flaws that put children at risk. Most importantly, there is extreme reluctance to remove children from their homes and place them in foster care. Those are the findings of a review from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago that was commissioned by the Governor in the wake of several deaths of children whose families were being supervised by the state.
This report follows an earlier one, discussed in a previous post, by the Inspector General (OIG) for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) stating that child safety and well-being are no longer priorities for the agency. One problem area identified in that report was Intact Family Services, which are the services provided to families in order to prevent further abuse or neglect without removing the child. OIG’s 2018 annual report included an eight-year retrospective on the deaths of children in Intact Family Services cases, which concluded that in many of these cases the children remained in danger during the life of the case due to violence in their homes, when DCFS should have either removed the children or at least sought court involvement to enforce participation in services,
Increasingly, child welfare systems around the country have been relying on services to intact families (often called in-home or intact family services) in order to avoid placing children into foster care. In 2017, according to federal data, only 15% of children who received services after an investigation or assessment were placed in foster care; the other 85% were provided with services in their homes. These services may become even more predominant with implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which allows federal Title IV-E funds to reimburse jurisdictions for the cost of such services.
It is important for child welfare agencies to be able to work with families that remain intact. This allows the agency to monitor the children’s safety and avoid the trauma of placement in foster care while working to ameliorate the conditions that might lead to a foster care placement. But agencies must be cognizant that not every family can be helped this way, keep a close watch what is going on in the home, and be ready to remove children when necessary to ensure their safety. The deaths of children who have received Intact Family Services in Illinois have raised questions about whether the agency is accomplishing these tasks.
In Illinois, Intact Family Services (referred to below as “Intact”) are provided mostly by private agencies under contract with DCFS. The Chapin Hall report found systemic issues that create barriers to effectively serving intact families.
Avoiding foster care placement: Perhaps the most important issue observed by the researchers was the high priority that Illinois places on avoiding placement of children in foster care. As a result of many years of such efforts, Illinois now has the lowest rate of child removal in the country. Intact staff expressed the belief that “recommendations to remove children based on case complexity, severity, or chronicity will not be heard by the Division of Child Protection (DCP) or the Court.” As a result, Intact supervisors are reluctant to reject referrals of families even when they believe a family cannot be served safely in the home. They are also reluctant to elevate cases for supervisory review when they have not been able to engage a high risk family.
Supervisory Misalignment: In the past, negotiations between DCP and Intact over the appropriateness of a referral occurred on a supervisor-to-supervisor level, allowing Intact to push back against unsuitable referrals. An administrative realignment that placed investigators and Intact under different administrations eliminated this ability of Intact to contest inappropriate referrals. According to the researchers, this resulted in the opening of Intact cases for families with “extensive histories of physical abuse” that Intact staff believed they could not serve effectively.
High Risk Case Closures: Intact service agencies are expected to work with a family for six months and then close the case with no further involvement by DCFS. The researchers learned that there was no clear pathway for intact staff to express concerns when they been unable to engage a family. As a result, some providers told the researcher that they may simply close the case when a family will not engage.
Staffing Issues: Caseload, capacity and turnover. The researchers found that DCP investigators are overwhelmed with their high caseloads and are desperate to make referrals to Intact to get families off their caseload as soon as possible. The prescribed caseload limit of 15 cases per worker is very hard to manage, and some workers carry even more cases. Moreover, DCP workers tend to stop managing safety plans and assessments as soon as a referral is made to Intact, which leaves children in limbo until services begin. For their part, Intact workers’ caseloads are often over the prescribed limits and are not adjusted for travel time or case complexity. Moreover, the difficulty of their clientele makes the current caseload of 10:1 difficult to manage. High turnover among Intact workers, investigators and other staff can also contribute to the information gaps and knowledge deficits mentioned below.
Role Confusion: DCP workers and Intact workers seem to have different views of the role of the DCP worker, according to the researchers. DCP workers view their role as making and justifying the decisions about whether to substantiate the referral and remove the child. However, the Intact Family Services policy calls upon them to engage the family and transmit all necessary information to the Intact staff. Cultural differences between the two sets of workers compound the problems.
Information Gaps: Because of the role ambiguity mentioned above, investigators often fail to pass on crucial information to Intact workers. Yet, these workers often cannot access investigators notes or key features of the case history. Moreover Chapin Hall’s reviews of the two recent deaths of toddlers in intact cases found that much of the family’s history was inaccessible because cases were expunged or purged. DCFS expunges most unsubstantiated reports and shreds investigators files and appears to be more aggressive about such expungements than most other states, according to a previous DCFS Director, George Sheldon.
Service Gaps: The researchers also mentioned gaps in service availability, especially long waiting lists for substance abuse prevention, which make it very difficult to engage families as well as providers.
The authors made a number of recommendations for addressing these problems they identified. These include:
Work with courts and State’s attorneys to refine the criteria for child removal in complex and chronic family cases;
Develop and refine protocol for closing Intact cases;
Direct attention to cases at greatest risk for severe harm; revisit the use of predictive models which should be transparent, based on broad input and be supported by ethical safeguards’
Clarify goals and expectations across staff roles;
Utilize evidence-based approaches to preventive case work;
Improve the quality of supervision;
Adjust the preventive services offered through Intact to meet the needs of the population;
Restructure Intact Services to address the supervisory mismatch with DCP; and
Redesign the assessment and intake process to reduce redundant information, improve accuracy or assessments to support decision-making and improve communication across child serving systems.
We would have liked to see a recommendation to modify Illinois’ policy of expunging and purging all unsubstantiated investigations. At a hearing in May, 2017, the DCFS Director, George Sheldon, expressed his support for allowing DCFS to keep records of all investigations, even if they are unsubstantiated. Research suggests that it is very difficult to make accurate decisions about whether maltreatment has occurred; moreover, unsubstantiated reports are as good as substantiated ones in predicting future maltreatment. Examples of children killed after families have had multiple unsubstantiated reports have been observed all over the country.
This report should be a must-read for all child welfare agencies. Children in many states have died of abuse or neglect after intact cases have been opened for their families. (Think about Zymere Perkins in New York or Anthony Avalos and Gabriel Fernandez in Los Angeles.) Many of the issues identified by the Chapin-Hall report may have contributed to these deaths as well, particularly the extreme avoidance of child removals that has condemned so many innocent children to death ever since the widespread push to reduce the foster care rolls, supported by a coalition of wealthy and powerful foundations and advocacy groups.
The 21st National Conference on Child abuse and Neglect (NCCAN) sponsored by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Human Services (HHS) took place in Washington DC from April 24-26, 2019, and there could be no better window onto the child welfare zeitgeist. NCCAN’s defining spirit was perfectly embodied in the conference theme, Strong and Thriving Families. But the main takeaway for this blogger was how far the field has strayed from its central and defining mission–protecting children.
From the first words booming out of the speaker in the hotel ballroom, the conference plenary sessions focused relentlessly on a two-part message. First, the worst thing to do for abused and neglected children is to remove them from their families and we should stop doing it right now. Second, child welfare should focus on primary prevention–preventing child maltreatment before it occurs.
Removing abused and neglected children from their families is the worst thing you can do to them. That was the main message delivered by plenary speaker Amelia Franck Meyer, one of PEOPLE Magazine’s 25 Women Changing the World. Meyer made extensive use of the animal kingdom to make her points about the mother-child relationship. She started with baby ducks imprinting onto their mothers and went on to mother bears. When one of own children is not having their needs met at school, Meyer says she will stop at nothing to ensure that the little one’s needs are met. And that’s why all kids need their mother, she explained, because your mother “always has your back.”
“Mama bear” would not be the best term to describe many of the mothers I saw as a foster care social worker, or the ones whose children’s deaths I have been reviewing as part of the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Committee. The moms who expose their babies to brain-damaging substances in utero, sleep through the night aided by drugs or alcohol while their infants die, can’t be bothered to bring their children to school for 30 days in a semester, leave them in the care of volatile boyfriends, or inflict bruises and cuts are hardly mama bears. And, despite what we may want to believe, some children need to be rescued from such mothers.
Meyer also told us that we should not think of children as individuals but as part of families, which sounds a bit like a return to an earlier century. And of course she did not forget to the modern trope that child welfare is not about saving children from their families but rather about helping families protect their children.
In his closing plenary session, Children’s Bureau Chief Jerry Milner urged us to stop using the term “birth parent,” “which undermines the singular parent-child relationship.” That term helps separate the idea of procreation from that of nurturing–something that Milner clearly does not want to do. We also can’t talk about “dysfunctional” families, according to Milner. If only not talking about them would make them function well!
Milner urged participants to picture a different type of child welfare system, where “families are given what they need to thrive, not just survive.” In an interview with the Chronicle of Social Change, Milner suggested that what families need to prevent maltreatment includes “parenting education and support, community-based substance abuse prevention and treatment services, ready access to needed medical and mental health services and trauma-informed services to help parents heal from their adverse experiences.”
Milner did not mention child care, housing, or increased cash assistance–services that many would argue poor families need to thrive. But that’s not surprising given that he’s a member of the Trump Administration. Even expanding access to parenting classes, drug treatment and mental health services does not sound like an administration priority–unless the funds come from reprogramming current spending, which seems to be what Milner has in mind. By his own report, he tells child welfare officials who are afraid of adding a new set of primary prevention functions to their current overwhelming mandate that they should do it instead of what they are already doing, not in addition to it! Apparently he believes that cutting funds for CPS investigations and foster care would provide ample funding for primary prevention.
So what’s wrong with all this? Isn’t primary prevention the most logical approach to any social ill? Unfortunately, there are a few problems with making it the only approach:
We don’t know much about what works to prevent child abuse and neglect. The most touted programs involve home visiting, and we don’t have a lot of evidence that they work to prevent child abuse and neglect. The California Evidence Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare (CEBC) has rated only one home visiting program as “well-supported” by the research evidence as a means of preventing child maltreatment, and that program (Nurse Family Partnership) is limited to first-time low-income mothers. CEBC rates only one program (SafeCare) as “supported by the research evidence” as a program to prevent child maltreatment. And all of these programs have been strictly voluntary–which leaves out the families that are most dangerous to their children.
Many primary prevention programs don’t belong in the child welfare agency. Mental health and drug treatment serve a broader clientele than parents involved in child welfare and are generally provided by different agencies. And while Milner was careful not to mention housing, child care, or cash welfare, these don’t belong under the jurisdiction of child welfare agencies either.
Even if we had a better idea about what worked, we might reduce maltreatment but not eliminate it. We would need a method of investigating possible occurrences and protecting (even sometimes rescuing) the children at risk. It’s like saying we need to shut down hospitals. Of course we want to prevent gun violence, car accidents, cancer, and outbreaks of preventable infections diseases. But we certainly need to have hospitals available in case we fail.
Given NCCAN’s focus on primary prevention, it is not surprising that the Family First and Prevention Services Act received almost no mention throughout the conference, even though it is the biggest change to federal child welfare legislation in two decades and takes effect in October–and federal guidance is woefully lacking. Jerry Milner has already said that Family First is only the first step toward transforming child welfare. What he really wants is a block grant that would allow states to shift funding from CPS, foster care, and family preservation to primary prevention. And that could result in further starvation of CPS, foster care and in-home services (which need more funding, not less) in the name of a mission that should be carried out by other agencies.
On Monday, conference participants returned to the real world, where media outlets in Illinois and nationwide were reporting on five-year-old AJ Freund, who was beaten to death on April 15. His parents, who reported his disappearance three days later and tearfully attended a vigil shortly thereafter, have been charged with his murder. As the Chicago Tribune put it,
Witnesses in all corners of AJ’s life saw signs of abuse or neglect. A doctor, neighbors, police and others knew or suspected that much was amiss over the years. Many of them sounded alarms that were recorded by the courts and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which once again finds itself struggling to explain why a child on its watch is now dead….Yet AJ, who was born with opioids in his system, was left to live in a filthy house of horrors where it appears he was hurt again and again.
And if Jerry Milner and Amelia Franck Meyer have their way, many more AJ’s will suffer and die without anyone to rescue them. Because they believe that child welfare agencies should not be in the business of rescuing children.
An unproven–and mostly discredited–theory is encouraging family court judges to award custody–against children’s wishes–to the parent that has been accused of harming them. Moreover, this theory of “parental alienation” has “spawned a cottage industry of so-called family reunification camps that are making big profits from broken families.” That’s the message of a stunning report by the Center for Investigative Journalism aired on public radio’s Reveal program.
The Reveal broadcast focused on two custody cases in which the judge ordered children placed against their will with the parent that they claimed was abusive. In one case, the judge sent a teenage boy to juvenile detention because he was not making sufficient efforts to get along with his mother. He and his sister were then sent to live with their father and allowed no contact with their mother for a period of three years. In the other case, a fourteen-year old girl who said her mother was emotionally abuse and wanted to live with her father was sent to a “reunification camp” for ten months at her parents’ expense. Her mother was given full custody and the teen was separated from her father father for four years. The judges in both cases based their decisions on a theory called “parental alienation.”
“Parental alienation,” originally “Parental alienation syndrome (PAS),” was the brainchild of Richard Gardner, a child psychiatrist who developed it to help fathers fight abuse claims in custody disputes. In its current iteration, parental alienation describes a parent’s attempt to turn the children against another parent in a custody dispute. A charge of parental alienation is often deployed by a parent who has been accused of abuse, allowing that parent to turn the tables and accuses the other parent of brainwashing the children. The theory encourages judges to remove children from the parent with whom they are bonded because that parent is believed to have alienated them against the other parent.
According to Joan Meier, a leading researcher in the field of domestic violence and custody cases, there is little evidence to support the idea that “parental alienation” due to manipulation by one parent is a common occurrence. However, invoking parental alienation allows an abusive parent to portray a protective parent as a vengeful liar who is manipulating the children by implanting false memories of abuse. The theory creates a “paradoxically disastrous dynamic“: if an abuser can convince a court that the children’s attitudes reflect parental alienation, he can actually benefit from his abuse.
The Reveal story was misleading in one respect. While acknowledging that the charge of alienation is overwhelmingly used by fathers against mothers, the story focused on two families in which the mothers used the charge to take custody from the fathers. Much more common are stories like the following:
In August 2018, six-year-old twin boys were ordered removed from the sole custody of their mother (with whom they had lived for five years) and placed with their father, who was alleged to have physically and sexually abused them for years. The father, an Air Force colonel with a traumatic brain injury, had acknowledged problems with controlling his anger and sexual impulses. Yet a family court judge in Montgomery County, Maryland gave sole custody to the father, voicing the belief that the boys’ mother had manipulated them into making five allegations of abuse–even though such fabricated abuse allegations from young children are rare.
The divorce case of Omer Tsimhoni and his ex-wife, Maya Eibschitz-Tsimhoni of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, drew international attention in 2015 when the judged locked up their three children, ages 9, 11, and 14, because they refused to have lunch with their father. The children spent more than two weeks in juvenile detention before the judge released them after public outcry. The mother had claimed the children were estranged from their father because he physically and verbally abused them, and the father accused her of alienating the children. Later, the father was given temporary custody and the children did not see their mother for almost nine months. The mother was finally given primary custody by a new judge in June 2016.
How do judges make these decisions, which often seem cruel and contrary to common sense? According to Meier, many lack understanding of domestic violence and child abuse. Moreover, they often rely on neutral evaluators who also also lack “meaningful knowledge or expertise in domestic violence and abuse. Adding to this ignorance is the emphasis in family courts and mental health training on the importance of children retaining relationships with noncustodial parents after divorce and a consequent emphasis on “co-parenting,” which often reinforces the parental alienation hypothesis.
Unfortunately, there is no data to indicate how often parental alienation plays a part in child custody decisions. But according to Joan Meier, “parental alienation remains a dominant issue in many, if not most, custody cases in which a mother has alleged that a father was abusive.”According to Meier, the increasing use of parental alienation theory is part of a broader “trend toward reversal of custody from protective mothers to allegedly abusive fathers…”
Thankfully, it appears that due to media coverage and the work of scholars and activists, awareness about the use of parental alienation theory is growing among the public, child advocates, and policymakers. After eight years of advocacy, the House passed a Concurrent Resolution last fall that states that “child safety is the first priority of custody and parenting adjudications, and courts should resolve safety risks and claims of family violence before assessing other best interest factors.” The resolution also calls for higher standards for evidence and for the “experts” who testify in court and calls on Congress to schedule hearings on family court practices with regard to children’s safety and civil rights. According to Joan Meier, this resolution is “the perfect springboard” for local activists to take to their legislators and ask for similar changes at the local level, where the family courts actually operate.
DV LEAP, an advocacy organization founded by Joan Meier, and other organizations are also fighting for the rights of protective parents and abused children in court. On March 22, DV LEAP and many other organizations filed a groundbreaking brief with the New York State Court of Appeals that is the first documented collaboration between domestic violence and child maltreatment professionals on parental alienation theory. According to Meier, this brief has the potential to be a catalyst for national change.
This post is a departure for Child Welfare Monitor. We have not touched on many issues outside the arena of public child welfare. But parental alienation theory is yet another example of powerful adults ignoring the best interests and expressed wishes of children, and putting them at risk due to ignorance or mistaken beliefs. Those of us who care about abused and neglected children need to expand our awareness and activity to include all children whom our institutions fail to protect from maltreatment.