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

ChapinHallIllinois’ child welfare services to families that are allowed to keep their children have major systemic flaws that put children at risk. Most importantly, there is extreme reluctance to remove children from their homes and place them in foster care. Those are the findings of a review from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago that was commissioned by the Governor in the wake of several deaths of children whose families were being supervised by the state.

This report follows an earlier one, discussed in a  previous post,  by the Inspector General (OIG) for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) stating that child safety and well-being are no longer priorities for the agency.  One problem area identified in that report was Intact Family Services, which are the services provided to families in order to prevent further abuse or neglect without removing the child. OIG’s 2018 annual report included an eight-year retrospective on the deaths of children in Intact Family Services cases, which concluded that in many of these cases the children remained in danger during the life of the case due to violence in their homes, when DCFS should have either removed the children or at least sought court involvement to enforce participation in services,

Increasingly, child welfare systems around the country have been relying on services to intact families (often called in-home or intact family services) in order to avoid placing children into foster care. In 2017, according to federal data, only 15% of children who received services after an investigation or assessment were placed in foster care; the other 85% were provided with services in their homes. These services may become even more predominant with implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which allows federal Title IV-E funds to reimburse jurisdictions for the cost of such services.

It is important for child welfare agencies to be able to work with families that remain intact. This allows the agency to monitor the children’s safety and avoid the trauma of placement in foster care while working to ameliorate the conditions that might lead to a foster care placement. But agencies must be cognizant that not every family can be helped this way, keep a close watch what is going on in the home, and be ready to remove children when necessary to ensure their safety. The deaths of children who have received Intact Family Services in Illinois have raised questions about whether the agency is accomplishing these tasks.

In Illinois, Intact Family Services (referred to below as “Intact”)  are provided mostly by private agencies under contract with DCFS. The Chapin Hall  report found systemic issues that create barriers to effectively serving intact families.

Avoiding foster care placement: Perhaps the most important issue observed by the researchers was the high priority that Illinois places on avoiding placement of children in foster care. As a result of many years of such efforts, Illinois now has the lowest rate of child removal in the country. Intact staff expressed the belief that “recommendations to remove children based on case complexity, severity, or chronicity will not be heard by the Division of Child Protection (DCP) or the Court.” As a result, Intact supervisors are reluctant to reject referrals of families even when they believe a family cannot be served safely in the home.  They are also reluctant to elevate cases for supervisory review when they have not been able to engage a high risk family.

Supervisory Misalignment: In the past, negotiations between DCP and Intact over the appropriateness of a referral occurred on a supervisor-to-supervisor level, allowing Intact to push back against unsuitable referrals. An administrative realignment that placed investigators and Intact under different administrations eliminated this ability of Intact to contest inappropriate referrals. According to the researchers, this resulted in the opening of Intact cases for families with “extensive histories of physical abuse” that Intact staff believed they could not serve effectively.

High Risk Case Closures:  Intact service agencies are expected to work with a family for six months and then close the case with no further involvement by DCFS. The researchers learned that there was no clear pathway for intact staff to express concerns when they been unable to engage a family. As a result, some providers told the researcher that they may simply close the case when a family will not engage.

Staffing Issues: Caseload, capacity and turnover.  The researchers found that DCP investigators are overwhelmed with their high caseloads and are desperate to make referrals to Intact to get families off their caseload as soon as possible. The prescribed caseload limit of 15 cases per worker is very hard to manage, and some workers carry even more cases. Moreover, DCP workers tend to stop managing safety plans and assessments as soon as a referral is made to Intact, which leaves children in limbo until services begin. For their part, Intact workers’ caseloads are often over the prescribed limits and are not adjusted for travel time or case complexity. Moreover, the difficulty of their clientele makes the current caseload of 10:1 difficult to manage. High turnover among Intact workers, investigators and other staff can also contribute to the information gaps and knowledge deficits mentioned below.

Role Confusion: DCP workers and Intact workers seem to have different views of the role of the DCP worker, according to the researchers. DCP workers view their role as making and justifying the decisions about whether to substantiate the referral and remove the child. However, the Intact Family Services policy calls upon them to engage the family and transmit all necessary information to the Intact staff. Cultural differences between the two sets of workers compound the problems.

Information Gaps: Because of the role ambiguity mentioned above, investigators often fail to pass on crucial information to Intact workers. Yet, these workers often cannot access investigators notes or key features of the case history. Moreover Chapin Hall’s reviews of the two recent deaths of toddlers in intact cases found that much of the family’s history was inaccessible because cases were expunged or purged. DCFS expunges most unsubstantiated reports and shreds investigators files and appears to be more aggressive about such expungements than most other states, according to a previous DCFS Director, George Sheldon.

Service Gaps: The researchers also mentioned gaps in service availability, especially long waiting lists for substance abuse prevention, which make it very difficult to engage families as well as providers.

The authors made a number of recommendations for addressing these problems they identified.  These include:

  • Work with courts and State’s attorneys to refine the criteria for child removal in complex and chronic family cases;
  • Develop and refine protocol for closing Intact cases;
  • Direct attention to cases at greatest risk for severe harm; revisit the use of predictive models which should be transparent, based on broad input and be supported by ethical safeguards’
  • Clarify goals and expectations across staff roles;
  • Utilize evidence-based approaches to preventive case work;
  • Improve the quality of supervision;
  • Adjust the preventive services offered through Intact to meet the needs of the population;
  • Restructure Intact Services to address the supervisory mismatch with DCP; and
  • Redesign the assessment and intake process to reduce redundant information, improve accuracy or assessments to support decision-making and improve communication across child serving systems.

We would have liked to see a recommendation to modify Illinois’ policy of expunging and purging all unsubstantiated investigations. At a hearing in May, 2017, the DCFS Director, George Sheldon, expressed his support for allowing DCFS to keep records of all investigations, even if they are unsubstantiated. Research suggests that it is very difficult to make accurate decisions about whether maltreatment has occurred; moreover, unsubstantiated reports are as good as substantiated ones in predicting future maltreatment. Examples of children killed after families have had multiple unsubstantiated reports have been observed all over the country.

This report should be a must-read for all child welfare agencies.  Children in many states have died of abuse or neglect after intact cases have been opened for their families. (Think about Zymere Perkins in New York or Anthony Avalos and Gabriel Fernandez in Los Angeles.) Many of the issues identified by the Chapin-Hall report may have contributed to these deaths as well, particularly the extreme avoidance of child removals that has condemned so many innocent children to death ever since the widespread push to reduce the foster care rolls, supported by a coalition of wealthy and powerful foundations and advocacy groups.

 

Primary prevention of child maltreatment should include family planning

familyplanning
Image: mattapanchc.org

Primary prevention is the phrase of the day in child welfare. As Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner of the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services put it in a letter attached to the program for the recent NCCAN conference, “Right now, our child welfare system typically responds only after families have lost much of their protective capacity and children have been harmed. We need to create environments where families get the support they need before harm occurs. This calls for an intensified focus on primary prevention and a reconceptualization of the mission and functioning of child welfare systems.”

Primary prevention refers to the prevention of abuse and neglect before it occurs through universal approaches. This is distinguished from secondary prevention, which focus on those at risk for a problem like child maltreatment, or tertiary prevention, which focuses no preventing on recurrence of a problem that has already occurred. (The much touted Family First Act allows funds to be used only for tertiary prevention, which is perhaps why it was not mentioned at the conference and why the Children’s Bureau has been dragging its feet on issuing guidance to states and counties.)

Yet, discussions of primary prevention (including those at NCCAN) often leave out the most primary of all–encouraging people to delay childbearing until they are ready to be parents, to wait at least 18 months between pregnancies, and to curb the overall number of children they have.

The connection between teen pregnancy and child maltreatment is well-known, but adolescence is lasting longer than ever, and even mothers aged 20 to 25 are more likely to abuse or neglect their children than older mothers. California researchers Emily Putnam-Hornstein and Barbara Needell found that babies born to mothers who were under 20 were twice as likely to be reported to child protective services (CPS) by the child’s fifth birthday as those born to mothers 30 or older. Among children referred to CPS by age five, almost 18 percent were born to a teenage mother and 50 percent were born to a mother younger than 25. Among children with no CPS contact, only 8 percent were teen births and 30 percent were born to a mother under 25.

Less well-known or discussed is the consistent evidence that larger family size and closer child spacing are correlated with child maltreatment. The Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect found that households with four or more children had a maltreatment rate of 21.2 per thousand, compared with 11.9 per thousand for families with two children. Putnam-Hornstein and Needell found that children who fell third or higher in the birth order were more than twice as likely to be the subject of a maltreatment report as first children.

Not surprisingly, research suggest that the interaction between birth order and maternal age creates the highest risk for a child maltreatment fatality. A study using linked birth and death certificates for all births in the U.S. between 1983 and 1991 found that the most important risk factors for infant homicide were a second or subsequent infant born to a mother less than 17 years old. These infants had 11 times the risk of being killed compared with a first infant born to a mother 25 years old or older. A second or subsequent infant born to 17 to 19-year-old mother had nine times the homicide risk of the first infant born to the older mother.

And setting the research aside for a moment, anyone who has worked for or with CPS, or in foster care, knows the prevalence of larger families with closely-spaced children in the system, often with a mother that started childbearing as a teen. This blogger has observed the same pattern as a member of the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Committee, and it has been observed in other jurisdictions as well.1  

If it is not the lack of research, why do supporters of child maltreatment prevention fail to include family planning and contraception in their suggestions? Judging from the reactions this blogger has received when raising this issue,  it is our country’s shameful history of attempting to restrict childbearing by women of color through means including forced sterilization and the promotion of birth control methods like Norplant.

But advocates for children of color should not allow this racist history to prevent thinking clearly about what is best going forward. There are few if any policies that could be more helpful to the future of black children and the elimination of racial disproportionality in foster care placement than ensuring that black women have access to the most effective methods of contraception so that they can determine their own futures.

Family planning and contraception need to be included in the discussion about child maltreatment prevention. Research suggests that media messaging, better information, and use of more effective contraceptive methods contributed to the drastic decline in the teen birth rate from 61.8  per thousand in 1991 to 18.8 per thousand in 2017. However, it is still high among certain populations, including Black (27.5 per thousand) and Hispanic (28.9 per thousand) teens.

We now have safe, effective long-lasting reversible methods of contraception. Known as LARC’s, for “Long Lasting Reversible Contraceptives, these methods provide long-lasting contraception without requiring action by the user. They include IUD’s and contraceptive implants. But LARC’s are not universally available, and even when available, women desiring these methods may have to return for a second appointment. Moreover, health care professionals are often not trained to address myths and misconceptions concerning longer-lasting contraception. The Colorado Family Planning Initiative improved access to LARC’s by training public health providers, supporting family planning clinics, and removing financial barriers. As a result of this initiative, the state’s teen birth rate was cut in half in just five years.

The Colorado initiative could be adopted nationwide, combined with a mass media campaign to explain the benefits to both children and parents of planning and spacing of pregnancies and births. We know that such campaigns can change people’s health-related behavior, as in the case of smoking cessation and HIV prevention. 

The omission of pregnancy prevention from the primary prevention toolkit is particularly upsetting because very few programs have been shown to be effective in preventing abuse or neglect after a baby is born. Jerry Milner and other proponents of primary prevention in child welfare argue that we should help families before they maltreat their children. How much more efficient and humane it would be to postpone the birth of children who are likely to be maltreated and help troubled adults address their problems before they have a first or subsequent child rather than afterwards?

  1. Testimony of Dr. Angela Diaz, CECANF, August 6-7, 2015), https://slideblast.com/cecanf-nyc-meeting-transcriptfinal_59767e8e1723ddc0e0eedc5d.html 

 

 

 

Feds confuse substantiation with victimization

On January 28, the Administration of Children and Families (ACF) released its annual report on child maltreatment. In its press release, the agency heralded “a decline in the number of victims who suffered maltreatment for the second consecutive year.” There are three problems with this. First, the alleged decrease in victimization between Federal Fiscal Years (FFY) 2016 and 2017 is so small as to be insignificant. Second, what declined was not child maltreatment but rather the number of children who were “substantiated” as maltreated–a decline that may reflect changing state practice rather than declining child maltreatment. Finally, ACF’s presentation appears designed to support a narrative that favors family preservation over child safety rather than to report the data in an objective manner.

The newest edition of ACF’s Child Maltreatment report is based on state data for FFY 2017, which ran from October 2016 to September 2017. The report shows that states received 4.1 million referrals (calls to child abuse hotlines) alleging maltreatment involving 7.5 million children in 2017. The number of referrals as a percentage of the number of children has increased annually since 2013. ACF does not discuss the reasons for this ongoing increase, nor does it present referral numbers by state, but such increases could stem from increased awareness of child abuse and neglect (often due to highly-publicized child deaths), public information campaigns, or other factors.

Of the 4.1 million referrals received nationwide in 2017, 2.4 million  (or 58%), were “screened in” by state or county child welfare agencies, which means they met agency criteria for receiving a response. As a result, 3.5 million children received either a traditional child maltreatment investigation or were assigned to an alternative non-investigative track, as described below. And of these 3.5 million children, an estimated 674,000 or 19% were found to be victims of abuse or neglect. This flowchart, based on data from Child Maltreatment 2017, illustrates this funneling effect from referrals to substantiation.After rounding and a calculation to account for missing data from Puerto Rico in FFY 2016, HHS estimates that the number of children found to be maltreated decreased of 3,000 (or 0.4%) from the previous year. Such a small change is hardly meaningful; it would be more accurate to say that the number was basically unchanged. This difference from one year to the next is so small that the rate of children found to be victimized was the same in 2017 as in 2016–9.1 per 1000 children. In other words, almost one percent of all children were found to be the victims of maltreatment in 2016 and 2017.

But perhaps more important than the small size of the decrease is the fact that referring to a “decline in the number of victims” or the “victimization rate”  is deceptive, which is why I have used cumbersome terms like “found to be victims of child maltreatment.” Most states use the term “substantiation” to connote that they have concluded maltreatment have occurred; some have an additional finding called “indication” that is somewhat less conclusive than substantiation. But as we all know, a finding of maltreatment is not the same as actual maltreatment. Just look back at my columns on Jordan Belliveau in Florida, Anthony Avalos in California, the Hart children in Oregon, and Adrian Jones in Kansas to find cases where horrific abuse occurred but was not substantiated until a child died.

And that is not the only problem. As ACF itself explained, changes in state policy and practice can influence the number of reports that are substantiated. Different states have different evidence thresholds to substantiate an allegation. According to the report, 37 states require a “preponderance of” evidence, 8 states require “credible” evidence, 6 states require “reasonable” evidence and one requires “probable cause.” One state changed its evidence threshold between 2016 and 2017.

In addition to different criteria for substantiation, some states treat all screened-in referrals in the same way while others have a two-track system of responding to reports. In these two-track systems (often called “differential response” or “alternative response”), some allegations receive a standard investigation, but others (usually deemed to be at lower risk of harm) receive less rigorous response, often known as a “family assessment.” The children in these cases are not determined to be victims even if they have been abused or neglected. Instead their families are offered voluntary services. About half of states reported data on children in alternative response programs. As the above flow chart shows, 639,634 children received an alternative response, almost as many as the 674,000 who were determined to be maltreated.

So a given state’s substantiation rate will be influenced by whether it has differential response in all or part of the state. And if the use of differential response in a state was expanding or contracting over a given period, this will influence the change in the number of  children who are determined to be victims of maltreatment. Specifically, if states increased their use of differential response overall, that would have reduced the number of children found to be maltreated.

And indeed, ACF reports that “states’ commentaries suggest the increased usage and implementation of alternative response programs ….may have contributed to the changes noted in the 2017 metrics.” And upon review,  the commentaries, included in an Appendix to the report, do suggest that the number of reports subject to differential response increased between FFY 2016 and 2017. Six states, including New York, and Texas (two of the four states with the highest number of children)1 were ramping up their use of differential response during FFY 2017, while Massachusetts and Oregon stopped using the two-track system in FFY 2016 and 2017 respectively.

ACF also suggests that changes to state legislation and child welfare policies and practices might influence the number of substantiated allegations. The state commentaries reveal that some states experienced such changes, although it is not clear that they trended in one direction. Some states like Pennsylvania reported an increased emphasis on safety resulting in increased substantiations and others like New Jersey reporting reduced substantiations due to new policies.

As all this discussion shows, it is almost impossible to attribute a change in the number or rate of substantiation to an actual change in the amount of child abuse and neglect. Too many other things are influencing this number and rate.

Not only did ACF inaccurately herald a decrease in maltreatment but it went on to contrast this alleged decrease with the increasing number of referrals, stating “We are experiencing increases in the number of children referred to CPS at the same time that there is a decrease in the number of children determined to be victims of abuse and neglect.” Media outlets lost no time in picking up on this alleged contrast. For example,  the Chronicle of Social Change reported that Child Victimization Declines as Reports of it Continue to Rise.

The interpretation of child welfare numbers to paint a picture of decreasing maltreatment in the face of increasing reporting is not an accident. It feeds into the narrative that is currently dominating in most states and on the federal level without regard to party. According to this narrative, almost all children are better off staying with their parents, no matter how egregious the maltreatment. Removals should be prevented at all costs. If maltreatment is decreasing and reporting is increasing, perhaps something should be done to squelch those pesky hotline callers.

The data presented in Child Maltreatment is extremely important. It is too bad ACF did not stick to reporting it accurately so that readers can understand what it means–and what it does not.


  1. Colorado, Georgia, Nebraska and Washington were the other four states that expanded the use of differential response during FY 2017.