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Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate, in a stunning report, revealed that 36% of the students withdrawn from six districts to be homeschooled between 2013 and 2016 lived in families that had least one prior accepted report of child abuse or neglect.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.
A new report from Eyewitness News has cast doubt on my pieced-together account of the process by which Justyna Zubko-Valva lost custody of Thomas and her other sons. My initial account, relying on reports from other media outlets, suggested that a judge revoked the mother’s custody and gave it to the father in an arbitrary manner without seeking to evaluate either parent’s capability of raising the children. Based on the documents described by Eyewitness News, ot appears that this was not the case. I have updated my post to account for the new information, as described below.
My post initially relied on available media accounts in stating that Judge Hope Schwartz Zimmerman became fed up with Justyna Zubko-Valva for failing to follow two orders, including one to get her children evaluated. In fact, the court documents obtained by Eyewitness News state that the Zubko-Valva was refusing to follow an order that she herself be evaluated, unless the interview could be videotaped. The evaluator refused due to the “sensitive nature of the testing materials.”
Without a psychological evaluation of the mother, Judge Zimmerman stated that she was unable to bring the case to trial. She announced that she was awarding “temporary, temporary” custody to the father. The rationale for that decision is not explained in the quotes from Eyewitness News. Perhaps Judge Zimmerman thought that moving the children would induce Zubko-Valva to obtain the evaluation. Using the children as tools to induce parental compliance would be inappropriate in any case. In this case, the transfer of custody not only failed to achieve the judge’s goal but resulted in the death of one child, horrific abuse of another child, and potential lifelong damage to the two living children. The “temporary, temporary custody” ended up lasting for two years after Valva filed an abuse report against Zubko-Valva and Zubko-Valva later refused supervised visitation, as described below. Nevertheless, my statement the judge cavalierly transferred custody of the boys without evaluating the parents appears to have been wrong. Instead, she apparently transferred custody in order to obtain the evaluation she required
Of course Zubko-Valva could not know that her intransigence about the evaluation would lead to suffering, death and lifelong damage to her children. But there are other disturbing aspects of her behavior cited in the Eyewitness News account. It appears that she did not see her children for two years, from January 2018 until Thomas’ death in January 2020. Eyewitness News stated that visits were cut off in January 2018 due to the abuse accusations against Ms. Zubko-Valva but that another judge, Joseph Lorintz, offered her visits starting in April 2018, when the charges were dismissed. Zubko-Valva reportedly refused to visit the children unless they were moved from Valva’s home–a request which the judge denied. In July 2019 the judge again offered her visits, but said the visits must be supervised because “I’m not going to allow you to see your children after a year and a half without some form of supervision in place.” Eyewitness News reports that Zubko-Valva refused to visit her children in a supervised setting. She reportedly refused the same offer in September, 2019, only four months before Thomas’ death. According to the transcripts cited by Eyewitness News, Judge Lorintz almost pleaded with Zubko-Valva, saying “You haven’t seen your children since January 14, 2018. It may only be a few times, but I need for them to be reintroduced to you.” The transcripts show the judge offering three more times to order visits, without receiving an answer from Zubko-Valva. She would never never again see her son Thomas alive. By refusing the opportunity to see her children, did she miss the chance to save Thomas? We will never know.
Unless the Eyewitness News account of the court transcripts is terribly wrong, it appears that Zubko-Valva was not acting in the best interests of her children when she refused the evaluation and the visits. Her refusal to visit her children is very hard to understand and very concerning as it relates to her current fitness as a parent to her two very damaged young sons. The courts and CPS have already failed these children catastrophically; it is hoped that their continued involvement will serve to protect these children and ensure that they receive the treatment and monitoring they need.
The difficulty of piecing events together based on incomplete press accounts illustrates the need for an independent children’s ombudsman to review such cases of systemic failure and release their reviews (redacted as necessary) to the public. Only with such independent reviews can taxpayers understand how and why the system they paid for has failed. If I knew that such a review was forthcoming, I would not have even tried to come up with a credible narrative of this case without the court transcripts and CPS documents. The public should not have to rely on guesswork to find out how the system failed and what has to change.
On September 4, 2018, the body of two-year-old Jordan Belliveau was found in a wooded area in Largo, Florida. Two days before, his mother Charisse Stinson told police she was assaulted by a stranger and that her son was missing when she recovered consciousness. She later admitted that she had fabricated this account and in fact had caused the injuries that caused Jordan’s death.
Jordan had been removed from his parents in October 2016 and reunited with Stinson in May 2018. At the time of his death, Jordan was under court-ordered “protective supervision” by a nonprofit agency under subcontract with the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF). There was also an open investigation of allegations of ongoing domestic violence between Stinson and Jordan’s father, Jordan Belliveau, Sr. DCF convened a special review team to determine why Jordan killed despite being under supervision by the system that was supposed to protect him. The team’s report was issued earlier this month.
To understand the case, one must grasp the particularly fragmented nature of child welfare in Pinellas County, Florida, in which three crucial functions usually vested in one agency are split between three different agencies. The Sheriff’s Department handles child abuse investigations, a private agency called Directions for Living manages in-home service cases under contract with Eckerd Connects, which in turn has a contract with DCF, and the State Attorney’s Office represents DCF in court.
The first call concerning Jordan and his parents came in to the child abuse hotline on October 2016, when Jordan was three months old. Jordan and his parents were living in the home of his paternal grandmother, and the caller was concerned about drugs, gang activity and firearms in the home. The allegations were verified and an emergency hearing was called. Ms. Stinson was ordered to relocate immediately and was referred to a program providing housing and support services to young mothers. However, she refused to cooperate with the program and was rejected. A second hearing was convened on the same day (November 1, 2016) and Jordan was placed in foster care. In order to get Jordan back, the parents had to comply with a case plan which required each of them to obtain stable housing and income, comply with a “biopsychosocial assessment,” and follow the recommendations of the assessment. Ms. Stinson was also required to obtain counseling.
In January 2017, Jordan was placed with the foster family that would keep him until he was returned to his mother 16 months later. It was in this home, as his foster mother reported in a heartbreaking statement after his death, Jordan learned to roll, crawl, walk and talk and flourished in a supportive community of church members, foster families, and Coast Guard families.
While Jordan was thriving in foster care, an escalating series of violent incidents was reported between his parents. Each parent was in turn arrested for violence against the other but each case was dropped because the other parent did not press charges. Despite these incidents, Ms. Stinson was granted unsupervised visits with her son starting June 18, 2017. During the first unsupervised visit, Ms. Stinson allowed Mr. Belliveau to attend despite the fact that his visits were still required to be supervised. At this visit, which took place at a Burger King, members of a rival gang arrived and a fight ensued. Holding Jordan in her arms, Ms. Stinson struck at a woman who was fighting with Mr.Belliveau. Attempting to hit back, the woman hit Jordan in the mouth, inflicting lacerations. This incident was reported to the child abuse hotline, along with allegations that Mr. Belliveau was selling cocaine and marijuana from their home and that both parents used these drugs. Both parents refused to be tested for drugs. The investigation concluded with a finding of inadequate supervision and failure to protect Jordan by both parents.
In the next court hearing on the family case, the magistrate in charge of the case was not informed that this was a gang-related incident, that Ms. Stinson was involved, or that Jordan was injured. There was no mention of the need to screen both parents for drug use.
According to Florida statute, DCF was required to file a petition for termination of parental rights within 60 days of November 1, 2017, when Jordan had been in foster care for 12 months. Yet no such petition was filed. At the hearing on January 8, 2018, the court found “compelling reason not to consider termination” because Ms. Stinson was “partially compliant” with her case plan tasks because she had completed an assessment and was wrongly reported to be in counseling.
During a court hearing on April 23, 2018, Ms. Stinson’s attorney reported that she had completed the counseling mandated by her case plan, but no documentation was provided. As a matter of fact, Ms. Stinson had been terminated from counseling for the second time a week before the hearing. The Guardian ad Litem (GAL appointed to represent Jordan’s interests in court) objected to reunification because there was no documentation that Stinson was going to counseling and it appears that the case management agency objected as well. Without requiring documentation, Magistrate Jennifer Sue Paullin ordered reunification and gave all parties 20 days to object based on new information. No objection was filed.
The court order, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, states: “No evidence was presented to show that the circumstances that caused the out-of-home placement have not been remedied to the extent that the return of the child to the mother’s care with an in-home safety plan … will not be detrimental to the child’s safety.”.
On April 25, 2018, in anticipation of Jordan’s return to Ms. Stinson, the latter was referred to an in-home reunification program that provided twice-weekly visits from a licensed clinician. Ms. Stinson missed three or her five scheduled visits prior to reunification, which went ahead as scheduled on May 21, 2018. She missed seven of 11 visits following reunification and was unsuccessfully discharged from the program due to failure to participate
In a court hearing on June 11, 2018, the court granted reunification to Mr. Belliveau, allowing him to join the family. Ms. Stinson had already missed several appointments with the clinician but the case management agency and government attorney reported that both parents were compliant with services.
On July 14, 2018, police responded to the parents’ residence to find Ms. Stinson bleeding and bruised and reporting that she had been punched by Belliveau. Mr. Belliveau was arrested after threatening to kill Ms. Stinson and “a lot of ….cops.” The child abuse hotline was not notified of this incident until three weeks later, on August 4. Despite the escalating violence and threats, the ensuing investigation did not find Jordan to be in danger warranting removal, but it was still open at the time of Jordan’s death.
On August 17, 2018, the agency filed an amended case plan with the court, including domestic violence services for Belliveau (as a perpetrator) and Ms. Stinson (as a victim). On August 24, Ms. Stinson refused to allow the GAL into the house. The investigator contacted the case manager for the first time on August 29, more than three weeks after the investigation began. The case manager said she normally visited once a week but admitted that he sometimes had trouble reaching Ms. Stinson. On August 31, the case manager completed a home visit and explained to the parents that they needed to participate in services in order to retain custody of Jordan. Less than 24 hours later, Ms. Stinson reported Jordan missing.
Charisse Stinson has been charged with first degree murder for hitting Jordan, causing him to hit his head and have a seizure. Police report she did not seek medical treatment immediately and Jordan died. She then allegedly dumped his body in a wooded area and lied to police about a stranger kidnapping him, resulting in an Amber Alert and days of searching before Jordan’s body was found.
The special review team made six findings about the system’s failures to save Jordan:.
The decision to reunify Jordan with his parents was apparently driven by the parents’ perceived compliance to case plan tasks rather than behavioral change. Case decisions were solely based on addressing the reasons Jordan came into care. which related to gang and drug activity in the home where he was living. Although other concerns came to light during the life of the case, like substance abuse, domestic violence and mental health issues among the parents, these factors were not added to the case plan or considered in the decision to reunify Jordan with his parents. Ms. Stinson herself requested anger management training during a meeting in 2016 but this was never included in her case plan or provided. Moreover the court was kept in the dark about many of these concerns. “On multiple occasions, Ms. Stinson provided false information to the court,” which the case management agency and government attorney did not correct.
Following Jordan’s reunification with his parents, staff failed to follow policy and procedures to ensure child well-being, such as making weekly visits. Moreover, they did not notify the court or take any action based on the mother’s lack of compliance with post-reunification services.
When a new report was made to CPS, the investigator “failed to identify the active …threats occurring within the household that were significant, immediate, and clearly observable.” These included: ongoing and escalating violence between the parents, the father’s threat to kill the mother, and his gang membership and access to weapons, among others. In a major understatement, the Special Review Team opined that “Given the circumstances, a modification of Justin’s placement should have been considered.”
There was a “noted lack of communication and collaboration” between investigative staff located in the Sheriff’s Department and case management staff during the August 2018 child abuse investigation. The investigator did not talk to the case manager for over three weeks after opening the investigation.
There was a failure of communication and collaboration between all of the different entities involved in the case. There was a “lack of diligence in conducting multidisciplinary staffings at critical junctures of the case.” Neither the case management agency nor the state attorney provided accurate information to counter the false information provided by the mother to the court. Unbelievably, the case manager attended court hearings with no information about the mother’s participation in counseling, which was provided by the same agency.
Assessments of both parents failed to consider the history and information provided by the parents and resulted in treatment plans that were ineffective to address behavioral change.
The review team did a good job of isolating the specific system failures that occurred in Jordan’s case but was not as successful identifying the systemic problems behind these failures. In this writer’s opinion, three major systemic factors contributed to the failure to protect Jordan:
Lack of coordination and communication between agencies. This was the factor emphasized by the review team, which suggested that this issue was limited to Pinellas County. State Senator Lauren Book castigated the team for for this implication, arguing in a statement that the issue of “siloed communication” goes beyond the county and even beyond child welfare itself, citing the errors that predated the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.
Inadequate funding of child welfare services, leading to high caseloads and staff turnover. The review team gave an offhand mention to the difficulty caused by high caseloads and turnover, both of which can be traced to inadequate funding but treated it as a given, rather than a problem to be rectified.
The overemphasis on family reunification. In Florida and around the country, family reunification has been emphasized to the degree that children are often placed at risk. The Tampa Bay Times highlighted this problem in its editorial entitled, Another child dead, another state failure. The death of a child following reunification is not a new story in Florida or around the country. If Florida law had been followed, Jordan’s parents’ rights should have been terminated before he was ever returned to them. A case manager who left Directions for Living shortly before Justin’s death told Florida’s News Channel 8 that the system “puts far too much weight on reuniting kids with unfit parents and makes it nearly impossible for caseworkers to terminate parental rights.” When asked why workers did not remove Jordan, she replied, “We are on quotas and we are told, ‘If there is any way to keep this kid in home do it.”
What is to be done to prevent future deaths like Jordan’s? It must begin, as the Tampa Bay Times editorial board asserts, with holding those involved accountable. This applies particularly to the magistrate on the case, who should have given the child rather than the parents the benefit of the doubt and held up reunification until she heard from the mother’s counselor. Second, child welfare must be funded adequately so that its staff are well-qualified and able to devote the time to handle cases correctly. Third, the silos must be broken down through improved policies and procedures that mandate data sharing and collaboration, but only adequate funding to enable reasonable caseloads will allow this to happen.
Finally, Florida and other states must rectify the balance between a child’s safety and the value of family reunification. Agencies must recognize that some parents who are suffering from the consequences of intergenerational trauma and dysfunction cannot change–at least within a timeline that is appropriate for a developing child. This decision must be made early, with the input of qualified staff, high-quality evaluations, and laws and policies that put the child first.
As Justin’s foster parents put it, “Ultimately, we hope that our painful loss will result (in) a fundamental re-examination of the entire system, of how foster care works, of the reunification process. Jordan deserves that, and the other children in the system deserve that.”
Charisse Stinson is awaiting trial on charges of first degree murder and lying to police. She gave birth to another child in December and Belliveau has been determined to be the father. Both parents have filed court documents requesting the child be handed over to Belliveau, who has been arrested twice since Jordan’s death.
On May 18, 2018, a little girl named Heaven Watkins was found brutally beaten to death in her home in Norfolk Virginia. Three months earlier, Heaven was hospitalized with third-degree burns that kept her in the hospital for six days and required skin grafts. Child Protective Services in Norfolk was reportedly called but they decided not to intervene to protect Heaven.
Investigations from KARE 11 in Minneapolis and 13News Now in Norfolk revealed that Heaven was removed from her parents four years before in Minnesota due to concerns about physical punishment, sexual abuse, drug sales and guns in the home. Virginia DSS has refused to tell reporters whether its workers knew of the family’s history in Minnesota. The haunting question is whether Virginia would have done more to protect Heaven had they known of her history in Minnesota.
Heaven was not the only child in the care of a parent who was known to Child Protective Services in another state. A 2012 report by The Oregonian discussed several other children who died of abuse after investigation that did not unearth their family history in other states. Heaven’s story has triggered renewed calls for an interstate registry of child abuse and neglect. Had a registry existed, Virginia would have known the troubled history of this family and might have opted at least to provide supervision if not to remove the children.
The establishment of an interstate registry of child abuse and neglect was actually mandated more than a decade ago by the same legislation that mandated the national registry of sex offenders. Section 633 of the Adam Walsh Child Safety and Protection Act of 2006 required the Secretary of Health and Human Services to create a national registry of substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect. Yet this registry was never created.
Congress never appropriated funds to establish the registry but it did designate funds for a feasibility study that was also mandated under the act. A Research Report on the feasibility study and a report to Congress based on the results were published in 2012–six years after passage of the Act. The conclusions of the report were somewhat discouraging as to the potential benefits of a national registry. But interestingly, the underlying research reports had a much more positive view of the feasibility and potential benefits of the registry.
In the report to Congress, HHS emphasized the barriers to developing a functional registry. These include the Adam Walsh Act’s prohibition on including any information other than the perpetrator’s name, the need for stronger due process requirements in some states if the database were to be used for employment checks (which is not the purpose envisioned by the statute), the need to provide funding or other incentives for states to participate, and the need for legislative changes in many or most states. These are serious barriers indeed but could be addressed, albeit with new legislation and funding that would not be trivial to obtain.
Unlike HHS, the authors of the feasibility study addressed the barriers but gave first billing to the conditions that allow for the development of a registry. In the final paragraph of the research report states that “The foundations for a national registry already exist in the child protective services field given that nearly all States maintain the necessary data on child abuse and neglect perpetrators. The technical capacity of the States also supports the feasibility of a national registry.” The authors go on to discuss the barriers, but give first billing to the conditions that support the registry.
In its report to Congress, HHS concluded that even if the barriers to an interstate registry could be resolved, the registry would provided limited information “beyond what is already available from existing single state registries” and therefore “the added safety benefit of a national registry of child maltreatment perpetrators would be quite limited.” HHS concluded that a decision on whether to implement the registry should “consider whether this or alternative child safety investments would be most effective in promoting the well-being of vulnerable children.” The clear implication was that alternative investments would be advisable.
HHS drew its conclusion about the limited safety benefit of a registry from the prevalence study mentioned above. The researchers used the numbers of perpetrators with incidents in more than one state to estimate how many interstate perpetrators would be identified by a registry. Using information from 22 states with about 54% of the U.S. population, the researchers estimated that 7,852 perpetrators of child maltreatment in 2009 (or 1.5% of all substantiated perpetrators) had any substantiated maltreatment incidents in another state within the preceding five years.
HHS described 7,852 as a small number, and therefore concluded that there was “no evidence of a widespread phenomenon of child maltreatment perpetrators who offend in multiple states.” Moreover, HHS added that most of these perpetrators had “a single additional substantiation for child neglect (rather than for physical or sexual abuse) in a single additional state.” Moreover, just half of one percent of child maltreatment deaths in states participating in the study was attributed to a perpetrator who had a substantiated maltreatment report in another state (4 in total).”
HHS’ interpretations suggest a low valuation of children’s lives and freedom from suffering. Almost 8,000 interstate perpetrators in a year could be considered a large number, even if most of them were substantiated for neglect and not abuse. The downplaying of neglect is a common trope among critics of CPS intervention, but neglect can be equally dangerous and often coexists with abuse that may not be substantiated. “Just” four deaths in one year is a hard description to stomach while wondering if even one of these deaths could have been prevented with an interstate registry. Moreover, each death implies an unknown but larger number of injuries, and even more children living in pain and fear.
While dismissing the prevalence study’s estimates as “small,” HHS failed to mention the conclusion in a separate report on the prevalence study that the number of positive matches from states’ use of a fully functioning national registry would be much larger than the estimates above would indicate. That’s because the registry would be most commonly used during an investigation before a substantiation decision has been made, and the investigators would be looking for a substantiation in just one state. Therefore, the researchers concluded that the registry would likely yield “several times the number of matches” that the study found for interstate predators.
HHS also downplayed the benefits found by the Key Informants Survey–the other part of the feasibility study. Of the 36 states participating in the Key Informants Survey, 25 states said participating in a national registry would save time, and 22 states thought it would “provide more timely knowledge that would be useful in assessing child safety.” The authors of the research report concluded that “There appears to be significant interest in a national registry, primarily because States already have to inquire about possible prior perpetrator status from multiple States.” In the report to Congress, on the other hand, HHS did not report that there was significant interest by states’ in a registry. Instead, the agency reported that survey results indicated that the primary benefit of the registry would be to save time, and then cautioned that this time-saving benefit might not occur.
Similar to the key respondents, the authors of the feasibility study concluded that an interstate registry might be most useful in saving staff time and resources “resulting from the speed and efficiency of making all interstate inquiries, the vast majority of which will not find a match.” The authors added that this could enhance child safety due to faster processing of maltreatment cases. This conclusion was not included in the report to Congress.
Of course an interstate registry could not be produced quickly or on the cheap. Creating and activating it would be a multiyear effort that would have to begin with the amending of the authorizing legislation to include at least sex and date of birth in addition to perpetrator’s name. Many states would need to change their legislation as well in order to eliminate statutory barriers to participation. As the authors of the feasibility study indicated, convincing a “critical mass of states” to participate quickly might require incentives, such as funds to offset costs for initiating a registry. Clearly, an infusion of federal funds for this purpose would be a necessary incentive. Perhaps Congress could make participation in the registry mandatory in order to receive federal child welfare funds under CAPTA or better still the Social Security Act.
It is concerning that HHS under the last Administration produced such a distorted view of the Congressionally-mandated feasibility study of an interstate child abuse and neglect registry. It is my hope that this issue can be revived in the current Congress, perhaps as part of the reauthorization of CAPTA. Our children deserve no less.
On September 13, 2018, a Los Angeles County judge denied a motion to dismiss felony child abuse and falsification of records charges against four former child welfare caseworkers in the 2013 death of ten-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. The charges, filed in 2016, marked the first time Los Angeles caseworkers were criminally charged for misconduct connected with their work, and is one of only a few similar cases nationwide.
If Gabriel’s case is one of the few child deaths to result in prosecution of state workers, the egregious nature of the state’s failure explains why. A brilliant article by investigative reporter Garret Therolf shows that for seventh months, evidence of Gabriel’s abuse steadily accumulated. Yet again and again, the Los Angeles Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) failed to intervene. Some of the worst errors are listed below.
Gabriel’s mother had been the subject of at least four calls to the child abuse hotline, had abandoned one child, and had lost custody of a son a year older than Gabriel. Yet, this record was never reviewed by workers investigating multiple reports of suspicious injuries to Gabriel.
Each time investigators came to the home, they interviewed Gabriel and his siblings with his mother in the room, against agency policy and common sense. And each time they did so, he recanted his previous statements. Even after he came to school with his face full of bruises from being shot by his mother with a BB gun, he recanted and told the investigator the injuries were from playing tag with his siblings. In the face of visible evidence, the investigators repeatedly chose to believe the repeated recantations
Investigators never spoke with neighbors or school personnel (other than the teacher who reported the abuse) but according to Therolf the abuse was known widely among school staff.
A computer program had found Gabriel to be at “very high risk” of abuse, requiring that the case be “promoted,” usually involving asking a court to require services or foster care. But the investigator, backed up by her supervisor, referred Gabriel’s mother to voluntary family services. Gabriel’s mother Pearl Fernandez withdrew from these services after three visits.
During the brief period of voluntary services, Gabriel wrote several notes saying he wanted to kill himself. Gabriel’s therapist informed the caseworker and supervisor, but they took no action.
The therapist had grown concerned that Gabriel was being abused, but her supervisor told her not to call the hotline so as not to jeopardize the mother’s participation in the voluntary case.
After three visits, Pearl Fernandez asked for her voluntary case to be closed. The caseworker accepted her decision, stating that there were no safety or risk factors for the children. Contrary to policy, her supervisor signed off on the case closure without reading the file.
After the case was closed, a security guard at the welfare office saw Gabriel covered with cigarette burns and other marks and being yelled at by his mother. The called DCFS twice and got lost in the automated system. The 911 operator gave him the non emergency line, which he called. He was later told that a sheriff’s deputy had gone to the home and seen nothing wrong.
Gabriel’s teacher, who had lost hope of any rescue from DCFS, called the DCFS investigator one more time late in April when Gabriel showed up looking worse than she had ever seen him. One eye was blood-red, skin was peeling off his forehead, and other marks were on his face, neck and ear. Her call was never returned. Gabriel had only about a month left to live.
Investigators later learned that during the weeks before his death, Gabriel was spending days and nights locked in a cabinet with a sock in his mouth, hands tied, a bandanna over his face, and handcuffs on his ankles. His solitude was interrupted by vicious beatings and torture sessions in which his siblings were required to participate. On May 22, Pearl and Aguirre tortured Gabriel a final time with a BB gun, pepper spray, coat hangers and a baseball bat. When they finally called 911, paramedics found two skull fractures, broken ribs, several teeth knocked out, BB gun pellet marks, cigarette burns on his feet and genitals, a skinned neck, and cat feces in his throat.
Therolf poses a key question regarding Gabriel’s death: “Was [the] failure …to protect Gabriel an isolated one—the fault of four employees so careless and neglectful that they allowed a child to suffer despite a series of glaring warning signs? Or was it a systemic one, the result of a department so ill-equipped to safeguard children that tragedies were bound to happen?”
While Therolf does not actually answer the question, his report offers a number of key findings and insights that point strongly in the direction of systemic factors as the prime contributors to the failure to protect Gabriel. Therolf found that many of the errors made by investigators, such as failure to interview children alone or to speak with witnesses outside the family, were prevalent in Los Angeles County. Sadly, many of the same failures were evident in the very recent case of Anthony Avalos, also in Los Angeles. And we also see similar failures , and in cases around the country, including Kansas, New York, and Oregon.
The systemic factors that cause these failures fall into two major categories–resource constraints and ideological factors.
Child welfare involves a balancing act between too much intervention or “erring on the side of child safety” as Therolf puts it and too little or “erring on the side of family preservation.” Striking this critical balance requires a combination of knowledge, skill, and time. In other words, as Therolf puts it, “it requires a highly trained workforce with the resources to carry out a thorough investigation in every case.” Therolf rightly contends that most agencies don’t have these resources. One has only to read the constant stream of news reports of overwhelming caseloads and poor training of child welfare workers around the country. All of this reflects the unwillingness of taxpayers and legislatures to provide what is needed to protect children. Inadequate funds mean caseloads are too high and salaries are too low, both resulting in low standards for caseworkers.
More funding and could buy both lower caseloads and higher salaries, which are necessary to obtain more qualified investigative workers. After reading so many similar stories, and recalling my own rudimentary training as a Child Protective Services (CPS) worker I am beginning to think that ultimately CPS Investigation should be a specialty in Masters in Social Work Programs. Students would learn advanced interviewing skills and how to assess the truthfulness of children and adults rather than, for example, believing children when they recant allegations with their parents in the room. Alternatively, CPS Investigations could be folded into the growing field of Forensic Social Work. In any case, a Masters-level specialization could be required in order to be a CPS worker, also adding a needed level of prestige to an important, difficult and hard-to-fill job.
Inadequate resources might result in a random distribution of agency errors between those that involve too much intervention and those that involve too little. But the dominance of a particular ideology may skew the errors in one direction or another. And Garrett Therolf alludes to the rise of an ideology prioritizing family preservation nationwide and particularly in California during the years preceding Gabriel’s death. This ideology contributed to the decline in foster care numbers around the nation and particularly in Los Angeles, where Therolf reports the number of children in foster care fell from about 50,000 in 1998 to 19,000 in 2013. Much of this decline occurred during the tenure of DCFS administrator David Sanders, who later went on to lead Casey Family Programs, a foundation worth over two billion that has played an outsize role in national child welfare policy. The same year that Sanders took over at Casey, it declared a new goal to reduce the number of children in foster care by half by 2020.
Therolf was right to point a finger at Casey Family Programs. In my post about the death of two children by child abuse in Kansas, I wrote about how Casey leverages its massive wealth to affect policy directly, bypassing the voting public. It provides financial and technical assistance to state and local agencies, conducts research, develops publications, and provides testimony to promote its views to public officials around the country. Through its wealth in an underfunded field, Casey has been able to directly influence policy at the federal, state, and local levels.
Therolf points out that opinions on child welfare often cut across traditional political groupings. While Casey tends to support progressive causes, its emphasis on family preservation is often shared by conservatives who desire to reduce the government’s incursions on parental authority and at the same time to reduce spending. Working together, Casey and the George W. Bush administration created a waiver policy that allowed child welfare agencies to direct unused foster care funds toward family preservation services–a policy change which created an incentive to reduce the use of foster care. Therolf links this incentive to the drastic decline in the Los Angeles County foster care rolls between 1998 and 2013, stating that “When Gabriel came to the attention of DCFS, the chances of an abused child being placed in foster care were “lower than they’d been in many years.”
Perhaps all of the factors that led up to Gabriel’s death can be summed up by a striking statement by the supervisor on Gabriel’s case, who is currently standing trial in Gabriel’s death. He told Therolf that he had “concluded long ago that some of the children who depended on the department would inevitably be injured, if not killed.” He expressed frustration that administration and the public expected him to prevent all such deaths. This is not an acceptable attitude. It is true that a child welfare agency cannot prevent deaths among children who are unknown to the agency. But to expect that children will die under the agency’s watch–that is a low expectation indeed. We must do better by our most vulnerable children.
There is an old political adage that you should “never let a crisis go to waste,” meaning that a crisis can awaken public interest and create an opportunity to advance policies that might otherwise be unachievable.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for instance, was able to pass much of his New Deal – including a dramatic expansion of the country’s social safety net via the Social Security Act – in the wake of the Great Depression with the American economy in shambles and the American public desperate for government support.
Unfortunately, in a cruel twist of irony, some child advocates are now using the devastation wrought by the Trump administration’s separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border to advance arguments undermining a key part of the Social Security Act – support for children who cannot be cared for in their own homes.
Several weeks ago, Sherry Lachman, the executive director of Foster America, authored a Time essaysuggesting “family separation is not just a problem at the border.” In this piece, Lachman bizarrely equates the separations at the border with removals of U.S. children from their homes by child protective services, suggesting even the latter are “inherently toxic.”
And last week, Vivek Sankaran associated the two systems, misleadingly citing statements in an opinion piecethat were made about the border separations to attack child removals by child protective services – without disclosing that these statements actually referred to the latter rather than the former. Sankaran quotes Dr. Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics at Harvard, as follows: “[T]here is so much research on [child removal] that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.”
Finding it hard to believe that a distinguished Harvard professor would suggest that children should never be removed into foster care, we contacted Dr. Nelson, who explained that his words were taken out of context, as he was referring to separations at the U.S.-Mexico border and not the removal of children from abusive or neglectful homes. Dr. Nelson agreed that any comparison of the two systems is misconceived, noting: “It is inappropriate to compare children experiencing forced separations from their parents in the context of migration to children removed from parental care due to maltreatment (abuse, neglect).”
The separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border was an ill-conceived policy that arose from the desire to discourage migration. Rather than being aimed at protecting children, this policy was adopted despite the obvious fact that it would be extremely harmful to them.
The child welfare system, on the other hand, was created to protect children from harm inflicted by their own parents or guardians. It is a sad fact that some homes are dangerous to their own children. Forty-nine states reported1,700 child fatalities due to abuse or neglect in 2016, and there is wide consensusthat this is likely an under count. We don’t know how many more are severely injured but survive; it is doubtless much higher.
And deaths and severe injuries are only the tip of the iceberg. There is extensive literatureon the lifelong consequences of child abuse and neglect. These include chronic health conditions, impaired brain development, poor mental and emotional health, social difficulties, juvenile delinquency and adult criminality, alcohol and drug abuse, and an increased likelihood of abusing one’s own children.
Moreover, foster care is a rarely-used intervention by CPS. Most systems try hard to keep children at home by providing services to the parents to help remedy the conditions that caused the maltreatment. In 2016, according to federal data, agencies placed slightly over 200,000 children involved in maltreatment investigations in foster care and provided other post-investigation services to about 1.1 million children and families.
Yes, removing children from their parents is often traumatic to the child. But it goes without saying that in some terrible home situations, the damage to a child of staying in the current home would be greater than the damage caused by removal.
As Dr. Nelson puts it:
Of course we would like to see the biological parents be successful in changing the family dynamics and preserving the parent-child relationship but if that is impossible, and the harms to the child continue, then the child should be removed from the home, either temporarily, if the home situation can be remedied, or permanently.
But, it is of utmost importance to act with alacrity – I think in many cases children are left for far too long in their biological homes and by the time they are placed into foster care or adoptive care, they may be irreparably harmed.
Setting aside the vastly different reasons for, and targets of, family separations at the border and child removals by child protective services, there are huge differences between the two sets of policies. Cathy Senderling-McDonald recently wrote an instructive and comprehensive summary of the distinctions, outlining the vast differences in living conditions, objectives, legal structure and oversight.
Using the suffering of parents and children at the border to denigrate foster care is not merely an illogical comparison, it is a harmful one that can result in suffering, lifelong damage, and even death to children. Moreover, it is offensive to those professionals who have devoted their lives to protecting children, and to the children who have suffered and died for lack of such protection.
Let us be clear: we want to prevent children from being removed from their parents whenever it is safe and appropriate to do so.
But let us be equally clear: until we eliminate serious child maltreatment and endangerment from every home, there will always be a need for foster care to keep kids safe. To pretend otherwise is naïve, dangerous and irresponsible.
This op-ed was published in the Chronicle of Social Change on September 6, 2018. I wrote it with Sean Hughes, the director of government relations for the consulting firm Social Change Partners.
On June 21, the suffering ended for ten-year-old Anthony Avalos when his tortured body finally succumbed to years of abuse. The ten year old had severe head injuries and cigarette burns all over his body when his mother found him unresponsive and called 911. Anthony died the next morning. Despite sixteen reports to the Los Angeles Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) or the police, the agencies tasked with protecting Anthony never rescued him from the adults that had abused him for years. Without a new law requiring public disclosure of the details of such cases, the public will never know how Anthony’s peril was missed or what changes are needed to protect future children from his horrible fate.
School administrators, a teacher, a counselor, family members and others called police or the child abuse hotline at least 16 times since 2013 to report abuse of Anthony or one of his six siblings, as revealed in a devastating article by respected investigative reporter Garrett Therolf published by the Los Angeles Times. DCFS received twelve reports between 2013 and 2015, according to its director, Bobby Cagle.
According to these reports, “Anthony or his six siblings were denied food and water, sexually abused, beaten and bruised, dangled upside-down from a staircase, forced to crouch for hours, locked in small spaces with no access to the bathroom, forced to fight each other, and forced to eat from the trash.”
Most of the allegations concerned Anthony. Among the alleged abusers were his mother, Heather Barron, her boyfriend, Karim Leiva, and another family member who was left in charge of the children and was accused of sexual abuse.
According to the sources, only some of the investigations resulted in a finding of child abuse. And even when abuse was found, the children were only once placed with an uncle and aunt, from whom they were soon removed and brought back to their mother over protests from the relatives, according to the aunt. She reports that she started making calls to DCFS in 2015 when she noticed injuries the children said were inflicted by Leiva.
Anthony’s father, a Mexican citizen, reported that Anthony asked to live with him but his mother refused. Aware that Anthony was being treated badly, he repeatedly gave case workers his contact information in Mexico. But he never heard back.
Instead of placing Anthony with his father or aunt and uncle, DCFS workers opened at least two cases to help Anthony’s mother improve her parenting while the children remained in the home. But these cases where closed without any resolution of the safety threat to these vulnerable children.
These horror stories of deaths of children after multiple serious allegations to police and child welfare agencies never seem to end. The first step in preventing more tragedies is to conduct a detailed case review to identify the critical decision points where an opportunity was missed. It is likely that DCFS has already begun such an internal review. But it will be shared only with the county Board of Supervisors, which will hold it close.
This state secrecy is not unique to Los Angeles. Only a few states provide for the release of information about agency interactions with children who died of abuse or neglect. Texas’ Office of Child Safety posts reviews of fatalities but only when a child died of abuse or neglect during an open case. Florida requires an immediate investigation of a child’s death if the family was involved with CPS in the past year and posts the review if the child was found to have died of abuse or neglect. In Washington, the Children’s Administration (CA) conducts a review (by experts with no prior involvement in the case) when the death or near-fatality of a child was suspected to be caused by child abuse or neglect, and the child had any history with the CA at the time of death or in the year prior. These reviews must be completed within 180 days and posted on the agency’s website.
The Washington legislation is the broadest and most useful requirement. However, the universe of cases covered should be increased to include families that had contact with the child welfare agency within the past five years at a minimum. The last report on Anthony’s family was made in April 2016, more than two years before Anthony’s death, according to a statement by Bobby Cagle, the DCFS Director. After the sixth abuse report concerning Yonatan Aguilar (also in Los Angeles County), Yonatan was locked in a closed for over four years until he was found dead in 2016.
Reviews should also be required for cases of children who suffer severe injuries due to abuse or neglect as well as cases of chronic severe maltreatment that was allowed to continue despite reports to CPS. These would include another Los Angeles County case recently in the news when a jury awarded $45 billion to a girl who suffered two years of sexual abuse after child welfare workers left her in a home with an a accused molester. We need to know how these errors happen as well.
A requirement that all states conduct and post such reviews of children who died should also be added as an amendment to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which is expected to be reauthorized in 2018. When an agency egregiously abdicates its responsibility to protect children, the public must know how and why it happened. Only then can they hold their government accountable for making the changes necessary to prevent such tragedies in the future.