When ideology can kill: the death of Noah Cuatro

Image: KTLA.com

As many of my regular readers know, I have been fearful that the current climate emphasizing family preservation and racial and ethnic disparities in the child welfare involvement might end up inadvertently harming children. Well, it has happened in California, where a child is dead after the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) disregarded a court order to remove a child from a lethal home, motivated in part by hypersensitivity to concerns of possible bias and an exaggerated focus on family strengths that blinded agency staff to glaring problems.

On July 5, 2019, the parents of four-year-old Noah Cuatro called 911, saying their son had drowned in the pool at their apartment complex. But Noah did not look like a drowning victim. He had signs of strangulation, old and new rib fractures, and bruises across his chest, arms, and legs, and a large mark on his forehead. The cause of death was ruled as suffocation. His parents are facing trial for murdering and torturing him.

In August 2019, the Los Angeles Office of Child Protection (OCP) issued a flawed report that exonerated the Department of Child and Family Services of any responsibility for Noah’s death. Fortunately, the Los Angeles Times and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley went to court to gain access to documents that would tell them what really happened. They reviewed juvenile court files, emails, and testimony from a grand jury proceeding that led to the indictment of Noah’s parents. In a harrowing article describing the results of their investigation, the journalists document the role of errors, misjudgments, bureaucratic conflict, bias accusations, and a flawed practice model that together “blocked multiple opportunities to protect Noah.” My account is based in part on the Times article as well as the OCP report, which contains some dates and other details that help flesh out the timeline of this tragic case.

Noah Cuatro was first removed from his parents in August 2014 when he left the hospital after birth, after his mother, Ursula Juarez, was alleged to have abused an infant half-sister, causing skull fractures. He ended up in the home of his great-grandmother, Eva Hernandez. At the age of nine months, he was returned to his parents when the agency was unable to prove the allegations against Juarez. But the Times-UC Berkeley investigation found that Noah’s parents always felt that DCFS had robbed them of the first nine months with their newborn. And Hernandez felt that perhaps because they missed his first nine months, they never bonded with Noah and therefore targeted him for abuse.

In November 2016 Kaiser Permanente called the child abuse hotline to report that Noah had missed eight doctor’s appointments over the spring and summer of 2016. An investigation found that Noah had gained only a few ounces between February 2015 and October 2016. His muscles were deteriorating, and he was unable to walk at the age of 27 months. Once again, Noah was removed from his parents and placed first in a facility for medically fragile children and then back with Hernandez.

Two years later, on November 9, 2018 Noah was returned to his parents by a court over the objections of DCFS. Noah had thrived with Hernandez, reaching the appropriate weight and height for his age. He screamed and wet the bed before and after visits with his parents and begged to stay with his great grandmother. Moreover, his parents had not complied with court orders to participate in therapy and visitation with Noah. But the Juvenile Court commissioner, Steven Ipson, saw “substantial progress” by the parents and sent Noah home, requiring that his parents arrange for a visitation schedule with Hernandez, participate in Parent Child Interaction Therapy with Noah, and send him to preschool.

The red flags appeared almost as soon as Noah returned to his parents. On her visits to the family, Susan Johnson, the social worker assigned to the case, learned that Noah’s parents were ignoring the court orders for therapy, preschool and regular visits with his great-grandmother. In April 2019, an aunt made a call to the child abuse hotline, reporting that Noah was losing weight and had thinning hair. Worse, he had changed from an exuberant boy to a scared one. Another relative had told her that during an overnight stay Noah had night terrors and complained of pain in his “butt.”

Johnson went to the home and found Noah with marks on his right arm and neck, a big bruise on his left arm, and lotion covering his back, which his mother attributed to eczema. When Johnson asked what happened when he did something wrong, Noah said “I get hit,” but he quickly retracted. She tried the same question again, and got the same affirmation and quick retraction–characteristic of a scared, abused child. Back at the office, Johnson met with her supervisor and a senior administrator, who told her to file a petition for removal.

But it was not Johnson’s job to assess the truth of the allegations. She was a “Continuing Services Children’s Social Worker” (CS-CSW) in DCFS lingo, whose job was to monitor and assist the families in their journey toward a safe home and case closure. The duty of investigating the allegations fell to an “Emergency Response Children’s Social Worker (ER-CSW often known as a Child Protective Services or CPS worker in other states) named Maggie Vasquez Ducos. When Vasquez Ducos visited the family, Juarez told her that Noah got his injuries by falling off a bunk bed. She also told her, in tears, that Johnson and DCFS had been persecuting her. Noah denied abuse, and a medical exam found that his injuries could have been caused by falling from a bunk bed.

Vasquez Ducos consulted with the social worker who worked with the family before Johnson, Lizbeth Hernandez Aviles. Hernandez Aviles reported that “she had always had concerns for Noah, was opposed to his return home, and felt that the parents are habitual liars who present well,” according to the OCP report. She expressed concern about the existence of bonding between Noah and parents and believed he was the child in the family targeted for abuse.

Nevertheless Vasquez Ducos made a finding of “inconclusive” on the new allegation, meaning that there was insufficient evidence to determine that child abuse had occurred, on May 9, 2019. There is no indication in the records reviewed by the Times and UC Berkeley that Vasquez Ducos reached any of Noah’s relatives, an essential component of any serious child abuse investigation. The police investigation after Noah’s death found text messages between relatives revealing their rising concern during the same time period about the parents’ treatment of Noah.

While Vasquez Ducos was investigating, Johnson was writing and submitting her petition for the removal of Noah and on May 15 it was granted by the court, along with the requirement that Noah be taken for a medical exam. On the same day, a new referral came in alleging domestic violence in the home and sexual abuse of Noah. Assigned to investigate the new referral, Vasquez Ducos learned of the removal order and immediately began to question the need for it. Parroting the words of Noah’s parents, she told her supervisor that Johnson was “harassing them.” She argued that Johnson was biased against the parents and overly influenced by great-grandmother Hernandez.

Investigating the new allegations, Vasquez Ducos visited the family on May 20, 2019, accompanied by the previous social worker, Hernandez Aviles, who had voluntarily taken a demotion to be a Human Services Aide due in part to the stress of managing Noah’s case, according to the Times-UC Berkeley investigation. They found Noah with an injury to his cheek, for which three explanations were given, along with plenty of coaching by Mom for Noah to endorse her explanation. During the visit, Hernandez Aviles reported that Noah “randomly” ran up to her stating ““They feed me a lot,” “They take good care of me,” and “They love me.” It’s hard to imagine better evidence of coaching, and indeed Hernandez Aviles noted that many of Noah’s responses appeared coached.

But Vasquez Ducos was unmoved. In a May 22 meeting with higher management, she argued against the removal order and the top administrator in the room took her side, telling Johnson not to execute the order.* It was agreed that DCFS would facilitate a “child and family team meeting” with the family. Johnson testified that when she tried to state her case, a supervisor elbowed her to be quiet. But she was heard to state, “that she didn’t want a dead kid on her watch,” according to an email quoted in the Times article. Ironically, the new allegation was cited as a reason not to remove Noah until the investigation could be completed. To make matters worse, Johnson, Noah’s main advocate, was removed from the case. It appears that the top administrator who made the decision not to enforce the court order also wanted a Spanish-speaking case manager, although such a person was never appointed and the job of managing the case for the rest of Noah’s life was left to Vasquez-Ducos, who was an investigator, not a case manager.

On June 6, Juarez, who had repeatedly denied being pregnant, gave birth to a baby boy. She had received no prenatal care and initially claimed to be a surrogate, despite lacking any paperwork, and tried to “sneak out of the hospital.” A Kaiser social worker informed DCF about the birth. She also told Vasquez Ducos that Kaiser’s psychiatric exam showed that Juarez had traits of a sociopath and indicated that she was worried about Juarez’ contradictory accounts of her pregnancy. Nevertheless. Vasquez Ducos and her supervisor decided to let Juarez go home with her newborn.

During the month of June, the family seemed to turn against Vasquez Ducos as well, apparently obstructing all her attempts to visit him before the end of the month. Her last visit with Noah was on June 28, 2018. According to the OCP report, Noah was described as “in good spirits and reported that he was doing well.” Vasquez Ducos reported that Noah’s father dismissed her attempt to schedule the long-delayed meeting with DCFS that was agreed at the May 22 meeting, saying they wanted no further involvement with the agency–a strange thing for a social worker to accept as the prompt scheduling of the meeting should have been a condition for keeping Noah at home.

In the final week of Noah’s life, Vasquez Ducos (perhaps sensing impending disaster and seeking justification) set her sights on the people who tried to protect Noah, stating in emails that Johnson was biased towards Noah’s family, that great-grandmother Hernandez (the only person who treated Noah like a mother) was at fault for biasing Johnson, and that Noah’s parents were victims of DCFS. “I feel like as a Department we have been picking on this family,” she wrote on July 3. Three days later Noah was dead.

A close reading of the Times-UC Berkeley article and the OCP report shows that DCFS disregarded numerous red flags that should have been obvious to any competent social worker with a modicum of training: the parents’ repeated failure to comply with the terms of their custody order; the admissions of abuse and subsequent retractions by Noah; his unsolicited comment that his parents treated and fed him well and other obvious signs of coaching; the assessment indicating that the mother had traits of a sociopath; and the comments by the previous social worker, among many others. There were multiple failures in case practice including the ignored removal order, the disregarded court order for a medical exam, the lack of response to the parents’ repeated failure to comply with the terms of their custody (a reason in itself for removal of the child); and the failure to schedule a family meeting which was an essential component of the plan to leave Noah at home.

But what makes this more than yet another story of missed red flags and bad case practice is the explicit evidence of the impact of two factors—bias accusations and “strength-based practice–in the death of Noah Cuatro.

Bias accusations

From the beginning of her involvement, Vasquez Ducos seemed to be convinced by Noah’s parents that Susan Johnson was biased against Noah’s parents. The charge of bias took place in the context of a state and national reckoning with racial and cultural bias against people of color. As I’ve written, there is a growing focus on the disparities in child welfare involvement between different racial and ethnic groups. These disparities are evident as they relate to Black and Native American children, who are much more likely to be reported to CPS, found to be abused or neglected, and placed in foster care, than White children. But this is not the case for Latinos like Noah, who actually are underrepresented in foster care nationally, constituting 25.4 percent of the child population but only 20.8 percent of those in foster care. In California, Latino children enter foster care at the same rate as all children–5.3 per thousand in the population, and in Los Angeles County they enter foster care at a slightly lower rate. Yet, “people of color” who are said to be over-represented in foster care and child welfare services are often assumed to include Latinos.

The extent to which Vasquez Ducos and her supervisors believed that Johnson (a Black woman) was biased against Latino families is unclear. The previous social worker, who had argued for removal, was Latina. The great-grandmother, who Vasquez-Ducos accused of influencing Jackson against Juarez, was also Latina. Yet, the Times reported that the administrator who quashed the removal order also wanted Johnson replaced with a Spanish-speaking social worker, even though the entire family was fluent in English except for one person in the extended family. Whatever the cause, the facile use of the bias label seemed to blind Vasquez Ducos to the evidence that should have been apparent to any minimally-trained investigative social worker.

The reporters found something very telling in Vasquez Ducos’ notes. She quoted Juarez as saying “Why would we hurt our baby when we just got him back? I have had this case open for four years, and I have been told I’m good enough to only have my two kids but not Noah. How does that make sense?” Apparently Vasquez Ducos agreed. She must have never learned about the well-known phenomenon of one child in a family being targeted for abuse, as well as the attachment problems that can ensue when an infant is apart from its mother from birth, information that one hopes is included in training for child protective services workers everywhere.

Strength-based practice

Perhaps even more important than the bias issue is the role that a “signature” DCFS policy played in Noah’s death. In telling testimony reported by the Times, Vasquez Ducos’ supervisor reported that “DCFS management wanted to follow the core “practice model” that requires workers to remain focused on the positive, taking a better look at a family’s strengths and less at its weaknesses.” Similarly, Hernandez Aviles told the grand jury that colleagues decided not to remove Noah in line with the agency’s “strength based approach.”

According to Los Angeles DCFS website, its social workers use a “Core Practice Model that prioritizes child safety while emphasizing strengths over deficits, addressing underlying needs over behaviors, and instilling empowerment over helplessness.” This Core Practice Model is an example of what is generally called “strength-based practice,” a theory of social work practice that emphasizes clients’ self-determination and strengths.

I am familiar with this approach because I was trained in a similar model by the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency. We learned that in the past, child welfare practice was characterized by an emphasis on deficits, telling parents what is wrong with them and what they must fix. This approach, we were told, created hopelessness among parents and interfered with the development of good relationships with social workers. We were told that strength-based practice empowers families to make positive self-directed change.

It makes sense find a family’s strengths, emphasize them to the family and build on them. I certainly tried to do this when I worked with families that were trying to get their children back from foster care. But to disregard problems that could lead to harm to a child in no way “prioritizes child safety” as DCF claims to do. Noah’s case shows how disregarding family problems despite numerous red flags can lead to tragedy.

But strength-based practice is in line with a national movement focusing on parents’ rights and stressing the importance of keeping families together, with removals eliminated or drastically restricted. This movement has been reinforced by the current racial reckoning, which has produce arguments that child protective services is nothing more than a “family policing system.” Noah’s case shows what can go wrong when this philosophy goes unchecked.

Bobby Cagle, the Director of DCFS, told the reporters that he saw no problems with his agency’s policies or its handling of Noah’s case. He refused to say if any employee was disciplined as a result. Firing people is not a solution to such unnecessary deaths as that of Noah. However, it seems likely that one or more people in the Lancaster office of DSS are so unsuited to their jobs that they pose a danger to children. Keeping them on the job is unacceptable on child protection grounds, not to mention the need for accountability.

The death of Noah Cuatro was a tragedy. The fear and suffering that he endured starting from the time he was returned to his parents at the age of four was also a tragedy. We cannot know many children are suffering at this very moment because social workers or their bosses miss the most obvious red flags due to ignorance, overwork or because their ideology or training does not allow them to see the glaring faults of their parents. DCFS’ Office of Child Protection tried to cover up this horrendous failure that cost the life of a child. The Los Angeles Times and UC Berkeley deserve kudos for providing the answers that OCP tried to cover up.

*According to OCP, a removal order authorizes, but does not require removal of a child. However the court must be notified within ten days if the child is not removed. Nobody notified the court that the removal order obtained by Johnson was not carried out until the hearing on June 25, more than 45 days after the order was approved. The ordered medical exam had never been carried out.

Report of Maltreatment: a major risk factor for child mortality

When I joined the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Committee, I was expecting to review many deaths of children due to child abuse and neglect. Thankfully, that was not the case–or at least there were few cases that were clearly due to maltreatment. But over time I learned that the relationship between child maltreatment and child fatalities was more complicated. I was shocked to discover how many children who died of of natural causes, accident, homicide, or suicide came from families that had previously reported to Child Protective Services (CPS). There has been a spate of new research demonstrating that children who have been the subject of a child abuse or neglect report are more likely to die from many major causes than other children, even when confounding factors are controlled. This increasing body of evidence has major policy implications, including the need to intervene with high-risk infants at or before birth.

Many of the new studies come from California, where researchers linked prior CPS reports with birth and death records. The size of California, with its more than 10 million children, allowed the researchers to obtain statistically significant results despite the relative rarity of child fatalities. Moreover, the researchers could adjust for sociodemographic factors including birth payment method (public vs. private insurance), maternal age, maternal education, race and paternity establishment, birth order, child gender, and child health risk indicators (low birth weight and birth abnormalities). The researchers chose to focus on children with any maltreatment allegation, rather than only substantiated ones, because of the literature suggesting the difficulty of making an accurate finding of past maltreatment, as well as the absence of differences in subsequent outcomes between children with substantiated and unsubstantiated allegations.

In the first study using this approach, Emily Putnam-Hornstein of the University of California Berkeley sought to establish whether children reported for maltreatment were at higher risk of death by intentional and unintentional injury during their first five years of life. She linked CPS, birth and death records for over 4.3 million children born in California between 1999 and 2006. And what she found was striking: after adjusting for socioeconomic and other risk factors at birth, children with a prior report to CPS died of intentional injuries at a rate that was 5.9 times greater than children who were not reported. More surprisingly perhaps, these children died of unintentional injuries at a rate that was twice as high as that for unreported children. In total, children with a prior allegation of child abuse or neglect were fatally injured at a rate 2.5 times higher than children without a prior allegation. Putnam-Hornstein found that a prior report to CPS was the strongest independent risk factor for injury mortality in the first five years of life out of all the risk factors studied. The existence of more unintentional injuries among children with prior CPS reports may reflect the lack of age-appropriate supervision by parents, as Putnam-Hornstein suggests, given that these parents have already been the subject of CPS reports. But she also notes the probability that some of the injuries classified as unintentional may have actually been intentional injuries that were misclassified on death certificates.*

Putnam-Hornstein and colleagues, using the same dataset, also studied how the risk of fatal injury varies by the type of maltreatment allegation, adjusting for baseline risk factors. They found that children with a previous allegation of physical abuse died from injuries at a rate 1.7 times higher than children referred from neglect. Moreover, these children died from intentional injuries at a rate five times higher than children with an allegation of neglect. Yet, these children had a significantly lower risk of unintentional injuries than children with an allegation of neglect. They point out that these findings are consistent with the general conceptual understanding that abuse is an act of commission, while neglect is an act of omission.

In the next California birth cohort study to be published, Putnam-Hornstein and her colleagues sought to establish whether infants previously reported for maltreatment face a heightened risk of Sudden Unexpected Infant Death (SUID), a term that refers to children who die in the first 12 months of life with no immediately identifiable cause or explanation.** They started with the same dataset of all children born in California between 1999 and 2006 with corresponding CPS and death records through each child’s first birthday. Adjusting for risk factors at birth (including low birth weight and late or absent prenatal care), they found the rate of SUID was more than three times greater among infants who had been previously reported for past maltreatment than among infants who had not been reported. The authors suggest several possible explanations for this finding. The existence of a previous CPS report may indicate the presence of risk factors the researchers were not able to measure, such as maternal substance abuse, which has been found to be associated with SUID. In addition, families reported to CPS may be less likely to adhere to safe sleeping guidelines due to the stressors they face and the fact that they have not yet been reached or convinced by public health messaging around safe sleep practices.

To complement the first two studies, which focused on injury deaths and unexplained non-injury deaths, Schneiderman, Prindle and Putnam-Hornstein looked at non-injury, medically-caused deaths of infants in the first year of life. In this study, the researchers used records for the more than 3.4 million children born in California between 2010 and 2016. They found that after adjusting for baseline risk factors (including low birth-weight and preterm birth), infants with one CPS report were almost twice as likely to die of medical causes than infants with no CPS reports; infants with more than one CPS report were more than three times more likely to die of medical causes than those without a CPS report. The researchers also found that among infants reported for maltreatment, periods of foster care placement reduced the risk of death from medical causes by roughly half. The authors speculate that the higher risk of death from medical causes among infants in families with CPS reports is related to these families’ challenges around mental health, substance abuse, and extreme poverty, as well as their lack of social support. Medical neglect may also be more likely in these families given their CPS history. And unfortunately, as described by child welfare analyst Dee Wilson, there is a strong correlation between medical fragility and parental incapacity to care for a child, as parents with little or no prenatal care and those who abuse drugs are most likely to have babies with low birth weight and birth abnormalities. The protective effect of foster care suggests that many foster parents are better equipped to meet the medical needs of fragile infants than the families from which they have been removed.

But it is not just infants and young children previously reported to CPS who are more likely to die of non-maltreatment causes than their non-reported peers. In a newly published article, Palmer, Prindle and Putnam-Hornstein report on their study of CPS history and risk of suicide. Using linked birth, death and CPS records, they followed all children born in California in 1999 and 2000 and all death records through 2017. Using a “case-control design,” they matched each suicide case to four living controls based on demographic characteristics including sex, year of birth, maternal race and ethnicity, maternal age at birth, maternal education, and insurance type at birth. They found that over half (56.5 percent) of children who died by suicide had a history of past allegations of abuse or neglect, as compared to 30.4 percent of the control youth. Children with any CPS history were three times as likely to end their own lives than children without such a history. In a second study, they compared suicide victims with CPS involvement to a matched group of living adolescents with CPS involvement to determine if the nature of the allegation or the child welfare response affected suicide risk. In that study, they found that teens with one or more substantiated allegations were no more likely to die of suicide than teens with allegations that were not substantiated. Moreover, they found no difference in suicide risk between teens who were placed in foster care and those who were never removed from home. They did find increased odds of suicide among teens with more recent CPS reports, allegations of physical abuse, and allegations of sexual abuse.

As I stated in the top of this column, I have observed that many victims of homicide cases reviewed by the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Committee had a history of CPS reports. Their families had long histories of calls to CPS alleging both abuse and neglect, with school absenteeism being one of the most frequent allegations. Eventually, these young people became involved in violent and illegal activities, ultimately leading to their deaths. There is some relevant evidence from an older study of Washington State children born between 1973 and 1986 who were reported to the state child abuse registry. Matching each reported child to three other children of the same sex, county of birth, and year of birth, the researchers found that children reported to the registry were almost 20 times more likely than the comparison population to die from homicide. These researchers were not able to to control for other variables that might affect homicide risk, including poverty and maternal education, so the differences may be exaggerated but are likely real.

The studies reviewed here show that children who are reported as possible victims of abuse and neglect are at risk for more than “just” further abuse and neglect, but for other bad outcomes, including a sudden infant death and for deaths due to injuries (intentional or unintentional), medical causes, suicide, and homicide. While different factors may come into play for different causes and manners of death, maltreatment allegations generally suggest parents who, even if not actually abusive or neglectful, are not well equipped to protect and nurture their children. As Putnam-Hornstein puts it in her article about injury deaths, these data confirm that “children reported for maltreatment have a truly distinctive risk profile defined by much more than just birth into poverty.”

The research described above suggests that youths who previously reported for abuse or neglect are more likely to die due to their own self-harming behaviors, not just directly through acts of commission or omission by their parents. This is not surprising, as a large body of research links child maltreatment and wide variety of adverse outcomes, including, diminished cognitive and executive function, poor mental and emotional health, attachment and social difficulties, post-traumatic stress, juvenile delinquency, and substance abuse. In a recent commentary, Dee Wilson describes specific pathways by which childhood abuse and neglect lead to early-onset mental health conditions, which in turn result in higher rates of suicide, substance abuse and lethal violence in adolescence and young adulthood.

The growing body of research linking child abuse reports with mortality from causes other than child maltreatment itself has important implications for policy. More intensive supports should be put in place for all children remaining at home after a CPS report, especially infants and young children, who are most vulnerable and whose development is most affected by maltreatment. Such intensive approaches could include supportive housing, residential drug treatment programs where children can stay with their mothers, and high-quality early care and education programs. Older children who are the subject of a report should receive a mental health assessment and access to activities and services that provide them with nurturing relationships and opportunities to develop talents and skills, as Dee Wilson describes in his commentary.

But while one can argue for more intensive services for children with substantiated allegations, the idea of mandating services when allegations are not substantiated is a non-starter at a time when the conversation is about restricting the role of CPS, not expanding it. But the research described above also lends support to the growing chorus of voices that is calling for putting more resources into programs that prevent the occurrence of child abuse and neglect, rather than responding to its occurrence. There is a growing interest in “targeted universal prevention programs,” like Hello Baby in Allegheny County Pennsylvania and Family Connects in North Carolina and Oregon, which reach out to all families but provide a more intensive intervention to the families of children who are most at risk of being abused or neglected. Family Connects has already shown some promising results, reducing CPS referrals and emergency room visits among infants receiving the intervention.

It is important to note that mortality is not the only outcome that matters. Because the definition of death is unambiguous, and death data are collected everywhere, death rates are a good way to calculate risk differentials between groups. But for every child who dies as a direct or indirect consequence of abuse or neglect, there are many more who are seriously disabled or injured or suffering from the kinds of adverse outcomes mentioned above, including poor mental and emotional health, juvenile delinquency, and substance abuse. We need a stronger response to reports of child maltreatment, whether or not they are substantiated or the child is placed in foster care. And we must intervene as early as possible to protect high-risk children, rather than waiting for them to be the subject of a child maltreatment report.

*It should be noted that evidence cited by Putnam-Hornstein shows that death certificates “severely” undercount the number of deaths due to child maltreatment and inflicted injuries, and it is likely that over half of fatalities due to maltreatment may be incorrectly classified as due to accidents, natural causes, or undetermined.

**Ultimately about half of these deaths are classified as caused by sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), a term which connotes a death that remains unexplained following an in-depth investigation.

***Emily Putnam-Hornstein and colleagues found that in California, 82 percent of infants remained at home following their first CPS report. Of these infants remaining at home, only one in ten of their parents received services through an open case, and 60.7 percent were re-reported within five years. Those who did not receive services through an in-home case may have received community-based services but that information is not available.

The death of David Almond: a perfect storm, or the tip of the iceberg?

Image: WJAR

I have been trying to avoid writing more posts about children failed by state systems that exist to protect them. No matter how many reports are written, these fatalities continue to occur with devastating regularity, and I’m not sure if my posts do any good. But despite my resolution to avoid such stories, I feel compelled to write about David Almond, a fourteen-year-old boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder who died of abuse and neglect on October 21, 2020. I have to write about David for many reasons, including the sheer number of red flags that were disregarded by child welfare, schools and courts in his case; the light his death sheds on risks to children with special needs, and what it shows about the peril posed to abuse victims by the quarantines due to COVID-19.

The Massachusetts Office of Child Advocate (OCA) issued a scathing report in March that revealed “multiple missed opportunities for prevention and intervention prior to the death of David Almond and the discovery of the serious physical and emotional injuries to his brothers.” David’s family was under the supervision or monitoring of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the juvenile court, the education system and many service providers at the time of David’s death. Reading OCA’s account of the family’s involvement with DCF alone, it is hard to comprehend the many misguided actions and missed opportunities that allowed David to be returned to a family patently unable to care for him and then to deteriorate physically and emotionally over a period of seven months, culminating in his death. The attachment to this blog lays out the sad chronology assembled by OCA, which I summarize more briefly below..

David, Michael and Noah Almond were triplets born in February, 2006 in Syracuse, NY and diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of about two. Between 2006 and 2013, the triplets were removed from their parents three times by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) due to substance abuse, mental illness, “deplorable living conditions,” medical neglect, inadequate supervision, and “a general lack of basic care.” After working toward termination of the parents’ rights, OCFS inexplicably shifted gears and a New York Family Court awarded full custody of the boys, now aged ten, to Almond, who was living in Massachusetts, in September 2016.

Upon receiving custody, Almond moved the boys to the one-bedroom apartment in Fall River, Massachusetts, which he shared with his partner, Jaclyn Coleman, and his mother, Ann Shadburn. Almond had been removed as a child from Shadburn, whose parental rights to all her children had been terminated due to abuse and neglect. Almond and Coleman were both in DCF custody for part of their childhoods due to abuse and neglect, mental illness, physical violence, and substance abuse. By August 2017, Coleman had a new baby (Aiden) and three reports had already come into Masachusetts’ child abuse hotline concerning the family.

In October 2017, all four children were removed from Almond and Coleman because of abuse and neglect, parental substance abuse, unsanitary home conditions, medical neglect, and the triplets’ excessive absences from school. In the words of OCA, “This was the fourth time in the triplets’ young lives that they were removed from Mr. Almond for the identical pattern of abuse and neglect.” But four strikes was not enough. The parents agreed to a plan requiring them to engage in therapy to address longstanding substance abuse and mental health issues, submit to random drug tests, participate in family therapy with the triplets, complete psychological evaluations, and complete parenting classes. Aiden was placed in foster care and the triplets were eventually placed in a residential facility specializing in autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability.

While the triplets thrived in their residential facility, Coleman and Almond displayed minimal compliance with their plans, and the children’s permanency goal was changed to adoption in January 2019. But in July 2019, the children’s goal was changed back to reunification based on the parents’ improved compliance with their case plan, and Aiden was returned home the next day. This occurred, as OCA put it, “despite Mr. Almond’s failure to engage with therapy, despite Ms. Coleman’s limited engagement with therapy, and despite the lack of any documentation of any change in Mr. Almond and Ms. Coleman’s ability to parent, specifically their ability to parent children with special needs.” OCA attributes this decision mainly to a parenting evaluation conducted by a contractor that did not adequately assess the caregivers’ ability to care for the children.

In December 2019, DCF Fall River area office management decided to begin the reunification process for the triplets. This decision was made despite concerns raised by the family support provider and the case management team (social worker and supervisor) that the parents were canceling appointments, and more generally regarding their ability to care for the triplets. Management set a target date of January 2020 for the reunification. They disregarded requests for a delay from the case management team, the residential facility and the boys’ school. These requests were based in part on the need of children for a slower transition given the children’s disability, the logic of waiting until June to eliminate an extra change of school, the limited engagement the parents had demonstrated with services, the difficulties inherent in having seven people in a one-bedroom apartment, and the threat of eviction by the landlord if the boys returned home.

As the reunification date grew nearer, Almond and Coleman canceled scheduled visits with the boys, canceled appointments with the parenting support provider, and failed to take steps to secure larger housing. During the first day visit of the boys to the home on January 10, 2020, Coleman stated that reunification was moving too fast and that the family was not yet ready for overnight visits because the apartment was too small. At the first overnight visit on February 7, Almond and Coleman reported that Noah became aggressive, and he was returned to his facility that night. After this home visit, Noah refused to return to the apartment and was allowed to remain at his residential facility. The goal of reunifying him with his parents was dropped. This young autistic boy’s self-advocacy may have saved his life.

On February 11, 2020, the residential care facility took the “extraordinary” step of sending DCF a letter opposing the reunification of David and Michael with Almond and Coleman, citing the inadequate physical environment of the home to meet the children’s therapeutic needs; the fact the parents were facing eviction; and the need for a slower, more appropriate transition plan. The reunification was delayed, but by one month only. The case management team referred the family for Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Services, an evidence-based approach used in both the residential program and school that the boys attended. This service was considered essential for a successful reunification, but there was a waiting list of at least six months for ABA services. Instead of delaying the reunification, DCF chose to secure “continuum services” for the family even though these services targeted one child only (Michael) and were not a substitute for ABA’s services, which are specific to the needs of autistic children.

David and Michael were returned to Almond and Coleman on March 13, 2020, barely two months after their first day visit. Four days after the reunification, the state’s COVID-19 restrictions went into effect. Starting within days of the boys’ return home and continuing until David’s death, OCA states that Almond and Coleman “deliberately avoided contact with the DCF case management team, the Fall River Public Schools, the continuum service provider, and the parenting support service provider.” They often claimed to have phone or internet access issues that prevented them from responding or being on video. When offered help in dealing with these issues, they refused or provided conflicting information.

Between March and September 2020, the case management team conducted monthly virtual visits with the family and received many communications from providers and schools. During this period, the team missed multiple red flags and opportunities to prevent the tragedy that eventually occurred. The team disregarded evidence from their own virtual visits, such as Coleman’s berating of David for his alleged behavior and her coaching of the boys to provide the desired responses to the case manager’s questions. But they never sought to interview David and Michael outside the presence of the adults. Exactly two months before David’s death, DCF received received a new CPS report about conditions in the home and substance abuse by Coleman and Almond. But the case management team accepted Coleman’s attribution of the report to a malicious neighbor and did not request drug tests for Coleman and Almond.

The team ignored concerning reports from providers and schools. These included the termination of services by the parenting services provider due to Coleman and Almond’s failure to engage with services; consistent reports from the continuum services provider that Coleman refused to allow them to speak to Michael, the targeted child for these services, and were resistant to the support and the strategies offered to address the boys’ behaviors; and David was never allowed to see the therapist obtained by DCF. DCF heard from Fall River Public Schools that Coleman and Almond refused the Chromebooks offered by the school in May but never submitted the paper packets they had chosen to complete instead. Instead, DCF learned that that the boys were not logging into school in the fall semester (a report Coleman denied, as she was logging into the schools’ electronic attendance system to falsely mark the boys “present.” ). They learned that David had missed his physical in July and two subsequently scheduled appointments.

David’s school, despite making multiple concerning reports to DCF case management, also missed many chances to save David. In one striking example, a school attendance officer came to drop off Chromebooks for David and Michael only 20 days before David was found dead. Coleman met the officer outside, refusing him entry in the apartment, and the offer did not attempt to see the boys. Apparently he was there solely to drop off the devices and not to see David or discuss with this family his lack of engagement with school since the previous March. If that officer had seen David and noticed his physical state, David might be alive today.

On the morning of October 21, 2020, emergency medical personnel responded to a 911 call regarding David; he was bruised, emaciated, and not breathing. He was transported to Charlton Memorial Hospital and pronounced deceased. Michael was found emaciated but responsive, and Aiden was well nourished and appeared physically unharmed. Substances believed to be heroin and fentanyl were found in the apartment. Michael and Aiden were immediately removed from Almond and Coleman, who are in jail and facing criminal charges.

OCA found that DCF missed multiple opportunities to protect David and his brothers. DCF gathered insufficient information from service providers and failed to analyze the information they did get; underestimated the impact of Almond and Coleman’s substance use; failed to recognize that Almond and Coleman were using access to technology as a tactic to avoid participation in services for themselves and their children; misinterpreted the “successful” reunification of Aiden (a non-disabled child) as a predictor of a successful reunification for the triplets; disregarded the triplets’ need for a gradual transition to the home; failed to secure the recommended essential services for David and Michael to be stable and successful at home; made David responsible for his own physical safety rather than teaching him to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate interactions how to to communicate concerns to a trusted adult; and failed to adequately identify and adjust to the complications imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

OCA found that DCF management failed to understand that the physical environment of the home, a small one-bedroom apartment, did not meet the needs of the triplets. This is despite hearing this concern from the DCF case management team, Almond, Coleman, Almond’s legal counsel, legal counsel for David and Michael, and several provider agencies.  Incredibly, it appears that DCF management interpreted concerns from the various professionals as “an inappropriate consideration of the family’s financial means.” They seem to have disregarded the importance of physical space in the therapeutic management of autistic children and also the fact that Coleman and Almond seemed uninterested in finding a larger apartment and provided multiple excuses for not following up on housing applications.

As OCA states, “It is widely recognized that in times of crisis and economic stress there is an increase in child abuse and neglect.” Yet, OCA found that DCF did not treat the COVID-19 pandemic as a cause for reevaluation of the appropriateness of David and Michael’s reunification and did not consider the implications of the pandemic for the safety or well-being of the children. DCF seemed oblivious of Coleman and Almond’s use of the pandemic to isolate the children. Bizarrely, DCF case management staff urged school staff not to hold Coleman accountable for David and Michael’s complete absence from school, arguing that the problem was lack of technology access in the home. Case management staff also advised Coleman repeatedly to contact the school to explain that technology was the barrier to David and Michael’s participation, in order to prevent the school from filing a child neglect report against her.

Amazingly, DCF did not categorize David and Michael as high-risk children to receive in-person home visits during COVID-19. DCF appeared not to understand that that the boys’ disability, the long history of abuse and neglect in this family, the caregivers’ avoidance of contact with providers, and their reports about David’s behaviors, injuries and illnesses were all signs of children at risk. Moreover, the DCF administration has not issued statewide guidance that provides DCF personnel instructions about how to assess safety and risk during virtual home visits.

And perhaps most shockingly, DCF missed the deterioration in David’s physical and emotional state between March 13, 2020, and his death on October 21. The residential program and school where David lived and studied until March 2020 described him as having good social interaction skills, as being communicative, as having no significant behavioral issues or self-injurious behaviors, as having no aggression toward others and as having the ability to take care of his own activities of daily living. Yet within weeks of reunification Coleman was reporting that David was noncompliant, aggressive, harmed himself, and needed assistance with activities like toileting. During virtual home visits with DCF, David was always quiet and minimally communicative, while Coleman often berated and shamed him for behaviors and defiance. The case management team accepted her account and disregarded the conflict with his observed behavior and past accounts. David was a healthy weight when he left residential care. At his death, David had lost approximately 60 pounds from his last recorded weight in December 2019. It is hard to understand how anyone could have missed such a drastic change, even through a video screen.

OCA found that the Juvenile Court, including the attorney for David and Michael, did not serve as a check on the many egregious decisions of DCF. Instead, perhaps because they all agreed to return the boys home, the court and attorneys relied too heavily on DCF to determine the direction of the case. They accepted DCF’s interpretation of Aiden’s “successful” reunification as an indication of the likelihood of a similar outcome for the triplets, disregarding the differences between Aiden and the autistic triplets; failed to require a submission of a realistic reunification plan despite the judge’s statement that such a plan would be needed; accepted DCF’s narrative of the triplets’ “successful” reunification even though court reports contained information from service providers about the family’s failure to participate in services; disregarded multiple concerns about the small size of the family’s apartment and the stress it caused, based on the apparent belief that it was inappropriate to consider inadequate housing as a barrier to reunification; and never requested an analysis of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the family’s ability to care for these high-needs children.

The education system’s failure of David and Michael was almost as egregious and shocking as that of DCF and the court. OCA found that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) did not have the resources to monitor the provision of a free and appropriate public education in real time by local school districts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite their policy of prioritizing high-risk students for in-person learning, DESE “allowed families to choose the fully remote option for any reason and without a stated reason. In fact, districts were instructed not to counsel families of high risk students to choose in-person learning even if the district felt that remote learning would not be successful for a particular student.” DESE did not set higher standards for monitoring or support for high-risk students, such as those with disabilities and those involved with DFS, regardless of their choice of learning option. DESE issued no guidance to school staff on how to recognize abuse and neglect in a virtual environment. Nor did they address mandatory reporting of attendance issues until January 2021.

In addition to the failures of DESE, Fall River Public Schools (FRPS) missed multiple opportunities to save David. The shift to remote learning, coinciding exactly with the transfer of David and Michael to FRPS, meant that David was never seen by, or spoken to, by any school employee from March 2020 to the time of his death in October 2020. To their credit, school staff made numerous attempts to communicate with the parents and resolve alleged technology problems. Yet, David and Michael’s teachers never attempted to make contact with the boys directly via telephone. While they raised concerns about the boys’ lack of participation to the DCF case management team, school staff never elevated this concern by filing a neglect or truancy report. Moreover, FRPS set no attendance or participation requirements, and David was incredibly promoted to high school after being completely disengaged from his school since being transferred there in March. DESE and FRPS guidance for the fall 2020 concerning attendance tracking, contact, and grading never filtered down to school staff, perhaps preventing an intervention in the last month of David’s life.

There was another entity that could have intervened to raise concerns about the safety of the children, and that was the Massachusetts Probation Service (MPS). Massachusetts children in child welfare cases are assigned a probation officer whose role is to verify compliance with court orders, report to the court on the status of these orders and monitor the well-being of the children. The officer in this case had regular contact with the family and seemed to have a much more clear-eyed view of their problems than did DCF, which did not act on his expressed concerns. However, he did have a worrisome conversation with Coleman only days before David’s death in which she reported on the deterioration of both boys, that they had regressed to wearing adult diapers, that David was picking at his skin causing sores and bleeding, and that Michael had to be hospitalized for self-injury. The officer could have brought these concerns to the attention of the court before the next hearing but did not do so–possibly due to a culture discouraging such communications–and missing the last opportunity to save David.

Several questions remain even after the comprehensive review by OCA. First, what explains the New York Court’s decision to reunify the triplets with their father after taking steps toward terminating his rights? It is very concerning that OCA was not able to obtain this information in its review of court data. A court decision like this would have to be documented and would presumably been based on recommendations from Onondaga County (NY)’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS). It is not clear whether OCA requested documents from OCFS, and whether such a request was refused. It is necessary to understand what occasioned this about-face by New York. One cannot help wondering if the agency realized the boys would not be adopted was trying to avoid the expense of caring for the boys into adulthood.

OCA was also unable to explain the DCF area management’s unwillingness to reconsider the appropriateness of the reunification plan in the face of objections from their case management team and almost everyone else involved. OCA states that there was no pressure from the Juvenile Court, Almond, Coleman, their attorneys, nor the children’s attorney to rush a transition home. DCF administration also confirmed during this investigation that there were adequate funds in the Fall River Area Office’s budget to continue the triplets residential placement. Once again, as in New York, one has to wonder whether, despite the existence of “adequate funds” for the boys’ placement, there was in fact pressure on the local DCF office to return the boys due to the financial costs of their placement. Such budget concerns might have explained the unseemly rush to reunify despite the unavailability of a crucial service and adequate housing and the clear logic of waiting until the triplets completed their educational program in June 2020.

It is hard to avoid speculating about whether Almond and his paramour actually wanted custody of David and Michael. It appears that Almond and Coleman wanted Aiden back (not surprising as he was Coleman’s son and not disabled) and that is why they began to cooperate somewhat with services after an initial period of total noncompliance. There is no evidence that the couple were pushing for the return of the triplets and many indications that they tried to delay it as long as possible. Canceling visits to the boys and appointments with providers and failing to take steps to find a larger apartment could all be taken as signs of reluctance to receive the boys at home. Caring for triplets with autism plus a baby is not easy for anyone, it is hard to imagine a troubled couple like this one doing it, especially without the help that was recommended by the expert.

There is no excuse for the sheer inhumanity displayed in this household. Nevertheless, the case does call to mind the reports that are coming from all parts of the country regarding our national failure to help parents care for their mentally ill or developmentally disabled children–a crisis that is leading good parents to consider relinquishing custody of their children in order to obtain the services they need. It is possible that Almond and Coleman (not being good parents in the least) were trying hard to relinquish custody but were unsuccessful in unloading their unwanted triplets onto New York and Massachusetts. The eagerness of agency management to shed this burden and the reluctance of Almond and Coleman to take it on made for a toxic mix that killed David Almond, and left both of his brothers with lifelong wounds.

The OCA report contains many pages of recommendations for DCF, which include improving supervision, reviewing and revamping agency policies on contacts with collaterals, clients with disabilities, reunification; revamping the safety assessment process; setting standards for when and how virtual visits can be conducted, establishing a robust quality assurance system with additional monitoring at critical decision-points in a case and for higher-risk cases, and creating a “culture of continuous learning” where the “identification and correction of errors, miscalculations, or misinterpretations is encouraged and commended.” Many more recommendations targeted the juvenile court, the Probation Services, and the public schools.

While this report is unique due in its exploration of the complications due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen too many similar reports from all of the country over many years. Most recently, Maine’s child welfare ombudsman found that the system continues to struggle with making an informed decision about whether to send a child home from foster care and whether to end agency supervision of reunified children. In a review of 82 cases closed in the past year, they found 20 cases where reunification practices were at issue.

Commonwealth Magazine notes that OCA conducted comprehensive investigations in 2013 and 2015, following three high-profile child deaths. Since 2015, the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration have increased funding for DCF by more than $200 million, added more than 650 positions, reduced caseloads, and introduced numerous reforms. Yet, Fall River State Representative Carole Fiola pointed out that many of the same patterns of agency malfunction were found in the earlier reports. This is indeed discouraging. Perhaps stronger measures are required.

A “three strikes law” for abuse and neglect might be one such stronger measure. Perhaps parents should not be given another chance after three or more removals. And this question brings up the role of ideology, especially as it might be expressed by managers who are unfamiliar with the actual details of the case. In the current child welfare climate, it often seems that parents can do no wrong. As noted repeatedly in the this case, there was too little focus on the problems that brought the children into care, and too little assessment of whether these problems were truly solved before the children were returned. This may not be atypical or surprising, given the current emphasis on family preservation and “strength-based” approaches to working with families, which ask social workers to minimize problems and find strengths wherever they can. There is certainly value in this perspective as a corrective to an earlier focus exclusively on problems, but taken too far it can be deadly.

The reluctance of the agency, lawyers and court personnel to consider housing adequacy as a prerequisite to reunification was another dysfunctional intrusion by ideology into case practice. Today’s dominant narrative asserts that children are being removed from families due to poverty that is being couched as neglect by intrusive child protective services systems. Poverty should not be a reason for removal nor should it be a barrier to reunification. But this case was not so simple. Almond and Coleman took no steps to apply for larger housing, despite being offered many opportunities to do so. It is possible that their reluctance to apply stemmed to their hope that they would not be saddled with the three boys. But the reigning narrative may have blinded agency management, court and lawyers to this concerning lack of action by the boys’ father and his paramour.

David’s case warns us to beware of the blanket statements often pushed by the child welfare establishment. It is often accepted as common knowledge that children do best with their family of origin, that in rare cases where children cannot remain at home the best placement is a relative (like Ann Shadburn?), and that congregate care is always the worst placement for children. None of these “truths” were correct for David and his brothers. Perhaps David’s story will lead some leaders and commentators to ask themselves what a home really is, and to understand that it is the presence of love, not the type of setting, that matters to a child.

“It is tempting to characterize this case as resulting from a ‘perfect storm,'” says the OCA, while not expressing an opinion on whether that is an apt characterization. The “perfect storm” explanation is often used by governments to argue against placing significant weight on individual cases, no matter how egregious. “A system should not be judged by one case, no matter how sad or sensational,” said Joette Katz, Commissioner of Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) as reported by the Hartford Courant. Katz was talking about the death of Matthew Tirado, an autistic 17-year-old, on February 14, 2017 from prolonged abuse and neglect by his mother. Matthew had been known to Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families since the age of five, as revealed by a heartbreaking  report from Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate. Yes, A System Should be Judged by One Case was my answer to Katz. If David’s death was the outcome of a perfect storm, it was also the tip of the iceberg. If professionals are capable of making the kind of mistakes they made over and over again in this case, similar mistakes are obviously occurring in other cases. For every David Almond or Matthew Tirado, there must be many other children left in abusive and neglectful homes who never come to our attention because they are not actually killed albeit suffer lifetime damage. But the cost in current suffering and future damage is incalculable.

Certainly the COVID-19 pandemic was a large part of the “perfect storm” leading to David’s death. Thankfully, the pandemic appears to be easing and schools should be open full time next fall. However many jurisdictions plan to retain a virtual option next fall. OCA expressed concern that even though an in-person option was offered to the boys in Fall 2020, parents were allowed to choose virtual education without any stated reason and even if the district felt that remote learning would not be successful for a particular student. OCA made many recommendations for improving the oversight of children in virtual education but did not make a recommendation that addressed this finding. It is my view that jurisdictions should establish guidelines for approval of virtual education for each student and require a waiver for any student whose guardians request virtual education for reasons that are not included in these guidelines. Many advocates for children and domestic violence victims, such as Andrew Campbell, have warned from the outset of the pandemic of the dangers facing people who locked in with abusers. David’s case showed how right they were and that planning for future emergencies needs to include better provisions for such vulnerable people, including school-aged children.

COVID-19 will end, but I will continue to write about the Davids, the Matthews and all of the children who are failed by the agencies that exist to protect them. I will continue to write about them until we learn to value our children more than money or ideology, and until we decide as a nation that children will no longer be collateral damage in the pursuit of other goals, whether pandemic containment, “family preservation,” or budget savings.

Attachment: Chronology of the case of David Almond, from the Office of the Child Advocate Report

February, 2006: David, Michael and Noah Almond were born in Syracuse, NY to Sarah and John Almond, as described in OCA’ s devastating report. The triplets were all diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of about two.

2006 to 2013: the triplets were removed from their parents three times by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) due to substance abuse, mental illness, “deplorable living conditions,” medical neglect, inadequate supervision, and “a general lack of basic care.” Their mother had no contact with them after the final removal, and their father moved to Massachusetts. OCFS began steps to terminate the parents’ rights to the boys, but never completed the process.

September 2016: A New York Family Court awarded full custody of the boys to Almond, who was living in Massachusetts, in September 2016, after years of minimal or no contact. Almond moved the boys to the one-bedroom apartment in Fall River, Massachusetts, which he shared with his partner, Jaclyn Coleman, and his mother, Ann Shadburn. All three had a history of abuse and neglect as a victim or perpetrator. Shadburn’s parental rights to all of her children, including John Almond, had been terminated. Almond and Coleman were both in DCF custody for part of their childhoods due to abuse and neglect, mental illness, physical violence, and substance abuse.

June 2017: The first two abuse or neglect reports were called into the Massachusetts hotline concerning the children. Another report came in that August, citing Coleman’s substance abuse and questions about the parents’ ability to meet the needs of their newborn son, Aiden, as well as of the triplets.

October 2017: All four children were removed from Almond and Coleman because of abuse and neglect, parental substance abuse, unsanitary home conditions, medical neglect, and the triplets’ excessive absences from school. In the words of OCA, “This was the fourth time in the triplets’ young lives that they were removed from Mr. Almond for the identical pattern of abuse and neglect.” But four strikes was not enough. The parents agreed to a plan requiring them to engage in therapy to address longstanding substance abuse and mental health issues, submit to random drug tests, participate in family therapy with the triplets, complete psychological evaluations, and complete parenting classes. Aiden was placed in foster care and the triplets were eventually placed in a residential facility specializing in autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability.

January 2019: While the triplets thrived in their residential facility, Coleman and Almond displayed minimal compliance with their plans, and the children’s permanency goal was changed to adoption.

July 2019; the goal for all of the children was changed back to reunification after reports that Coleman and Almond’s compliance with their plans had improved, and Aiden was returned home the next day. This occurred, as OCA put it, “despite Mr. Almond’s failure to engage with therapy, despite Ms. Coleman’s limited engagement with therapy, and despite the lack of any documentation of any change in Mr. Almond and Ms. Coleman’s ability to parent, specifically their ability to parent children with special needs.” OCA attributes this decision mainly to a parenting evaluation conducted by a contractor that did not adequately assess the caregivers’ ability to care for the children.

December 2019: DCF management decided to begin the reunification process for the triplets. This decision was made despite concerns raised by the family support provider and the case management team (social worker and supervisor). DCF management set a target date of January 2020 for the reunification. They disregarded independent requests for a delay from the case management team, the residential facility and the boys’ school.

January 10, 2020. The boys had their first day visit to the home and Coleman stated that reunification was moving too fast and that the family was not yet ready for overnight visits because the apartment was too small.

February 7, 2020: At the first overnight visit on February 7, Almond and Coleman reported that Noah became aggressive, resulting in a physical altercation. As a result, Noah was returned to his facility that night. After this home visit, Noah refused to return to the apartment and was allowed to remain at his residential facility. The goal of reunifying him with his parents was dropped.

February 11, 2020: The congregate care provider took the “extraordinary” step of sending DCF a letter opposing the reunification of David and Michael with Almond and Coleman, citing the inadequate physical environment of the home to meet the children’s therapeutic needs; the fact the parents were facing eviction; and the need for a slower, more appropriate transition plan. The reunification was delayed, but by one month only.

March 13, 2020: David and Michael were returned to Almond and Coleman, barely two months after their first day visit, while remaining in the legal custody of DCF. Four days after the reunification, the state’s COVID-19 restrictions went into effect.

April 2020: At the monthly virtual DCF visit Ms. Coleman reported that there were no concerns regarding the children’s behaviors and the children had access to a laptop for the purposes of schooling. The DCF case management team did not recognize that Ms. Coleman provided contradictory information to the continuum service provider. 

May, 2020: Ms. Coleman rescheduled a DCF virtual home visit supposedly due to technology access issues. During this phone call, Ms. Coleman reported to the DCF case management team that David was vomiting from having too many snacks and was lying in his own vomit. The DCF case management team did not follow up with Ms. Coleman about how David was feeling or the possibility that David could be sick another reason. When the virtual home visit happened ten days later, Coleman took a “strong and controlling role in the communication between the DCF case management team and the children.” She prompted the children to provide specific answers to the DCF case management team questions. In the same month, the parenting support service provider cancelled the service with Almond and Coleman due to their lack of engagement with the service. Also in May, the school offered Chromebooks to David and Michael. This offer was turned down by Coleman in favor of having the boys complete paper packets. But paper packets were never submitted for either of the boys, and the school took no action.

June 2020, the continuum service provider shared with DCF Coleman’s report that Almond physically restrained David due to David’s aggression and that David was completing his chores, which included scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush. Later in the month, the continuum service provider informed DCF that Ms. Coleman reported being fearful that David and Michael would both attack her at the same time and that David refused to take his medication. The provider reported that Coleman refused an outdoor visit and was not using the provider’s emergency service line that they repeatedly urged her to use.

June 2020: In the monthly virtual DCF visit, Coleman tried to stop the boys from answering a question about whether they wanted to visit with their brother Noah, whom they had not seen since March. OCA believes that “Ms. Coleman intentionally prevented David and Michael from virtually visiting with Noah to isolate them from Noah and isolate them from the congregate care program staff that knew them well and might have identified concerns.”

June 17, 2020: A foster care review panel was held and reviewers found that “Mr. Almond and Ms. Coleman were meeting the needs of the children and participating in the continuum services. According to OCA, “It is unclear if the foster care review panel was aware that the parenting support service provider closed the case in May due to a lack of responsiveness from Mr. Almond and Ms. Coleman, and it was unclear also if the panel knew of the continuum service provider’s description of the challenges facing the family.” 

July 17, 2020: The Court returned legal custody to Almond despite the lack of improvement in his and Coleman’s participation in services and no change in Coleman’s description of the boys’ behavioral challenges . Almond was not present at the hearing. On the same day Coleman refused both an outdoor and an indoor visit. According to OCA, “The DCF case management team did not observe the children, the home, or Mr. Almond or Ms. Coleman between June 19, 2020 and July 17, 2020 when David and Michael were legally returned to Mr. Almond’s care.” 

July 22, 2020: At the monthly DCF virtual visit, Coleman berated David in front of the case management team for his behavior. When Michael contradicted Coleman’ account of David’s behavior, she said he was “making her look like a liar.” But at no point did the case managers seek to interview David or Michael outside Ms. Coleman’s presence.

August 2020: The continuum service provider informed the DCF case management team that Ms. Coleman had reported David scratched his collar bone until it had become raw. The DCF case management team did not follow-up with Almond or Coleman about this injury. The continuum service provider also expressed that the family was not fully engaging with the service and that the children needed Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) services. 

August 21, 2020: DCF received a report about conditions in the home and substance abuse by Coleman and Almond. The case management team conducted a virtual home visit three days later. Coleman attributed the report to a malicious neighbor and denied the substance abuse. The team accepted her self-report and did not request drug tests for Coleman and Almond. Coleman attributed a bandage on David’s nose to self-injury and when David was asked, he followed Coleman’s prompting to corroborate her account. As OCA points out, the team neither considered the significance of self-injury as a sign of distress nor considered the possibility of parental violence as the cause of the injury.

September 14, 2020: On September 14, 2020, Michael was brought to an out-of-state hospital emergency department for an injury that Coleman reported was self-inflicted. Michael was admitted for overnight observation and discharged home the next day. This injury was not reported to DCF.

September 25, 2020: The DCF case management team had its last virtual home visit with the family. Ms. Coleman described David as having behavioral issues, and David refused to speak. Between September 20, 2020 and October 3, 2020, the family canceled or did not attend all their scheduled appointments with the continuum service provider. 

On October 1, 2020, a school attendance officer came to drop off Chromebooks for David and Michael. Coleman met the officer outside and he did not attempt to see the boys as he was there solely to drop off the devices and not to see David or discuss with this family his lack of engagement with school since the previous March. If that person had seen David and noticed his physical state, David might be alive today. Twice in October, a teacher contacted DCF to report that the boys were not logging into school. The OCF team contacted Coleman, who denied that report.

October: The DCF case management team was made aware that David’s individual therapist had only been successful in contacting the family one time since August. Ms. Coleman told the case management team why that therapist was not appropriate for David. 

October 5 and October 14, 2020: A teacher from Fall River Public Schools contacted the DCF case management team and reported that David and Michael were not logging into school virtually. The DCF case management team contacted Ms. Coleman, who denied this report and reported both David and Michael were attending school virtually 

On October 7, 2020, the team learned that David had missed his physical in July and two subsequently scheduled appointments. A case review was held on October 14, 2020. Almond and Coleman did not attend. The review panel “inexplicably found that Mr. Almond and Ms. Coleman were meeting all the children’s needs in the home. This determination was made despite concerns regarding the family’s lack of consistent engagement and utilization of services, that David and Michael had not attended school or received any special education services since their reunification in March, and despite Ms. Coleman’s reports of David engaging in serious self-injurious behaviors.”

October 14, 2020: Another foster care review meeting was held in the absence of Almond and Coleman. In OCA’s words, “The foster care review panel inexplicably found that Mr. Almond and Ms. Coleman were meeting all the children’s needs in the home. This determination was made despite concerns regarding the family’s lack of consistent engagement and utilization of services, that David and Michael had not attended school or received any special education services since their reunification in March, and despite Ms. Coleman’s reports of David engaging in serious self-injurious behaviors.” 

October 21, 2020: Emergency medical personnel responded to a 911 call regarding David; he was bruised, emaciated, and not breathing. He was transported to Charlton Memorial Hospital and pronounced deceased. Michael was found emaciated but responsive, and Aiden was well nourished and appeared physically unharmed. Substances believed to be heroin and fentanyl were found in the apartment. Michael and Aiden were immediately removed from Almond and Coleman, who are in jail and facing criminal charges.

Targeted Universalism in child maltreatment prevention: the promise and the challenge

Image: Family Connects Durham

A growing chorus of voices is calling for a shift of resources away from responding to child abuse and neglect toward preventing its occurrence. Interest is coalescing around a newer idea that would combine universal reach with a response that is targeted based on a family’s risk, sometimes called targeted universalism. Several jurisdictions are already implementing initiatives based on this approach. Governments interested in adopting such a system need to resolve a number of questions concerning the system’s entry point, goals, lead agency, program content, and how to attract and retain the families that are most at risk. But the idea of targeted universalism is worth pursuing as it combines the advantages of both approaches.

The new focus on prevention should not be confused with the changes made by the Family First “Prevention” Services Act of 2018, which allows funds under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act to be be diverted from foster care to services to help keep children with their families. Despite its name, Family First funds can be used only for services to families in which abuse or neglect has already occurred. Such services are generally considered treatment, not prevention, although public health specialists refer to them as “tertiary prevention,” which mean preventing the recurrence of a problem. But this is not the meaning of prevention to the layperson, and the placement of “prevention” in the title of the act continues to cause confusion.

Preventing a problem, if possible, is certainly preferable to addressing it after it appears. As child maltreatment prevention expert Deborah Daro states in an issue of The Future of Children devoted to universal approaches to promoting healthy development, doctors don’t send away patients with precancerous cells and tell them to come back when they have Stage 4 cancer. Yet, that is exactly what we do in child welfare. As Daro points out, “our public response lacks an adequate early assessment when people become parents, and we often offer the appropriate level of assistance only after a parent fails to meet expectations or a child is harmed.” For this reason, many child welfare thought leaders like Daro are calling for a new emphasis on preventing maltreatment before it occurs.

The consensus on prevention still leaves the question of how much to invest in universal approaches (known as primary prevention) as opposed to “secondary prevention” approaches that target families who are deemed to be at risk. Secondary prevention has a lot going for it. Targeting a program to those who need it most can be justified on grounds of efficiency. Why spend money reaching people who do not need help? But investing only in secondary prevention has drawbacks, as described by Kenneth Dodge and Benjamin Goodman in the Future of Children issue referenced above. Even the lowest-risk groups have some risk of child maltreatment. And because they are much larger than the high-risk groups, they may account for most cases of maltreatment. Moreover, interventions with targeted groups rarely reach a high proportion of that population, and thus cannot have a detectable impact on the problem overall. Finally, targeted programs are often stigmatized and not politically popular, leading to lower funding–and less participation by targeted groups.

Dodge and Goodman point out that a debate over universal vs. targeted approaches played out when public schooling was first discussed in the United States. Some advocates argued that middle and upper class families could pay for their children to be educated, and that confining public education to the poor would save taxpayers money. Of course the proponents of universalism won out. Even though affluent families continue to be able to buy a more expensive education through higher property taxes and access to private school, one can only imagine the sorry state of our public education system if at been confined to the poor.

As Dodge and Goodman point out, not all universal programs must provide the same services for everyone, and they cite pediatric care as analogy. All children are seen for well-child visits, during which pediatricians screen them for conditions that might warrant services from specialists, and refer them accordingly. Therefore, they argue that “the best strategy may be to embed targeted interventions in a universal strategy that reaches the entire population while offering intensive interventions for targeted subgroups.” This approach, which they call “targeted universalism,” involves screening all families at a single point in time, such as the birth of a child, identifying the family’s risks and needs, and connecting them with community resources for addressing those risks and needs.

This is the approach that they embedded in the Family Connects Program, starting with a home visit fro a nurse. Nurse home visiting is a popular platform for a universal program, and there is a lot of precedent for a universal nurse home visiting program. Universal nurse home visiting is used by many European countries, where it is part of a comprehensive maternal and child health system, and is also used in other parts of the world. Perhaps the best developed application of this approach in the United States is Family Connects, which Dodge and his team at Duke University initiated in Durham, North Carolina in 2008 as Durham Connects. The model is now being implemented in over two dozen communities around the country, and Oregon is rolling it out statewide. Family Connects aims to reach every family giving birth in a community, assess the parents to determine their risks and needs, and refer them to appropriate services. The program rests on three “pillars:” home visiting, community alignment and data and monitoring, as described by Dodge and Goodman.

The first pillar is home visiting by a trained public health nurse who visits the family in the hospital to welcome the baby and offer a free home visit when the baby is about three weeks old. During the home visit, the nurse uses a structured clinical interview to assess risk in 12 key domains that predict adverse outcomes among children. At the end of the interview, the nurse works with the family to develop a plan of action which may include follow-up visits, phone calls, or contact with external agencies. With parental consent, this plan is shared with the baby’s pediatrician and the mother’s primary care provider. Four weeks later, a program staff member calls the family to check on their progress and determine if the referrals were successful. If the family has not succeeded in making the connection, the program either helps the family try again or makes another referral.

The second pillar, called community alignment, is a compilation of community resources available to families at birth, including targeted home visiting programs, early care and education, and mental health. This directory is available in electronic for for nurses to use on their visits. The third pillar is an electronic data system that documents each family’s assessment, referrals, and connections with community agencies. These records, scrubbed of identifying information, are aggregated to provide information about each agency and on a community level to identify gaps between needs and services. To contain costs, Family Connects is limited to seven contacts (phone calls and visits) over the course of 12 weeks. Dodge and Goodman report that the cost of Family Connects ranges from $500 to $700 per family.

Family Connects has been evaluated with two randomized controlled trials (RCT’s) in Durham, NC and one field study in four rural counties in the state. Eighty percent of the intervention families in the first trial scheduled a visit and 86 percent completed it, for a total “completion rate” of 69 percent. In the second trial, the percentages were 77 percent scheduled and 84 percent completed for a total of 64 percent. The first and second RCT’s found 49 and 52 percent of families respectively to have moderate needs, 46 and 42 percent to have serious needs requiring referral to a community resource, and one percent with a crisis needing immediate intervention. Of the families referred to a community agency, 79 percent and 83 percent reported they had followed through and made the connection. In the first RCT, researchers found that intervention infants had 39 percent fewer referrals to Child Protective Services (CPS) than did the control infants by the age of 60 months, controlling for demographic risk factors, as well as a 33 percent decrease in emergency room use.

Nurse home visiting is not the only possible platform on which to base a targeted universal program, Other options for locating a universal service include pediatric practices. There are two different models based in pediatrician’s offices that have shown promise for preventing child maltreatment–SEEK and Healthy Steps. SEEK trains pediatric primary care providers (PCP’s) to use a questionnaire to assess for a specific set of risk factors. The PCP initially addresses identified risk factors and refers the parent to community resources, ideally with the help of a behavioral health professional. Healthy Steps, as described by Valado and coauthors in The Future of Children, functions as a targeted universal model with three tiers. All families receive screenings and access to a child development support line. Second-tier families receive short-term consultations, along with referrals, additional guidance and resources. Families classified in the highest-risk tier receive “a series of team-based well child visits incorporating a Healthy Steps specialist.”

Models based in pediatric practices have had some promising results. A study testing SEEK with a high-risk sample of patients from a pediatric primary clinic in Baltimore found a “striking” 31 percent reduction in CPS reports. The other SEEK study focused on a low-risk population and there were not enough cases of maltreatment to find impacts on abuse and neglect; however, the study found a lower rate of physical punishment and psychological maltreatment reported by participating mothers. A multisite evaluation of Healthy Steps, as described by Velado et al, showed similar effects, such as a 33 percent reduction in the use of severe physical discipline in the intervention group vs the comparison group when the child was 30-33 months of age. The philanthropic partnership Blue Meridian Partners has chosen Healthy Steps as one of five models to receive large grants to help bring them to a national scale as a potential solution to poverty and lack of economic mobility.

Neither of these primary care-based models has been used universally throughout a jurisdiction. Moreover, pediatric care based models have less reach than models based on the birth hospital. Almost all babies are born in hospitals, but fewer infants attend their regularly scheduled well-baby visits. But according to the National Survey of Children’s Health for 2019, only an estimated 89 percent of children aged 0 to five had experienced one or more preventive care visit in the past year. While hopefully the percentage is greater for infants, it is probably less than the nearly 100% who are born in hospitals.

Many questions must be answered in developing a “targeted universal” child maltreatment prevention system.

What should the entry point be, and should there be more than one? Having all families enter the program through the same portal (be it the GYN practice, birth hospital, or pediatrician’s office) would avoid overlap and inefficiency. Choosing the system that meets parents earliest–the OB-GYN office–would allow programs to make a difference at a crucial time but would also miss the children who get little or no prenatal care. The founders of Family Connects chose to use the birthing hospital because it covers the most families, even though they are missing the chance to address problems that begin prenatally. Combining two or more portals may increase a program’s reach and the opportunity to coordinate and extend services. In Guildford County, NC, Healthy Steps is being integrated with Family Connects. Michael Wald, in a forthcoming article in the Handbook of Child Maltreatment, proposes a prevention system that starts with OB-GYN’s and WIC programs in the prenatal stage and continues with universal services at birth through pediatricians, home visitors and family resource centers. All of these entry points in turn would refer families to targeted services. Using more than one portal requires linkages and procedures for hand-off or collaboration, adding complexity to the system, but increases potential coverage.

What should the goals of the system be? A basic question is whether the system would be framed as a child maltreatment prevention system or something broader. It is hard to separate the goal of preventing maltreatment from that of promoting healthy child development, and indeed most of the programs discussed above have broader goals. The mission of Family Connects is “to increase child well-being by bridging the gap between parent needs and community resources.” Healthy Steps has the goal of “promoting the health, well-being and school readiness of babies and toddlers.” Clearly it is hard to separate the goals of child maltreatment prevention and the promotion of child well-being and healthy development.

What should the lead agency be? A key question about universal prevention is which system should take the lead. Child welfare leaders like Jerry Milner, head of the Children’s Bureau under the Trump Administration, have expressed the desire to expand the role of child welfare to include primary prevention. But if the goal is the broader enhancement of child development, and if the main providers of universal services are health professionals rather than social workers, another agency like public health may be a more appropriate home. Moreover, the child welfare system is already overburdened and underfunded. The work of investigating existing abuse and neglect (which will never be totally eliminated), helping parents and children heal, and making sure children have a safe environment to thrive either temporarily or permanently, is work enough for this beleaguered system. It is interesting that many modern child welfare leaders are so discontented with their primary mission that they are crying out to take on prevention. Perhaps the answer lies in the current political climate, which disparages child protective services and foster care, rather than recognizing the crucial role these services play in protecting children from harm,

What should the targeted services be? Michael Wald raises the question of whether a limited set of evidence-based models should be supported as part of a prevention system or whether jurisdictions should be given free rein in program selection. There are arguments for both, but it may be more practical to allow local jurisdictions to choose their own programs, especially since most “evidence-based” programs have only modest effects. But there are many reasons to advocate that every family found to be high-risk receive early care and education (ECE) interventions such as Early Head Start and Educare, which reduce child maltreatment risks in so many different ways, as I argued in an earlier post. The proposed Child Care for Working Families Act should help make such quality programs more available around the country.

How can we engage the highest-risk families? This is perhaps the thorniest question of all. All of the existing and proposed programs discussed above are voluntary, and voluntary programs never succeed in involving all eligible families. Moreover, it is often hardest to enroll and retain the highest-risk families in parenting support programs. We have already seen that Durham Connects provided a home visit to only 69% and 64% of eligible families in its two RCT’s. And considering that only 79 percent and 83 percent accessed the recommended services, the actual completion rate goes down further. In a study of Durham Connects, the researchers found that parents with a higher risk based on demographic factors like age and income were more likely to agree to a home visit but less likely to follow through. They also found that infant health risk, as measured by low birth rate, birth complications, and medical diagnoses, was associated with lower levels of both initial engagement and follow-through. An HHS issue brief suggests many ways to improve a program’s performance in enrolling and engaging families in home visiting programs. Not listed is the idea of including a peer mentor in the program model, which is embedded in some newer initiatives like Hello Baby and the Detroit Prevention Project. But the fact remains that a voluntary program will leave some children unprotected until they are actually harmed by abuse or neglect. Yet, it is clear that a mandatory child abuse prevention program will not be accepted in the U.S–just look at the debate over the COVID vaccine. We can hope that If a universal, voluntary prevention program is adopted, it will gradually gain in acceptance by high-risk and low-risk parents alike as a valuable benefit. In case that does not occur, we must record identifying information about the parents who do not accept the initial offer to participate and and follow up on future outcomes for their children in order to assess the efficacy of the program at preventing maltreatment among the highest-risk groups. Moreover, CPS must have access to this information when they receive a new report on a family.

Can the system be funded by cutting child welfare budgets? Congress has an unfortunate history of cutting funds to unpopular programs prematurely with the hope of achieving savings by a new approach, rather than waiting for a new approach to yield savings. One could mention mental health deinstitutionalization but a closer analogy might be the Family First Act’s moving money away from congregate care toward family preservation services, before states have the foster homes to replace these facilities, thereby simply shifting the cost of such facilities to states. We hope that establishing a robust system of prevention may well eventually result in a reduction of calls to Child Protective Services and in the need for foster care and in-home services. But we cannot reduce funding for traditional child welfare unless and until this effect has occurred, as Brett Drake argued in in a webinar recently conducted by the American Academy of Political and Social Science (AAPSS) in conjunction with their 2020 volume on child maltreatment. Even then it may make sense to retain current funding as the system is currently stretched thin.

What about anti-poverty programs? Adopting a system of targeted universalism to prevent child maltreatment does not directly address poverty, a prime risk factor for abuse and neglect, as discussed in my last post. Targeted universal programs will not change the level of welfare benefits or housing availability. However, it is important to remember that most poor families do not neglect their children, as University of Maryland’s Brenda Jones-Harden mentioned in the AAPSS webinar. Those families that are functioning well will find a way to get the resources they need to care for their children, and the supportive services provided through targeted universalism may help the others do the same. But at the same time, prevention advocates should fight to improve economic supports so that no child is deprived of what he or she needs to grow up into a healthy and functioning adult. Some of the new programs already passed or under discussion under the Biden Administration and the new Congress, such as the expanded child tax credit and the Child Care for Working Families Act, will help make targeted interventions more effective by addressing some of the poverty-related risk factors that cannot be addressed by targeted programs.

There is a growing consensus in the child welfare world that we must focus on prevention of abuse and neglect, and there is an increasing interest in using the approach of targeted universalism. The current historic expansions of the safety net will provide the perfect backdrop for such an initiative by addressing the economic risk factors for child abuse and neglect. With the motivation to build a better society in the wake of the pandemic, the time may be right to develop a universal, targeted system to prevent child maltreatment and allow every child the conditions for optimal development.

New Jersey to foster parents: thanks but no thanks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Declining child abuse? The misuse of data in child welfare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa Montgomery: Mercury News.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America loses champion for a child-centered child welfare system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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