The 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 Times. Child 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.
afThe 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.
Social distancing is essential to break the back of the coronavirus pandemic. But for children who are at risk of abuse and neglect, social distancing means social isolation and the loss of any hope of rescue from their desperate circumstances. It is important for child welfare agencies to reach out to the general public and those workers still seeing children with special messages about warning signs of maltreatment and how to get help.
For children living in abusive or neglectful homes, the pandemic is a perfect storm. On one hand, abuse and neglect are likely to increase due to parental stress and more time spent together in close quarters due to social distancing. Research suggests that child abuse increases in times of economic or naturaldisasters.
At the same time as families are under increased stress and spending more time together, children are not being seen by mandated reporters, especially teachers and school staff. One in five reports comes from education personnel, according to the most recent federal data; hence the annual summer falloff in reports and the uptick every October. Today, almost every school building in the country is closed. While many schools are conducting online classes, the New York Times has reported that fewer than half of students are participating in some schools. Absence from virtual classrooms seems to be especially high in schools with many low-income students, who often lack access to computers and the internet. Some students and parents have completely fallen out of touch with their schools. And these are precisely the students who are more likely to be abused or neglected.
Reports about declines in hotline calls have appeared from almost every state, with calls in dropping by as much as 70 percent since schools shut their doors.1 School closures cannot explain this entire decline. Clearly other possible abuse reporters, such as law enforcement, health personnel, neighbors, and family members are seeing less of children as well.
At the same time, there is reason to think that child abuse is increasing during the pandemic. A three-year-old Fort Worth boy who died from “severe child abuse” on Easter morning was the third child in less than a month to die at Cook Children’s Hospital, according to the hospital. Since March 13, eight children have been admitted to the hospital for severe child abuse and three have died. The hospital normally sees six child abuse deaths in an entire year. The Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital in Orlando, has seen a spike in child abuse cases. According to the medical director, the hospital normally sees one or two trauma cases a month. But in the last few weeks, eight children were brought to the hospital with severe injuries due to abuse. At Children’s National Medical Center in Washington DC, 86 percent of children coming to the Emergency Room with injuries suggesting child abuse between March 15 and April 20 had to be hospitalized compared to 50 percent in the same period of last year.
Ironically, April is Child Abuse Prevention month, when government and nonprofit agencies work to increase public awareness about child abuse and neglect and the need to report it. Unfortunately, a recent study casts doubt on the effectiveness of public education efforts to date. A nationwide survey conducted during the pandemic found that a large majority of Americans are not willing to report excessive physical punishment to the police or CPS. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC) surveyed 1,004 adults nationwide on March 27 to 29, in the midst of the crisis. They found that only 19% of adults say they are “very likely” to report a parent who is “excessively spanking or physically punishing their child” to child protective services. Only 36 percent of adults say they are very likely to contact the police if they see a stranger doing the same thing. Among the reasons given for their unwillingness to report, 68 percent of respondents cite that it might make things worse for the child, 35 percent cite the risk to their own family, and 30 percent say it is “none of my business.”
These survey results, with or without a pandemic, are frightening. As Mary Pulido of NYSPCC puts it, “If what you see in public is enough to even make you think about calling the authorities, think of what that child could be enduring at home, behind closed doors.” But these results should not be surprising to those who are aware of past cases of egregious child abuse which were not reported despite obvious red flags. For example, the media has reported on the failure of family and neighbors to report major concerns about treatment of the 13 Turpin children, who were imprisoned, starved, and physically abused by their parents over many years.
What we know about the reluctance of people to report their concerns about children’s treatment suggests the need for a much more concerted effort for the long-term. Such an effort should be led by the federal government and implemented at the state and local levels. It should aim to increase knowledge of the signs of child abuse and neglect and convince citizens that it is their obligation to report, as described in an earlier post. Such a campaign would be more powerful if all citizens were required to report when they fear that a child is being harmed.
For this time of pandemic, we cannot hope for an immediate sea-change in attitudes, but governments can integrate messaging about child abuse and neglect into their communications with the public about the pandemic. Special efforts should be made to encourage teachers who are interacting with students online and other essential workers who have contact with children and families. Sadly, the federal Children’s Bureau has not issued any guidance to states and and counties resources and suggestions for how to do this. Such leadership has been left to state and local governments and nonprofits.
In a Call to Action for State Governors, CHILD USA, a national think tank focused on child protection, suggests that Governors should add to all their COVID updates a reference to the need for all adults to be alert for signs of abuse and neglect, along with how to reach the child abuse hotline. Special campaigns such as #bridgethegap in New Jersey, may be helpful as well. As shown in the poster above, the public is reminded that “It IS your business. Everyone in New Jersey is a mandated reporter.” Readers should reach out to their government executives to urge them to incorporate such messages into their communications with the public.
Special materials targeted to teachers and other staff may be helpful as well. New Jersey has produced a special message for education personnel asking them to “try to get ‘eyes on’ every child at least once a week.” Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services, in partnership with the Department of Education, has also issued guidance for educators, health care providers and community members for spotting and responding to signs of child maltreatment.
CHILD USA has issued a list of Tips for Teachers on Child Welfare and Online Safety during COVID-19. This helpful document lists questions to ask students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels to assess their physical safety, online safety, and whether they are getting enough to eat. It also lists key items for teachers to look for when seeing their students online, such as the appearance of the student and the home, and things that the student might say. And it suggests special efforts to monitor students with issues with drug abuse, mental illness or domestic abuse in their families. All child welfare agencies should ensure that their local school systems distribute this checklist to their teachers.
The document from CHILD USA does not say what teachers should do when they are unable to reach a child and their family, which is probably the case for many of the children most at-risk of maltreatment. Jurisdictions should consider the possibility of treating the inability to reach a child and family after several tries over several days as grounds for a teacher to call the child abuse hotline.
States and counties might also try to enlist the only people who are seeing children regularly other than their immediate families–grocery and pharmacy workers and mail carriers. A representative of the Allegheny County Department of Children Youth and Families told a reporter that the agency “plans to pivot its awareness campaign” to focus on these workers. They plan to make sure the workers get the message that “if you see something, say something.” A grassroots campaign run by former child welfare workers in Arizona is also trying to contact the people who are still seeing children, including grocery workers, delivery services, and food banks.
As Angelina Jolie wrote in TimeMagazine, “We were underprepared for this moment because we have yet to take the protection of children seriously enough as a society.” This is a major problem which needs to be addressed for the long term, so that next time there is a crisis, we will have a society that is ready to keep its children safe in spite of physical isolation.
This post is being updated daily during the coronavirus crisis include new information.
Among the many frightening consequences of the coronavirus epidemic is one that has received little attention from the media. The loss of school as a safe place and school staff as a second set of eyes on children means an increase in unreported child abuse and neglect. For home-schooled children, however, this vulnerability is the normal state of affairs.
School closures have a double-edged effect on child maltreatment. First, children are spending more hours with their parents without the respite that the school day affords to both. Second, these children are isolated from teachers and other school staff who might have noticed bruises or other signs of trauma. According to the latest federal data, one-fifth of calls to child abuse hotlines come from school staff, making education personnel the largest single report source. School staff are such important reporters of suspected child maltreatment that reports to child abuse hotlines typically go down every summer and increase when students return to school. During the coronavirus epidemic, we have already learned of drastic reductions in calls to the child abuse hotline in Los Angeles, Connecticut and Georgia.
As we worry about the impact of school closings on both child abuse and its reporting, it is important to note that one population of children never benefits from the protective role of schools. About 1.8 million children, or 3.4 percent of the school-aged population, were homeschooled in America in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available. Clearly most of their parents are not abusive and want to provide the best education for their children, often at great personal sacrifice.
Nevertheless, for a small proportion of these children, homeschooling provides an opportunity for their abusive parents to prevent their abuse from being detected. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education has collected 456 cases of severe or fatal child abuse in homeschool settings. Many of the families had a history of past child abuse reports and child protective services (CPS) involvement. All too often, the homeschooling began after the closure of a CPS case.
Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate, in a stunning report, revealed that 36% of the students withdrawn from six districts to be homeschooled between 2013 and 2016 lived in families that had least one prior accepted report of child abuse or neglect. The majority of these families had multiple prior reports. In a landmark 2014 study of child torture cases by pediatricians from five medical centers, 29 percent of the school-aged children studied were not allowed to attend school while another 47 percent were removed from school under the pretext of homeschooling, typically after the closure of a CPS case.
From time to time, an egregious case of abuse of a homeschool child makes headlines and and leads to public calls for monitoring or regulation of homeschooling families. One tragic example was the death of ten-year-old Takoda Collins, in Dayton, Ohio on December 13, 2019. Takoda was tortured, raped and murdered by his father. School officials stated that school staff reported their concerns over Takoda’s safety 17 times over several years. It was only days after the last report that Takoda’s father pulled him out of school under the pretence of homeschooling.
As Takoda’s art teacher told the Dayton Daily News, “I think his father just got tired of us calling him and calling Children Services because people had been calling for years.” Now Dayton teachers are asking their legislators to require some scrutiny for children who are pulled out of school after they have been the subject of abuse reports.
Raylee Browning died on December 26, 2018 in West Virginia of sepsis after drinking from the toilet after being deprived of water for three days. When Raylee died, she had bruising, burns and lacerations and a torn rectum. She had been removed from school after multiple reports by school staff expressing their concerns about physical abuse and starvation. H.B. 4440, sponsored by Del. Shawn Flaherty, would prevent parents from withdrawing a child from school to homeschool them when there is a pending child abuse or neglect investigation, and when a parent has been convicted of domestic violence or child abuse or neglect.
Forbid homeschooling by parents who have been previously convicted of any offense that would disqualify them from teaching or volunteering in a public school. Only Pennsylvania currently has such a provision.
Flag at risk children–such as those with a history of child-abuse reports–for additional protections and supports.
Require that homeschooled students have contact with mandatory reporters once a year.
Sadly, such laws are often proposed in the wake of egregious cases but fail in the legislature due to vociferous opposition from the homeschool lobby. In Ohio, the death by abuse of another homeschooled boy led to introduction of Teddy’s Law, which would have required annual interviews of homeschooled children and their parents with social workers, checks to see if homeschool applicants had pending investigations, and delays or denials of permission to homeschool under some circumstances. The bill produced a national outcry from homeschool advocates, including death threats to the sponsors. After entire nation was rocked by the rescue of the 13 Turpin children in California from their imprisonment in a house of horrors that was registered as a home school, two bills to institute protections for homeschooled children failed as well. Similar attempts to protect children after deaths, near-deaths and egregious abuse of homeschooled children failed in Iowa and Kentucky and doubtless many other jurisdictions.
As described in the Washington Post Magazine, the Home School Legal Defense Association is one of Washington’s most effective lobbying groups – and the current political climate is in their favor. State homeschooling advocates are vocal as well. The Homeschool Legal Defense Fund is fighting Raylee’s Law and calls it “unconstitutional, un-American, and unnecessary.”
The school closures will eventually end, and we can only hope that the repercussions will not be dire for many children. When they do end, let us not forget those children who remain isolated even after COVID-19 is a bad memory. All children must be protected from maltreatment, even if their parents elect to school them at home.
On February 26, Netflix released a heartbreaking series, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. Directed by Ben Knappenberger, the series centers on the horrific death of an eight-year-old boy in the Antelope Value of California on May 24, 2013. Gabriel Fernandez died after eight months of torture by his mother and her boyfriend. Despite repeated reports to the child abuse hotline and the Sheriff’s Office, multiple investigations, and even an open family services case, there was no rescue for Gabriel. It was only after his death that the story of his last eight months and the inexplicable failure of the police and social services were revealed.
I wrote about Gabriel’s story in November 2018 in a post entitled, Why No One Saved Gabriel Fernandez. But The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez uses the power of video to bring the case alive in a way that is difficult to do in writing. The unusually calm voice of a mother tells a 911 operator her son is not breathing. An ambulance flies through the late-night streets, carrying an eight-year-old who had been resuscitated by the EMT’s and again in the ambulance and will stop breathing twice more in the ER. A little boy with injuries to almost every part of his small body, which will, in spite of all the heroic efforts by doctors and nurses to save him, finally shut down.
So begins The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. In six excruciating but riveting episodes, The Trials tells the story of the Los Angeles Times investigation into Gabriel’s life and death, the trials of his murderers, and the unsuccessful attempt to hold accountable those professionals who failed him. Times reporter Garrett Therolf recounts learning of the eight-year-old’s death in a crime blog and wondering about the circumstances, being faced with self-protective wall secrecy and stonewalling imposed by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and hearing from a whistleblower who risked his job to reveal the truth. The prosecutor wheels into court the shockingly small cabinet where Gabriel spent his nights bound and gagged. Isaurro Aguirre sits impassive as a parade of witnesses describe the sweetness of Gabriel and the unspeakable nature of his injuries. Gabriel’s teacher fights back tears as she tells how she contacted CPS every time Gabriel arrived in school with increasingly bizarre and severe injuries. The partner of Gabriel’s uncle tells of the three-day-old infant they took home from the hospital because his mother did not want him, his growth into a joyful four-year-old, who was then raised by his grandparents for the next four years until he was returned to his mother for the welfare money. A bewildered social worker sheds tears of fear for her own future, claiming she had no idea anything was wrong in Gabriel’s home.
I identified two major systemic issues that could have been behind DCFS’ failure to rescue Gabriel. One of these issues–the focus on family preservation at all costs–was addressed in the documentary. The other issue–that of resources–was not. As Garrett Therolf put it in a brilliant article in The Atlantic, child welfare requires a balancing act between child safety and family preservation. Finding this difficult balance requires a highly trained workforce with the resources to carry out a thorough investigation in every case.” Overworked, undertrained, and underpaid social workers simply cannot do it.
Gabriel’s case was far from unique, as the documentary made clear. Two weeks after Isaurro Aguirre was sentenced to death for his murder of Gabriel, and Pearl Hernandez was sentenced to life without parole after taking a plea deal to avoid the death penalty, another little boy was dead of abuse in the Antelope Valley. Ten-year-old Anthony Avilas was allegedly killed by his mother and her boyfriend. His torture and abuse appeared to be motivated at least in part by homophobia, as in Gabriel’s case. And there was a long history of interactions with authorities with no help forthcoming for Anthony. Soon enough news arrived that a four year old named Noah Cuatro had died under similar circumstances in the Antelope Valley. Around California, over 150 children who were known to DCFS have died of abuse or neglect since Gabriel died, as reported in the documentary.
But this is not a California story alone. These cases happen all over the country. The Commission on Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities estimated that a third to a half of the child maltreatment fatalities around the country involved families known to Child Protective Services. I write have written about some of these children whose cases made it to the mass media: Zymere Perkins in New York City,;Matthew Tirado in Connecticut; Adrian Jones and Evan Brewer in Kansas; the six Hart children in Minnesota, Oregon and Washington; Jordan Belliveau in Florida; and most recently Thomas Valva in New York. All were the subject of reports and investigations, and sometimes service cases, but all were allowed to die at the hands of murderous caretakers.
The power of video to bring about public awareness is truly awe-inspiring. Normally my posts are read mainly by academics, child advocates, and child welfare professionals. On February 27, I started to notice some unusual traffic on my blog. Between February 27 and the early morning of March, my posts on Gabriel, Anthony, Noah and other children failed by the state had been viewed over 2000 times. If only the public could keep up this level of interest –perhaps even follow my blog–and insist on adequate funding and an end to the wall of secrecy around child welfare services, we might be able to save the next Gabriel Fernandez.
It’s happened again. Another child is dead after being removed from a loving mother and placed with an abusive father. Another child is dead after more than 20 reports from school officials concerned about his treatment at home. Another child is dead after a judge and child protection workers made the wrong decisions over and over again.
On January 17, as reported by Newsday and other media outlets, police responded to a 911 call at the home of NYPD Officer Michael Valva and his fiancee Angela Pollina in East Moriches, Long Island. The caller stated that eight-year-old Thomas Valva, who had autism, had fallen in the driveway. Police soon learned that there was no fall in the driveway. The night before he died, Thomas and his brother were forced to sleep on the concrete floor of their family’s unheated garage, while outside temperatures fell to 19 degrees, Thomas’ body temperature was 76 degrees at the time of his death in the hospital. A chilling recording obtained by the police records the father mocking his dying son, who repeatedly fell when trying to walk, jeering that he was”cold, boo-[expletive]-hoo.” Valva and Pollina were arrested and charged with second-degree murder, among other crimes. They have pleaded not guilty and are being held without bail.
The facts stated above are clear, but the chronology below had to be pieced together from multiple articles in the media, each containing part of the puzzle. Many questions still remain.
The Family Court Places Thomas in Harm’s Way
A decision by Nassau County Supreme Court Judge Hope Schwartz Zimmerman in the divorce case between Thomas’ parents set the stage for the tragedy. On September 17, 2017, she took Thomas and his two brothers away from their mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, and placed them with their abusive father and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, who also had three girls. Based on court records obtained by Eyewitness News reporter Kristin Thorne, the judge had ordered forensic evaluations of both parents, a normal procedure in a custody case. But Justina Zubko-Valva, Thomas’ mother, refused to be interviewed by the psychologist without being able to tape the session. Due to the “sensitive nature of the testing materials,” the evaluator refused this request and the evaluation was not done.
It is not clear why Zubka-Valva insisted on a videotape of the interview, but she has indicated on Twitter and elsewhere her conviction that there was a conspiracy against her. She and her children paid a high price for her choice. The judge told the court, according to the court papers obtained by Eyewitness News, that “There’s certain things that have to be done in terms of preparing this case for trial … and until that happens I can’t have the trial. So I’m awarding temporary, temporary custody of the children to the father.” The Judge’s reasoning is unclear from the quotes provided by Eyewitness News, but the most plausible explanation is that she gave custody to Valva in order to pressure Zubko-Valva to submit to the evaluation. If that was her goal, it was certainly improper (as children should never be treated as tools to gain a parent’s compliance), and it certainly did not achieve its intended effect.
Ms. Zubko-Valva was by most accounts a devoted mother. She trekked daily to Manhattan to bring her autistic sons to a special school. Struggling to provide for her children with minimal support from Mr. Valva after their separation, she had taken a job as a correctional officer to make ends meet and keep them on the same health insurance plan as they had before. Dr. Kim Berens, a behavioral psychologist who worked with the boys told the Daily Beast that Ms. Valva “one of the one of the most loving, caring, devoted mothers I’ve ever met.” The children’s pediatrician and the neuropsychiatrist who examined both boys also praised Ms. Valva. Judge Zimmerman never got to hear from them thanks to Ms. Zubko-Valva’s own refusal to submit to the court-ordered evaluation.
CPS Seals Thomas’ Fate
The decision to place Thomas with his father opened the door to his murder, But it was the egregious failure of Nassau County Child Protective Services (CPS) over the succeeding two years that sealed Thomas’ fate. After Valva and Pollina gained custody of the boys, they were apparently able to coach them to accuse their mother of abuse. By October 2017, Zubko-Valva was being investigated for child abuse. It appears that CPS actually substantiated the trumped-up charges and brought her to “trial”1 for abuse. The charges were dismissed in April 2018. Thus, the “temporary, temporary” custody stretched to become a long-term arrangement as Ms Zubko-Valva was apparently denied even visitation with her children once the abuse charges were filed or substantiated by CPS.
In the meantime, calls began streaming in from the boys’ school public school, where Valva had moved them from their special program in Manhattan immediately upon gaining custody. The New York Daily News obtained records of “some 20 calls” from Thomas’s teachers while he was living with Valva and Pollina. The calls reported that Thomas and his brother Anthony, who is also autistic, missed school for two or three days at a time, showed signs of physical abuse, and often arrived in school hungry and dirty.
The Daily News found that at least one abuse allegation (that Thomas had a black eye) was substantiated against Valva and Pollina but that CPS concluded that it did “not rise to the level of immediate or impending danger of serious harm. No controlling interventions are necessary at this time.” Another report alleged that Anthony had been coming to school with his backpack soaked in urine. “As a result of the child being soaked in urine, he has a foul odor and he is extremely cold,” the report continued.
Another call reported that Thomas had a welt on his forehead caused when Michael Valva threw a backpack at him. The report continues that Valva “refused to let the two boys be interviewed at school, where they might have felt freer to speak, or to allow the other children in the home to be interviewed.” However, the New York State Child Protective Services Manual states that if CPS is refused access to the home or to any child in the household “the CPS worker, in consultation with a CPS supervisor, must assess within 24 hours of the refusal whether it is necessary to seek a court order to obtain access.” Allowing an abusive parent to deny access to his children effectively neutralizes CPS’s ability to investigate. Why did CPS fail to follow its own procedures?
At least one allegation apparently resulted in CPS monitoring Valva for a year under a court order that also required him to take parenting classes and “refrain from harmful activities,” according to Newsday. This order was apparently imposed by Suffolk County family court judge, Bernard Cheng, who was also presiding over the child abuse trial of Zubko-Valva, according to the Daily News. (The divorce case with Judge Zimmerman was in Nassau County Supreme Court). But the case closed and the children were left to their fate. It appears that Judge Cheng sensed that something was badly wrong in the Valva household but felt his hands were tied. The Daily News cites the Judge expressing concern in February 2019 about several issues:
Anthony arrived at an interview walking bent over at the waist and complaining his backside was sore. His school reported that he arrived with injuries so severe from beatings that officials needed to ice down his buttocks and upper thighs. Judge Cheng indicated that Anthony said that “his father told him to say he does not get hit at his house.”
Ten-year-old Anthony had lost six pounds in one month, and Thomas gained just four pounds in the 12 months of 2018.
Teachers at the boys’ school told investigators that the children could not concentrate due to hunger and were looking for food in garbage cans or off the floor.
In his April 12 decision dismissing the charges against Ms. Zubko-Valva, the Judge stated that he found the father’s denials of abuse “less than credible,” since his testimony changed when he was asked for more detailed accounts.
But, despite expressing all of these serious concerns, the judge took no action to protect the boys. The attorney for CPS argued at the February hearing that the concerns brought up were “non-issues.” Judge Cheng disagreed with him, stating that the concerns were valid. He also stated, with more knowledge of child development than CPS, that “deterioration in [Anthony’s] level of functioning suggests that his needs are not being met.” But he said he had to rely on the opinions of CPS investigators. This statement is confusing to this former social worker who has more than once been overruled by a Family Court judge. It is hard to say what is more astonishing: that Judge Cheng was aware of so much credible evidence of abuse and did not order the removal of the children despite CPS’s opinion, or that CPS thought the children should be left in this lethal home.
Justyna Zubka-Valva has custody of her surviving two sons now. She was granted that custody by another judge at an emergency hearing following Thomas’ death. But it was too late for Thomas. Inquiries are underway into Judge Zimmerman’s conduct in the case as well as the actions of CPS.
Why were Thomas and his brothers not protected?
More information is necessary to make conclusions about why the system failed. The factors that affected the court case–Ms. Zubko-Valva’s intransigence and the Judge’s inappropriate response–may be specific to this one case. But widely-known systemic issues with CPS appear to have played into this tragedy.
High CPS Caseloads: As in many jurisdictions, Suffolk County CPS caseloads are too high, with the average caseload at 17.9 per worker at the beginning of 2019, declining to 12.4 by the end of the year, and several caseworker handling more than 30 cases a month. The Child Welfare League of America recommends that CPS workers carry no more than 12 cases at a time. In addition, Nassau County CPS workers complain that they spend too much time on paperwork instead of investigating allegations–a complaint that this former social worker heartily endorses.
Making it difficult to substantiate abuse: But the overwhelmed CPS explanation can only take us so far. The head of the union representing social workers told CBS-New York that workers did what they were supposed to do in Thomas’s case but their hands were tied. “You can’t remove a child from a parent without having clear cut evidence as supported by the law that will be upheld by the judicial system,” he said. It is hard to believe that CPS did not consider it had such evidence–and that makes one wonder if a policy of quelling such findings was being imposed from on high. A chilling comment by Jeanette Feingold, director of Suffolk County Child Protective Services illustrates the issue. At an emotional legislative hearing covered by Newsday, she said “We don’t want to take these children. We want to build these families…. We’re not there to rip families apart.” I’ve written before about the exaggerated emphasis on family preservation that has taken hold in most child welfare systems. But with the mother being the primary parent for most of her older children’s lives, it is hard to understand the preference by CPS for Mr. Valva over his wife.
Some analysts say the focus on fatalities is not useful because they are atypical. I disagree. Fatalities and other extreme cases are the tip of the iceberg that is the total universe of abused children. For every fatality, we have no idea how many other children are living with pain and fear even though child welfare agencies or courts have been alerted. These same judges and social workers operating under the same laws and policies hold the fates of hundreds of other children in their hands every year.
A repeating story in New York
Moreover, this cases are not as atypical as one might think. Within two weeks of Thomas’ death, the deaths of two other little boys from abuse after being abandoned by the state made it to the pages of the New York Times. In New York City, Teshawn Watkins was arrested late in January for murdering his six-week old son, Kaseem, after video was found showing him smothering the infant with a pillow. Now New York City’s Administration on Children’s Services (ACS) is facing questions about why the infant was not protected despite his father’s known history of abuse. It turns out that not only was Watkins arrested twice for assaulting the baby’s mother, but he has been investigated four times for child abuse, including a broken leg suffered by one of his two other sons. The two older brothers (now ages 3 and 4) were actually placed in foster care until the police found no evidence of the infant’s abuse. Watkins is being held without bail on Riker’s Island, where ironically Justina Zubka-Valva is a correctional officer.
In the same week, the ACS’ failure to protect another little boy was on display: Rysheim Smith was convicted for the murder of six-year-old Zymere Perkins after ACS disregarded numerous reports that the little boy was repeatedly injured and in constant danger from his mother’s violent boyfriend. The case shocked the city in 2016 and led to a raft of reforms that apparently failed to protect tiny Kaseem. The New York Times reported on Smith’s conviction for killing Zymere on January 15, Thomas’ death on January 24, and baby Kaseem’s death on February 7. All of the articles were by different reporters. Nobody at the paper seems to be putting the pieces together to expose what appears to be a crisis of children abandoned by the state.
We need to pay attention to these egregious cases for at least two reasons. Only by finding out what went wrong in these cases can we know how to change policy and practice to prevent future tragedies. But we also need accountability. I’m tired of hearing that we don’t want to punish people or create a climate of fear. It’s not about punishment. It’s about removing people who should not have custody over children’s lives.
This post was updated on February 13, 2020.
The term “trial” connotes what is called a “neglect trial,” not a criminal trial. ↩
The federal Children’s Bureau (CB) has released its annual Child Maltreatment report, containing data provided by the states from Federal Fiscal Year 2018. The high rate of maltreatment victimization and the contrasting numbers and rates between states and populations are two of the major takeaways of the report. A common theme across the report is that differences between states and populations and over time can reflect differences in levels of maltreatment, policy or practice, or even how states collect data.
CB’s annual maltreatment reports use data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), which is a federal effort that collects and analyzes child welfare data provided voluntarily by the states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The data follow children and families from referrals to reports, dispositions and services. One of the most helpful resources is exhibit 2, reproduced below, a flow chart that follows families and children through the process from referral to services. (All tables in this post are reproduced from the report).
Referrals and Reports
During FY 2018, states reported receiving a total of 4.3 million “referrals” (calls to a hotline or other communications alleging abuse or neglect) regarding approximately 7.8 million children. The number of referrals per 1,000 children varied wildly between states, from a low of 15.7 in Hawaii to a high of 167.9 in Vermont. The different referral rates between states may reflect different levels of knowledge about and comfort with child maltreatment reporting, different rates of underlying maltreatment, or even different state practices in defining the term “referrals.” Vermont explains that its high referral rate is the result of its practice of treating all calls to the child abuse hotline as referrals.
The rate of referrals has increased from 50 per 1,000 children in 2014 to 58.5 referrals per 1,000 children in 2018. Differences over time within a state may due to changes in state policy or practice or events in a particular state. For example, Alabama reported that it implemented online mandatory reporter training in 2014, resulting in an increase in referrals. Rhode Island reported a large increase in referrals due to the public trial of a school official for failure to report child abuse, resulting in more than a doubling of hotline calls from school staff.
A referral may be screened in or out by the child welfare agency depending on whether it meets agency criteria. Referrals may be screened out because they do not meet the definition of child abuse and neglect, there is inadequate information, or for other reasons. Screened-in referrals are called “reports” and receive a traditional CPS investigation or an “alternative response” (often called an “assessment”) in states that have two-track or “differential response systems.” These alternative responses, usually reserved for the less serious cases, do not result in an allegation of abuse or neglect but rather are aimed at connecting families with services they might need. Of the 4.3 million referrals, states screened in 2.4 million for an investigation or assessment. The rate of screened-in referrals (known as “reports”) has increased from 29.1 per 1,000 children in 2014 to 32.5 in 2018. The highest number of reports came from education personnel (20.5%), legal and law enforcement personnel (18.7%), and social services personnel (10.7%). Parents, other relatives, friends and neighbors submit the remaining reports.
A total of 3.5 million children received an investigation or alternative response, and states found approximately 678,000 (16.8%) to be victims of child maltreatment; in other words the allegation was “substantiated.” Another 14% received an alternative response rather than an investigation, which meant there was no determination of whether maltreatment occurred. Reports involving 56.3% of these children were unsubstantiated, which meant there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that maltreatment took place.
The 678,000 children who were found to be victims of maltreatment equates to a national rate of 9.2 victims per thousand children in the population, or almost one out of every 100 children. This rate varies greatly by state, from 2.7 in Washington 1 to 23.5 in Kentucky. A lower child victimization rate might reflect less child maltreatment or a system less likely to respond to existing maltreatment or that makes greater use of differential response. Kentucky had the highest proportion of children found to be victims (23.5 per 1000 children or over one in every 50 children) followed by West Virginia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Michigan. The ongoing crisis involving opioid and methamphetamine addiction has been blamed for an increase in maltreatment in many states. And indeed, all of the states with the highest rates have been hard-hit by the opioid epidemic and had among the highest opioid overdose death rates in the country in 2017.
The national proportion of children found to be victims of maltreatment has fluctuated since 2014, increasing slightly between 2014 and 2018 from 9.1 to 9.2 per thousand. This small national increase masks large changes in the numbers of victims in certain states, from a 50% decrease in Georgia to a 216% increase in Montana. In their written submissions, the states attribute these diverse trends to changes in child welfare law, policy and practice as well as increases in parental drug abuse and even severe weather events such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.2Georgia reports a policy change that resulted in a large increase the proportion of cases assigned to the alternative response track, perhaps one reason for the decrease in substantiations. Montana has experienced a surge in children entering foster care due to parental drug abuse, especially methamphetamine, which probably contributed to the increase in children found to be victims.
The disparity in the proportion of children found to be maltreatment victims across states is consistent with the belief that there is no foolproof method of assessing the truth of an allegation and that substantiation may not be a very good indicator of whether maltreatment has taken place. Research has found little or no difference in future reports of maltreatment of children who were the subject of substantiated or unsubstantiated reports
The proportion of children found to be victims of maltreatment decreases as age increases. The rate of substantiated victimization for babies under a year old is 26.7 per thousand. This rate falls to 11.8 percent for children aged one to two and decreases gradually as age increases. This age effect reflects the greater fragility and helplessness of younger children and also the fact that they are less likely to spend time away from their parents (the primary maltreaters). That is one reason why many child advocates support making early care and education available to all children at risk for maltreatment and particularly to those already involved with the child welfare system.
The rate of children found to be victims of maltreatment varies considerably between racial and ethnic groups. The highest rate is for Native American or Alaska Native children, who were found to be victims at a rate of 15.2 per thousand, followed by African-American children, with a rate of 14 per thousand, compared to 8.2 per thousand for White children, and 1.6 per thousand for Asian children. It is 8.1 per thousand for Hispanic children, who can be of any race. The higher rate of substantiated victimization among African-American and Native American children is a subject of controversy. Some believe it reflects greater tendency of African-American and Native parents to be reported to CPS and later substantiated as perpetrators due to racism. But these differences might also reflect a greater poverty rate for Black and Native children, or cultural factors, such as a preference for corporal punishment in the Black community, or substance abuse in the Native American community.
Neglect continues to be the predominant type of maltreatment. The data shows 60.8% of children were found to be victims of neglect only, 10.7% victims of physical abuse only, and 7.0% to be sexually abused only, with 15.5% suffering from multiple types of maltreatment, mostly commonly neglect and physical abuse. It is important to understand that a given child may be found to have suffered one type of maltreatment when other types are also present. For example, abuse can be hard to substantiate when the parent and child give contradictory accounts, or the child recants, and such children may be substantiated for neglect only when abuse is also present.
For the first time, 18 states reported on victims of sex trafficking. These states reported a total of 339 victims. While one case would be too much, it is encouraging that the scope of the problem is so small compared to other types of maltreatment. This suggests that sex trafficking as a type of child maltreatment is much less widespread than one might have thought given the amount of attention recently attached to this topic through legislation, training, and policy.
There is wide variation among states in the prevalence of different types of substantiated maltreatment. Some of this variation may be due to real underlying differences in parental behavior and some may be due to varying laws, policies and practices. Of particular interest are the states that have much higher percentages of abuse than the national average. While nationally only 10.7% of victims are found to have experienced abuse only, that percentage was 55.3% in Vermont, 48.2% in Alabama, and 39.7% in Pennsylvania. It is known that corporal punishment, which may escalate to abuse, is more popular in Southern states, like Tennessee and Alabama. Vermont’s and Pennsylvania’s high rates of abuse may be due to the assignment of many less-serious cases to an alternative track where there is no disposition (in Vermont) or the disposition is not reported (in Pennsylvania).3 Alabamans are aware of their state’s high abuse rate, which was covered in an excellent story by Al.com that cites the state’s acceptance of corporal punishment as one underlying factor.
For the FY 2018 report, the researchers analyzed three years of data on the presence of alcohol or drug abuse among caregivers. They found that the national percentage of substantiated victims with a caregiver identified as a drug abuser was 30.7% in 2018. Alcohol as a caregiver risk factor was 12.3%. Both of these percentages increased slightly from 2016. As is often the case, there was an astonishing diversity among states, ranging from 2.2% to 45.5% for alcohol abuse, and from 3.1% to 61.5% for drug abuse. This diversity, especially the very low rates in some states, raises concerns about whether they are accurately capturing these factors.
The data show that 90.7% of the victims were maltreated by one or both of their parents. That includes nearly 40% who were maltreated by their mother acting alone and 21.5% by their father acting alone. Relatives (4.7%) and unmarried partners of parents (2.8%) are the largest remaining categories of maltreaters.
There is no standard, mandatory system for reporting child abuse and neglect deaths and it is often extremely difficult to determine where a death was caused by abuse or neglect rather than natural causes. Based on data from all states except Massachusetts, the researchers estimated that 1,770 children died from abuse or neglect in 2018, which is a rate of 2.39 per 100,000 children in the population. That is an 11.3% increase over the estimate for 2014 but this change may reflect data quality rather than a real change in maltreatment deaths. State rates range from 0 (Nebraska) to 6.6 (Arkansas) per 100,000 children but it is hard to know how much of the variation reflects differences in capturing actual child fatality rates. NCANDS maltreatment data are generally viewed as underestimates because, among other factors, many maltreatment fatalities may be unknown to any system or impossible to prove and some states do not report on deaths of children not known to the Child Protective Services Agency. In contrast, the Commission on Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities reported that the most recent National Incidence Study (where data is collected directly by ACF) reported 2,400 deaths compared to 1,530 deaths in the Child Maltreatment report for a similar period. The CAPTA reauthorization bill which was passed by the House would require the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services establish uniform standards for the tracking and reporting of child fatalities and near-fatalities related to maltreatment. This requirement is badly needed.
Like child maltreatment itself, child maltreatment fatalities are more likely occur to the youngest children. Infants under one year old were the most likely to die, at a rate of 22.77 per 100,000. The rate decreases to 6.3 per 100,000 one-year-olds and continues to fall with age. Nearly half of the children who died were younger than one and 70.6% were younger than three. This illustrates again why it is so important to ensure that all children at risk of severe abuse or neglect must be in early care or education.
The child fatality rate for African American children (5.8 per 100,000 children) is over 2.8 times the rates for White children. Mixed-race children had the second highest rate of 3.2, followed by Native American children at 3.12. As discussed above, we do not understand these disparities. They could be due to cultural factors, economic factors, racism in reporting and substantiation, or other factors. The child maltreatment fatality rate for Black children is more than twice that for White children (5.48 vs. 1.94 per 100,000). This is an even greater disparity than the difference in child maltreatment rates (14.2 per 1000 for black children vs. 8.2 per 1000 for white children). Perhaps many Black parents’ embrace of corporal punishment, as described by author Stacey Patton in her important book, Spare the Kids, while not much different in terms of overall percentages from that of White parents, countenances more severe discipline than among other racial and ethnic groups. These disparate child maltreatment death rates should give pause to those self-described anti-racists who want to equalize the rates of investigations, substantiations, and child removals of Black and White children. Such a policy would very likely lead to increased deaths of Black children–hardly an outcome they should welcome.
Of the children who died from maltreatment in 2018, 72.8 percent suffered neglect and 46.1 percent suffered physical abuse, including some children who suffered more than one type of maltreatment. Eighty percent of the deaths were caused by parents or caregivers acting alone or with other individuals. Based on reports from 24 states, 20.3% of the children who died had received family preservation services in the previous five years. And 2.5% had been reunified with their families in the previous five years after being removed.
Approximately 1.3 million children (a duplicated count4) received services at home or in foster care as the result of an investigation or alternative response. This includes 60.7% of the children who were found to be victims of maltreatment and 20.9 percent of the non-victims. It is concerning that such a low percentage of the victims received services. But not every state reports data for every in-home service (especially those provided by other agencies or contractors), so the actual proportion receiving services other than foster care may be higher. Sadly, according to reports from 26 states, only 21.9% of the victims received court-appointed representatives.
About a fifth of the children found to be maltreatment victims (22.5%) and 1.9% of those not found to be victims5 were placed in foster care. It is worth noting that less than half of the maltreatment victims who received services (146,706 out of 391,661) were placed in foster care. The others received family preservation services while remaining at home. Many news reporters and child welfare commentators have incorrectly suggested that no services other than foster care were available to abused or neglected children before the implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act. This data shows the incorrectness of that assumption.
Infants with prenatal substance exposure
For FFY 2018, States were required to report for the first time on infants exposed prenatally to drugs and alcohol. Forty-five states reported that they had been informed of 27,709 infants born exposed to substances. Nearly 88% of these infants were screened in as appropriate for an investigation or alternative response. It is somewhat concerning that the others were not, given the possible serious effects of prenatal and postnatal substance abuse. Of those screened in, 75.5% had a caregiver identified as a drug abuser, 11.7% had a caregiver identified as a drug and alcohol abuse, and less than one percent had a caregiver identified as abusing alcohol only. The 24,342 children who were screened in in 42 states constituted a shockingly high 10.8 percent of children under one in those states. Of the screened in reports, 68.3 percent were substantiated as victims or abuse or neglect. Nine percent received an alternative response and nine percent were unsubstantiated. The report’s authors caution against comparing states because this was the first year of reporting. The wild disparity between states in the proportions identified suggests they are right to be cautious and that the national figures have a wide margin of error as a result.
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) as amended by the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) in 2016, requires that all infants “affected by a substance abuse or withdrawal symptoms resulting from prenatal drug exposure, or a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder” receive a “plan of safe care…addressing the health and substance use disorder treatment needs of the infant and affected family or caregiver.” Thirteen responding states reported that 64% of infants with prenatal substance exposure had a plan of safe care. A separate CAPTA provision requires states to report how many infants had a “referral to appropriate services,” and fourteen states reported that only 42.6% of infants had such a referral. The difference between these two percentages is due to California, which provided data on referrals and not plans of safe care. Only 12.7% of California’s substance-exposed infants had referrals to appropriate services. Since the California’s population is larger, and the percentage receiving referrals was low, the overall percentage was reduced significantly by adding California but the two percentages were the same in the other responding states.
Plans of safe care and referrals are voluntary and do not mean much unless they are followed by the families, providers, and agencies. It would be better to know how many of these infants received foster care and other services after an investigation or family assessment. That would probably require opening a services case for all these families. Congress should consider requiring this, as it would be the only way to follow up on what services these families actually receive.
The fact that almost one in 100 children is found to be a victim of child maltreatment should be of concern to all child advocates, especially because it is likely that many other victims were never reported or found to be victimized. It is hard to interpret comparative data between states, populations, and years because of the difficulty in disentangling the amount of actual maltreatment given the variety of policies and practices in how it is defined and reported. Analysis of the report suggests changes in CAPTA that would make it more useful. For example, Congress should to set uniform standards for reporting child maltreatment fatalities by passing the CAPTA reauthorization bill in 2020. And the new version of CAPTA should be further strengthened to replace the plans of state care with a more substantial response to infant substance exposure.
Pennsylvania’s victimization rate was actually the lowest at 1.8% but this low rate reflects the state’s unusual child protective services structure. Allegations that do not concern abuse or specific very serious types of neglect are labeled as General Protective Services and not counted as referrals or reports for federal reporting. ↩
Puerto Rico had a 43% decline in children found to be maltreatment victims between 2014 and 2018. The territory’s commentary explains that its child population was already decreasing due to emigration even before Hurricane Maria struck in October 2017 and then further declined due to emigration. ↩
Vermont’s extremely high abuse rate rate may be due to the fact that about 40% of its cases are assigned to the alternative response track, which does not result in a disposition, and another sizeable group are assigned to a pathway outside CPS, called family assessment. The cases assigned to these alternative tracks are expected to be less serious and more likely to involve neglect rather than abuse. A similar phenomenon likely occurs in Pennsylvania where most neglect allegation are assigned to General Protective Services and not reported to the federal government. ↩
Individual children were counted more than once if they were involved in more than one CPS case. ↩
Many of these children were probably siblings of children who were found to be victims of maltreatment. ↩
On May 5, New York City firefighters were called to a horrible scene. A three-year-old girl had been locked in a car and the doors had been chained shut. Then the car was set on fire. As reported by the New York Times, the perpetrator had weekend visitation rights with his three-year-old daughter Autumn. Less than two weeks before, Autumn’s mother wrote to the family court in charge of her custody case, that Pereira was “losing a grip on reality and I honestly feel my child is in danger while in his care.” The court did not intervene.
This terrible case is not an aberration. The Center for Judicial Excellence (CJE) has compiled data on 707 children who have been murdered by a divorcing or separating parent since 2008. CJE has documented 98 cases during that time period in which a child was killed by a parent or parental figure after the family court allowed them unsupervised contact with the child despite being warned that the perpetrator posed a risk to the child. But this is likely only the tip of the iceberg as there is no agency that records these cases.
A four-month investigation by Gillian Friedman in the Deseret News found that in many cases family courts are failing to protect children, allowing unsupervised visits or even custody to abusive parents. These decisions are resulting in physical and sexual child abuse and sometimes homicide.
Why would family courts put a child in danger by allowing unsupervised contact with a dangerous parent? One reason, experts told Friedman, is that judges and custody evaluators hired by courts often do not believe the claims of danger from the other parent who is trying to protect the child. As the director of CJE told Friedman, “In custody proceedings, family courts often see a parent’s allegation of child abuse as no more than a tactic to undermine the other parent’s custodial rights to the child — and therefore not a credible accusation.” Several of the mothers interviewed by Friedman reported that their attorneys told them not to allege abuse for fear that these allegations would lead to an adverse custody ruling.
Disbelief of the protective parent is not the only possible factor that causes courts to make decisions that put children in danger. Experts told Friedman that evidence of child abuse is often not conclusive and courts are reluctant to bar a parent from access to a child unless the evidence of past abuse is airtight. Moreover, many judges are overwhelmed. They may see as many as 20 cases a day and may have to make a decision after spending no more than 20 minutes on a case.
Finally, judges may be prioritizing parental rights over child safety and well-being. Even if a judge believes that a parent has been abusive, family court professionals told Friedman that it is very hard to get a judge to deny visitation to a parent. Instead, they will require the abuser to engage in treatment or counseling, while maintaining visitation.
Judges may also think a child is safe with a parent who has abused the other parent but not the child. But placing a child with a parent who has a record of domestic abuse may be dangerous even if that parent had not hurt a child. That’s because the parent may harm the child in order to punish the other parent.
Both mothers and fathers can abuse and kill their children. But domestic violence victim advocates like Joan Meier cite evidence that women are in a disadvantage when alleging abuse in the context of a custody dispute, in part due to the influence of inaccurate beliefs about “parental alienation,” which I described in an earlier post. The “alienation” concept can be used by either parent to connote that the other parent is poisoning the child’s mind against them and has often resulted in the placement of children against their will with a parent that they allege abused them–more often than not, the father.
But fathers’ advocates claim that that family courts are prejudiced against fathers. It seems clear that judicial attitudes have changed over time. As described in a useful article published in 2011 by San Francisco Weekly, family courts were traditionally biased against fathers, believing that children belonged with their mothers. However, as divorce became more common, advocacy by fathers’ rights group has led to the acceptance that children’s time should be split as evenly as possible between parents. While it seems clear that child safety should trump any considerations of equity between mom and dad, it seems that some judges do not agree.
The problem of placing parents’ rights over safety should be familiar to readers of Child Welfare Monitor from our many columns about child welfare agencies and family court judges accepting risks to child safety and well-being in order to keep families together or reunite them. In our experience with such cases. the court and the child welfare agency usually agree about the primacy of parents and the need for children to remain or be reunified with their parents. There are occasional disagreements. Child Welfare Monitor will never forget tearfully trying to convince a judge that my six-year old client would do better with a foster parent who had loved her for two year than with a mother who could not think of one good thing to say about her–to no avail. But in these custody cases it is the protective parent whose pleas to keep the child safe are being disregarded.
Thankfully, there is a growing recognition that family courts are failing to protect children in custody cases, with sometimes tragic results. Last year, Congress passed a resolution stating that “child safety is the first priority of custody and visitation adjudications, “and that courts should resolve safety risk and family violence claims first, before assessing other factors that may affect a child’s best interests. The resolution makes several recommendations to states for improving their court processes, including setting standards for evidence presented in custody proceedings and for the professionals who are accepted as experts.
In 2019, the Governor of Maryland signed a bill requiring the formation of a new workgroup, the first of its kind, to study child custody court proceedings involving child abuse or domestic violence allegations and make recommendations about “incorporating the latest science regarding the safety and well-being of children and other victims of domestic violence.”
It is important for child advocates to become involved with this issue, which has generally been the province of mainly domestic violence advocates. Child advocates around the country should push for legislation like that passed in Maryland to establish commissions to study this issue and make recommendations about how the family courts can be improved to ensure the safety of children involved in custody litigation.
In July 2018, ten-year-old Anthony Avalos arrived at the Emergency Room with fatal bleeding in his brain. His emaciated and battered body succumbed the next day to years of deprivation and abuse. For four years, the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had received 13 reports on suspected abuse of Anthony and his siblings. For part of that period, his family was actually under the supervision of DCFS.
Many commentators saw parallels between Anthony’s death and that of Gabriel Fernandez in 2013 in the same town of Palmdale, in the Antelope Valley section of Los Angeles County. Gabriel was tortured to death by his mother and stepfather after multiple reports to DCFS failed to result in his rescue from this lethal home.
But based on its review of the family’s case file, Los Angeles County’s Office of Child Protection (OCP) concluded that Anthony’s case was “very different” from Gabriel’s. OCP concluded that it could not say that Anthony might still be alive today if the agency had done things differently. In justifying this conclusion, OCP stressed that the family was not under DCFS supervision at the time of Anthony’s death and that it had been over a year since the last report was made to the child abuse hotline concerning the family.
But in his devastating article, The horrific death of Anthony Avalos and the many missed chances to save him, investigative reporter Garrett Therolf shows that DCFS had many opportunities to save Anthony. It also reveals striking connections between Anthony’s case and Gabriel’s. The same private agency counselor had worked with both boys, and had been questioned in court about Gabriel. A caseworker who had been disciplined for his errors in the Fernandez case actually supervised the social worker who managed Anthony’s case.
Garrett Therolf was kind enough to share the DCFS case file with Child Welfare Monitor. In reviewing the file, we were struck by the many red flags that DCFS ignored and the crucial points where the agency could have intensified the surveillance of the family or removed the children to safety. In this post, we highlight our own observations from the case file, complemented by key information obtained from other sources (such as interviews and grand jury transcripts) by Therolf.
The First Calls: 2013 and 2014
Anthony Avalos first came to the attention of DCFS in February 2013, when he was only four years old and reported that his grandfather sexually abused him. The agency substantiated the abuse but did not set up any ongoing monitoring, relying on his mother, Heather Barron, to keep his grandfather away from him.
In May 2014 the family came to the attention of DCFS again when a caller alleged that Barron, who had four children at the time, was hitting the children with hoses and belts and locking them in their rooms for hours. An allegation of neglect (but not abuse) was substantiated. Barron agreed to the opening of a voluntary case, which was open from May 20, 2014 to December 4, 2014. A social worker named Mark Millman was assigned to manage the case.
Under DCFS Supervision: June-December 2014
In June, 2014 a PhD. psychologist who evaluated Barron concluded that she “appeared to have poor parenting skills as shown by her lack of patience towards her two children that displayed energetic behavior….At this time…. the assessor believes that her capacity to provide suitable care for her children is severely limited by her poor parenting skills, poor judgment, and denial and lack of awareness of her mental health issues.” The evaluator recommended a variety of services for Barron. She refused to participate in individual therapy–probably the most essential. But there is no indication that case manager Millman even read the report, let alone followed up to see if the services were provided or successfully completed. Barron did participate in in-home services to improve her parenting skills, which were provided by an agency called the Children’s Center of the Antelope Valley.
Once services got under way, reports from the provider were not encouraging. A July 2014 progress report from the Children’s Center indicated that Barron was “having a difficult time maintaining her composure when the children misbehave.” In its August 2014 report, the agency reported that Barron was overwhelmed. The agency case manager recommended therapy for Ms. Barron but she again refused saying she was not interested in talking about the past.
On October 9, 2014, a counselor at the Children’s Center called the hotline with concerns about the family. The counselor had tried to discuss her concerns with Millman but he seemed to “blow it off.” She reported that Barron, who had recently given birth to a fifth child, was “ very aggressive and angry and showed no nurturing to any of her children, even the infant.” She reported that she observed Barron yanking one child by the arm, yanking her daughter’s hair while brushing it, and calling the children names like “punk” and “bitch.”
The social worker assigned to investigate the new allegations was not concerned. He observed that Barron and her children were ”interacting positively” and “that mother and children had secure attachment as seen by their interaction.” Barron’s admission that she hit the children with a belt and used hot sauce to punish them for talking back did not seem to bother him. It appears that he was influenced heavily by Millman, who expressed no concern for the family. He reported that Ms. Barron “has her hands full and is doing her best….…She does cuss and yell but [is] doing all she can to provide appropriate care.”
The automated risk assessment performed as part of every investigation showed a high risk of abuse and neglect and recommended promotion to a court case. The investigator overrode this recommendation, stating that the children were already involved in a voluntary case and getting services. And somehow, despite the mother’s own admission, the investigator closed the referral as “inconclusive” for physical abuse, as well as emotional abuse and general neglect.
Another Children’s Center therapist called DCFS on November 5, 2014, alleging she overheard one child say “She’s bad because she whips our ass.” The caller said that Barron continued to get frustrated easily. She quoted Barron as telling one of the children, ‘Don’t think, because she is here, I won’t whip your ass.’” This referral was “evaluated out” with no explanation.
Case Closed: December 2014
The voluntary case was closed on December 4, 2014 with the following comments: “The mother has been compliant with services and receptive to outside resources. Although the family has received two new referrals, the allegations were assessed unfounded/ inconclusive. Mother has agreed to continuing counseling for the children.” The agency arranged for the family to receive this counseling through a new agency, Hathaway Sycamores Counseling. There was no indication that the mother had made any progress in addressing her parenting issues. Nor was there a rationale given for directing the counseling toward the children rather than the mother.
Hathaway-Sycamores was the same agency that worked with Gabriel Fernandez, as mentioned above. As Therolf reveals, Anthony was even assigned to the same counselor, Barbara Dixon, who worked with Gabriel. Dixon testified in court that she had observed extensive injuries to Gabriel but did not report them to the hotline, despite being a mandatory reporter. The fact that she still had her job is mind-boggling. According to Therolf, “her case notes show that she counseled [Gabriel] to listen to his mother more attentively and to finish his homework.”
Kareen Leiva Enters the Picture: 2015
As Therolf describes, Barron met Kareem Leiva in 2015 and began a relationship that would last several years and result in Barron’s seventh child. Within months, the father of Anthony’s two-year-old brother reported to police that Leiva was abusing his son. There was no DCFS investigation but DCFS did open a court case involving that child and his parents, resulting in regular visits to the home by a social worker, Mindy Wrasse.
On June 12, 2015, the same father went to the police again after an agency-supervised visit with his son, reporting that his son had bruises on his arm and face. The social worker observing the visit had confirmed the bruising and reported that the child repeatedly said “Mommy is mean” during the visit. The father reported that the child seemed to have bruises at every visit. Ms. Barron reported the two-year-old fell in the shower, and the toddler reportedly confirmed the report. A two-year-old’s ability to confirm this verbally–and to take a shower on his own–shows suspicious precocity for his age. Despite the other siblings giving two different accounts of the bruising, the referral was ruled unfounded on the grounds that all of the children had similar stories. Additionally, the risk of maltreatment was found to be high and the recommendation was to promote to a case. But this recommendation was overriden because there was already an open case involving the two-year-old and his mother. That case closed in October 2016, leaving no DCFS personnel in contact with the family.
The Children Beg for Help: September 2015
On September 18, 2015, the hotline received a call, revealed by Therolf to be from the principal of Anthony’s school, recounting disturbing reports by Anthony of his treatment at home. A similar call came in from a sheriff’s deputy the next day. According to Therolf’s investigation, the children were visiting their uncle, David Barron, and told him about the horrific treatment they received from Barron and her boyfriend, Karim Leiva. David Barron refused to allow his sister to pick up the children and called the police instead. Anthony and his two oldest siblings described to the deputy who responded a litany of horrific punishments by Barron and Leiva. They reported Barron made them. squat against the wall for long periods of time, a torture she called the “Captain’s Chair.” They also described beatings, food deprivation, being locked in their rooms, and Leiva’s hanging Anthony’s brother from the stairs.
When the DCFS investigator met with Anthony, he told her “Heather is my old mom. This is my new house. I am part of the Barron family now. I’m never going to see Heather again. She locks us up in our rooms and makes us starving.”
But sadly, the agency that was responsible for Anthony’s safety did not allow him to stay in his safe “new home.” The investigator spoke with three staff members of Hathaway-Sycamores, the agency providing home-based services to the mother. The three reported that they were “constantly in the home” and that the mother did not hit the children. They said the children did not seem frightened, never talked of abuse, and there were no locks on the doors. The contrast with the reports of the Children’s Center a year earlier is striking. Given what came out after Anthony’s death, it is clear that the providers from the Children’s Center were much more discerning. Or perhaps Hathaway-Sycamores was in the grips of an ideology that values family preservation over child safety–a belief system that has led to many other children being abandoned to a horrible fate. In any case, it is incredible that DCFS was still using this agency after its role in Gabriel’s death.
Heartbreakingly, Ms. Barron was allowed to take the children home from her brother’s house. Not surprisingly, they recanted all the allegations once deprived of the protection of their aunt and uncle. Instead, they said their aunt and uncle told them to make these allegations. The wholesale retraction is suspicious because of the similarity and unusual nature of the allegations and the young age of the children, as well as the number of previous reports of abuse. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the children may have been frightened into recanting their allegations. But the investigator decided that the aunt and uncle were manipulating the children and had instigated the allegations. (Therolf reports that she was new to the job and testified in court that she was unaware that survivors of abuse often retract their accounts.). The allegations were found to be “inconclusive “and the referral was closed with a disposition of “situation stabilized.”
One last chance of rescue missed: April 2016
On April 28, 2016, DCFS received another report, which Therolf learned came from a domestic violence center staffer who was working with Barron. Two of Anthony’s brothers had bruises on their faces. Barron said they had been in a fight, but the boys told the reporter that Karim Leiva made them fight each other. They also reported being locked in their rooms and deprived of food for long periods of time. Barron stated that Leiva had not been in the home since the previous September. In interviews with the investigator, Anthony, his sister, and the five year-old brother all denied the allegations. Anthony and his sister denied that Leiva was in the house or even that they knew him–a denial which should have raised serious concerns to the investigator. Wrasse, the social worker who was monitoring the open case involving Anthony’s brother, said the children definitely knew who Leiva was–and she thought he was coming regularly to the house. The investigator of the previous report also declared definitely that the children knew Leiva.
Despite all these inconsistencies, the allegations were all judged “unfounded” or “inconclusive,” and the disposition was “situation stabilized.” The risk assessment showed a high risk of abuse or neglect and a recommendation to “promote” the case. But the recommendation was disregarded because there was already a social worker on the scene–the same worker who was sure Leiva was coming into the home regularly. Her involvement ended in October 16, and then the children were totally on their own.
There were no more allegations until it was too late for Anthony. At some point, Ms. Barron cut ties with her brother and sister-in–law and moved Anthony to a school that did not know his history. Nobody was left to protect him. It is nevertheless surprising that no reports came from the children’s schools–a fact that deserves further investigation. According to Therolf, Anthony’s teacher noticed that he was “often nervous about something.” Such nervousness is not normal and should have triggered a response. But that is an issue for another post.
June 2018: Anthony’s suffering ends
Anthony’s fate was sealed when he told his his mother that he liked boys and girls. Leiva overheard this conversation. The following night, his siblings later reported, Leiva picked up Anthony by his feet and slammed his head on the floor repeatedly. The next morning, Barron called 911, saying Anthony had fallen. He was taken to the hospital and died the next day.
Anthony’s siblings initially denied any abuse, but as soon as they were questioned by an expert forensic interviewer, they revealed all the horrors that were occurring in the home. As punishment for minor transgressions, they were made to kneel on rice with weights in their hands, were kept awake all night (with water thrown into their faces by Barron or Leiva if they fell asleep), and were whipped with a belt or extension cord on the buttocks or soles of their feet. Anthony was singled out of special punishment. Leiva would pick him up by the feet and slam him on the floor head-first, as he did the night before Anthony died. By dying, Anthony saved his siblings from this nightmare home. They were removed from the home Barron and Leiva , who have been charged with first-degree murder for Anthony’s death.
DCFS had many chances to save Anthony but it wasted them all. This gifted, sensitive, and loving child was condemned to years of suffering ending only with his death. OCP was set up to protect children in the wake of Gabriel Fernandez’s death. It’s sad that this office ended up basically whitewashing Anthony’s. Now we are waiting for their report on why four-year-old Noah Cuatro was killed when DCFS disregarded an order to remove him from his home. Based on the Avalos report, the chances of a thorough investigation by OCP are slim.
When a child is found to be seriously or fatally abused, the perpetrator is often found to be a male caregiver. But a new study using data from pediatric emergency rooms provides powerful evidence of the correlation between caregiver characteristics and the likelihood of abuse.
The new study is the first to compare caregiver features among children with injuries due to abuse to those with accidental injuries. The article was published in the Journal of Pediatrics, and a summary is available online on the Science Dailywebsite. The authors used data on 1615 children under four who were brought to a pediatric emergency department. Overall, 75% of the injuries were classified as accidents, 24% as abuse and 2% as indeterminate.
The differences between the likelihood of abuse versus accident among different groups of caregivers are striking. Abuse was determined to be the cause of injury to only 10% of the children for whom a female was the only caregiver at the time of injury and fully 58% of children who were with a male caregiver when injured. There was a big difference between fathers and boyfriends however; an “alarmingly high” 94% of the children who were alone with the mother’s boyfriend at the time of injury were determined to be abused, as compared to “only” 49% of injured children who were with their fathers at the time of injury.
Analysis of the 83 cases of severe injury (including fatalities) provided even stronger evidence of the connection between male caregivers and abuse. The authors found that “nearly all cases of severe injury in which fathers and boyfriends were present involved abuse, and for fatalities, the fathers and boyfriends were most commonly present as lone caregivers. Mothers were rarely present alone when severe abusive injuries occurred.”
Among female caregivers, one group was more likely associated with injuries and that was babysitters. Fully 34% of the children left alone with babysitters were found to be victims of abuse
The researchers point to several policy implications of their study. First, they highlight the importance of asking who was caring for the child at the time of injury as part of the investigation to determine whether an injury is the result of abuse. Second, they call for abuse-prevention strategies to focus on male caregivers and female babysitters. (Currently, such programs, like shaken baby education, often focus on mothers.)
But the authors do not mention another policy implication that is equally important. Ensuring that all low-income children have access to high-quality early care and education (ECE) is a logical implication of the study.
As I have written in an earlier post, there are many pathways by which ECE can prevent maltreatment. Free, high quality ECE would provide mothers with an alternative to leaving their children with caregivers who are unsuitable to the task–be it boyfriends, fathers, or babysitters. ECE has other child welfare benefits as well. Staff who are trained as mandatory reporters ensures that more adults will be seeing the child and able to report on any warning signs of maltreatment. Quality ECE programs that involve the parents can also improve child safety by teaching parents about child development, appropriate expectations, and good disciplinary practices. They may also connect parents with needed supports and resources in the community and help them feel less isolated and stressed.
Of course the benefits of ECE extend far beyond child welfare in the narrow sense. We are worried about school readiness for low-income children and we know that much of brain development occurs between the ages of 0 and 3. That’s why quality ECE has been such a priority for the early childhood community. But child welfare policymakers have not yet caught onto the importance of ECE as a means of preventing child maltreatment.
An excellent issue brief from the Administration on Children and Families recommends improving access to ECE for families that are already involved with child welfare. That is a great proposal, but the child welfare field is beginning to focus on prevention rather than only treatment. We must explore ways to provide access to ECE among children who are at risk of child abuse and neglect. Expanding access to subsidized child care among lower-income families, because income is so highly correlated with child maltreatment, would be a good beginning.
Prevention is the word of the day in child welfare. A key part of prevention is making sure children spend their time with caregivers who will not harm them.