Los Angeles County missed many chances to save Anthony Avalos

Anthony Avalos
Anthony Avalos: Los Angeles Times

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.

Who’s watching the children? Abuse more likely when child is with male caregiver

kevin-daniel-jackson_1566691813763_7614840_ver1.0_1280_720
Kevin Daniel Jackson, 28, accused of killing his girlfriend’s son: WDIO.com

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 Daily website. 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.

 

 

When will they ever learn? Another little boy dead on DCFS’ watch in Antelope Valley

NoahCuatro
Image: losangeles.cbslocal.com

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’ Intact Family Services: What happens when family preservation trumps child safety?

ChapinHallIllinois’ 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.

 

Strong and Thriving Families: The Unreal World of the Children’s Bureau

NCCANThe 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.

Placing children with the parent that abused them: The problematic theory of parental alienation

MayaTsimhoni
Maya Tsimhoni: Detroit Free Press

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.”

Claiming parental alienation has proven quite successful for abusers. In the first study of its kind, Meier and Sean Dickson reviewed 238 published opinions from around the country. The results were startling. When courts believed a father’s claim of alienation, fathers won almost every time, regardless of whether or not the mother reported abuse. Mostly stunningly, even when the court believed that abuse occurred, the alienation claim trumped the abuse claim. In the seven cases where the court believed the abuse claims (five involving domestic violence, one physical abuse, and one both), the father won custody in every case. 

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…” Moreover, studies have identified “a trend toward favoring fathers, in contrast to widespread assumptions that mothers are favored in custody litigation.”

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.

 

 

Inspector General: Child safety and well-being no longer priorities for Illinois Department of Child and Family Services

SemajCrosby
Semaj Crosby: wtvr.com

DCFS has lost focus on ensuring the safety and well-being of children as a priority. This is evidenced by several recent cases and the clear lack of attention to assuring children and families receive adequate, thorough, and timely responses and needed services. Investigators, caseworkers and supervisors are unmanaged, and unsupported. Children are dying, children are being left lingering in care, children are being left in in psychiatric hospitals beyond medical necessity causing them to lose hope. This is not just unacceptable it is HARMFUL

That startling statement was made by the Acting Inspector General (IG) for Illinois Department of Children and Families to News Channel 20 about its most recent annual report. During FY 2018, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) reviewed 97 deaths and one serious injury of children whose families were involved in the child welfare system within the preceding 12 months. Of the 98 families involved, at least 52 were the subject of of a completed child abuse or neglect investigation during the previous 12 months; fully 37 of these investigations failed to find any abuse or neglect and were closed without any action to protect the child. Twelve of the 98 families were the subject of an open investigation when the child died, eight were involved in an open family service case, and three had had a family case closed within a year of the death. (See the full count of deaths by case status at the bottom of this article.)

Not all of the deaths or serious injuries can be attributed to DCFS failure to protect a child. Twenty-seven deaths were ruled natural; most of the children involved had serious medical issues. Some of the deaths (including most the 16 youths in foster care)1 were sadly due to violence, car accidents, drug abuse by older youths and other circumstances not under the Department’s control. Heartbreakingly, two older teens in foster care died of abuse that was inflicted on them as infants and left them medically compromised.

However, many of the case reviews suggest DCFS missed danger signs and opportunities to save vulnerable children. Thirteen children were killed by a parent, step parent, parent’s paramour, another relative or unknown perpetrator within a year of an open investigation or service case.  These children were beaten, starved, stabbed, and shot to death. The cause of 23 deaths of children in families that recently interacted with DCFS is still undetermined; many are currently being investigated. Most of these children were infants; many of the deaths appeared to be linked to unsafe sleep practices and at least four raised concerns of abuse. The deaths of 24 children with an open or recently open case were classified as accidental. Fourteen of these deaths were attributed to asphyxia, suffocation, or sleep related causes; there were also two accidental drownings, an accidental hanging, and an accidental shooting of a three-year-old by an 11-year-old, as described below.

 The OIG completed “full investigations” of four cases  that have drawn extensive media attention:

  • Seventeen-month-old Semaj Crosby was found dead under a couch in her home 30 hours after being reported missing. There was both an open in-home case and a pending child protection investigation of the family at the time Semaj was reported missing. The family had been the subject of 11 investigations during the two years before her death. The mother received SSI for cognitive delays but was never assessed to determine her ability to keep her children safe. Semaj’s seven-year-old brother was psychiatrically hospitalized three times for threatening to kill himself during the time the family’s case was open. A family service caseworker visited the home the day before the toddler was reported missing, and a child protection investigator had been to the house the day the report was made. No immediate safety concerns were reported by this investigator, even though the health department deemed the apartment uninhabitable after the body was found. Criminal and child neglect investigations are pending.
  • Four-year-old Manual Aguilar was killed, apparently  starved to death, and his body was burned post-mortem. Four years before his death, Manual and his three siblings were removed  from their mother’s custody after she left the three older children in a car overnight at temperatures hovering around freezing, while Manual was left in a stranger’s care. The children were returned home a year before Manual’s death despite the mother’s failure to progress in therapy and an unfounded investigation stemming from bruises to one child that his older siblings reported were inflicted by the mother during an overnight visit. Five months before Manual’s death, the two older siblings texted to their former foster parent that their mother was beating them, but the investigation was unfounded when they recanted. The mother has been charged with murder.
  • A daycare center reported that a two-and-a-half-year-old appeared to have cigarette burns on both hands. The reporter also said the child’s face had been swollen on two prior occasions, and an unknown male accompanying the mother was seen to hit the child across the face a week before. The investigator closed the case without investigating adequately either the child’s burns or the family’s allegation that they occurred at the daycare. Two days following the investigation’s closure, the child experienced cardiac arrest and died four days later. The autopsy concluded that the manner of death was undetermined and suspicious, but a child protection investigation did not find evidence to find anyone responsible for the death.
  • An eleven-year-old girl accidentally shot her three-year-old brother in the head while playing at home. This child survived and and this appears to be the only non-fatal case reviewed. The parents had left four of their children, of which the eleven-year-old was the oldest, at home alone.  The father had eight drug convictions and had been arrested multiple times for physically assaulting the mother. The investigation of the shooting was the eleventh investigation of this family since 2008. One investigation had occurred when the father barricaded himself in the home with the mother, who was eight months pregnant, and the screaming and crying children. The children’s eight-year-old sibling was in residential care in the custody of DCFS at the time of the shooting and the agency was required to monitor the at-home siblings as well. Nevertheless no visits by case managers to the home were documented in the 45 months before the shooting with one exception. A case manager attempted to visit the home 21 days before the shooting but was not allowed in. . 

The acting Inspector General told a reporter that understaffing may have contributed to the state’s inability to prevent child deaths. Following the death of Semaj Crosby, the OIG investigated a media report that child protection workers in the local office were offered incentives for early case closure. The IG found that while Semaj’s family was involved with DCFS, the entire region was understaffed (at times as low as 66% of staff needed), resulting in excessive caseloads for investigators. In December 2016, the field office administrator offered a $100 gift card to the investigator who could close the most cases in January. The IG found similar incentive programs for early case closure around the state.

The OIG also found that “a large contributing factor to the caseload problem was that the previous director had several management initiatives that seemed to take priority” over any attempt to redistribute caseloads. One of these initiatives, Rapid Safety Feedback, received some media attention last year. DCFS awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to two out-of-state firms using a “propriety algorithm to identify cases most likely to result in death or serious injury.” There were concerns that this contract was one of several no-bid contracts given to a circle of former associates of the previous director, as described by the Chicago Tribune. The contract was terminated after 25 to 50 percent of cases were flagged as having a a greater than 90% probability of death or serious injury in the next two years, alarming and overwhelming social workers. At the same time, the algorithm failed to predict the death of Semaj Crosby and other children who were killed while under supervision by DCFS. 

The OIG report identified two areas of “chronic misfeasance,” or conduct that is lawful but inappropriate or incorrect. One of these areas is “intact family services,” which is DCFS-speak for the services provided to families 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. The OIG 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.

A second area of “chronic misfeasance” identified in the 2019 report which has also drawn media coverage is the practice of leaving foster children in psychiatric hospitals “beyond medical necessity,” or after they are stable enough to be cared for outside that setting because there is no appropriate placement. OIG reported that the number of such episodes increased from 273 in FY 2017 to 329 in 2018. “The availability of community-based services and resources for youth with significant mental and behavioral needs continues to be at crisis levels.”

The OIG’s overall conclusion–that child safety and well-being are no longer priorities for DCFS–is sobering. But even more alarming is the fact that this description could be applied to many or even most other states.  Although we don’t have numbers for most states, every year brings stories from around the country of children killed after long histories of contact with child welfare authorities. Twenty-seven percent of the fatality cases analyzed by the Administration on Children and Families for its Child Maltreatment report had at least one Child Protective Services contact within the past three years.  State child welfare agencies tend to hide behind strict privacy protections in order to avoid releasing information on child protection failures, even though the case information could be released without including the names of the families involved. As a member of the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Commission, I hear at almost every monthly meeting about one or more children who died after the family was called to the attention of CPS multiple times. And yet, I am not allowed to share any information about these cases with anyone, including legislators.

At least in Illinois, thanks to the DCFS Inspector General, the public and its elected representatives are given the opportunity to learn about failures to protect children while in the custody of their parents as well as those the custody of DCFS. This information helps make the case for change. The OIG report was the subject of a hearing in Springfield. The Governor has already requested an increase of more than $70 million for 126 new staff and technology upgrades.

Unfortunately, most states do not have an independent agency like the Illinois OIG to look out for children who are served by the agency both at home and in care. In a report issued on April 4, 2018, the National Council of State Legislators found that only 11 states have “an independent and autonomous agencies with oversight specific to child welfare,” although they seem to have missed Illinois. All states need such an autonomous agency. Somebody needs to reveal the truth about how we fail our most vulnerable children–and what it would take to do better.

Number of Child Deaths by Case Status from OIG Report

Case Status*                                                    Number of deaths or serious injuries

Pending Investigation at time of child’s death………………………………………………………12

Unfounded Investigation** within a year of child’s death……………………………………37

“Indicated” Investigation*** within a year of child’s death…………………………………..15

Youth in care………………………………………………………………………………………………………………16

Open Placement/Split custody****……………………………………………………………………………..3

Open Intact Case*****………………………………………………………………………………………………….8

Closed Intact Case within a year of child’s death……………………………………………………….3

Child of Youth in Care……………………………………………………………………………………………………1

Child Welfare Services Referral (no allegation of abuse or neglect)………………………….2

Preventive services to assist family but not as result of indicated investigation………1

Total……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….98

*When more than one reason existed for the OIG investigation, the death was categorized based on “primary reason.”

**An investigation in which the agency was unable to verify that abuse or neglect occurred. 

***An investigation in which abuse or neglect by the parent was found to have occurred.

****Child was in home with siblings in foster care

****A case in which the family was receiving services while the child remained in the home. 


  1. Of the 16 children who died while in foster care, a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old died of gunshots by unrelated perpetrators, two died as a consequence of abuse by their parents in infancy, three were infants in care of relatives and cause of death was undetermined for two and suffocation for one, two died of methadone or opioid intoxication, one 18-year-old died in a car accident and five died of natural causes.