Hidden child maltreatment: One more reason to vaccinate teachers and open schools

With the end of the holiday break, about half the nation’s public students are not returning to school buildings but instead are continuing with virtual education. The impacts of school building closures on education, the economy and student mental health have been widely covered. But there is another consequence of virtual education that has not been as widely reported–the loss of the protective eye on children that their teachers and other school staff provide. Now that the COVID vaccine is becoming available, it is urgent that we get teachers vaccinated and students back to school.

In the wake of the coronavirus emergency beginning last March, almost all public school buildings in the nation closed, with few if any reopening before the end of the term. Many systems reopened buildings for fully in-person education or “hybrid” (partially virtual) models in August or September, and others opened their buildings later. As of Labor Day, 62 percent of U.S. public school students were attending school virtually, but only 38 percent were still online-only by early November, according to a company called Burbio, which monitors 1,200 school districts around the country. However, a spike in COVID cases beginning in November resulted in many systems returning to virtual education, with 53 percent of students attending virtually by January 4, 2021. Burbio expects a decrease in this percentage over the next six weeks as systems open up again after the virus spikes abate.

Almost immediately after the school closures last spring, reports began rolling in about the failure of online education to reach many students, especially those who were poor and most at risk of school failure. Some students lacked computers or internet access; others were unable to engage remotely in education. There is deep concern about the long-term impact of school building closures on young people’s academic performance, particularly for those at most risk of poor outcomes. With the passage of time, more information began to flow in about other consequences to children of missing school, such as worrisome impacts on their mental health.

But many child welfare professionals and advocates have long shared another concern. They worried about unseen abuse and neglect among the children stuck at home with increasingly stressed parents and not being seen by teachers and other adults. This is especially concerning for younger children, who are less likely to seek help on their own. And indeed, as soon as schools closed around the country last March due to the COVID pandemic, almost every state reported large drops in calls to their child abuse and neglect hotlines. The loss of reports from teachers (who make one in five of reports nationwide) was probably the major contributor, combined with the loss of reports from other professionals, friends, and family members seeing less of children due to stay-at-home orders and physical distancing.

After the academic year ended, data became available that that allowed comparison of reports, investigations, and findings of maltreatment in the pandemic spring compared to the spring of 2019. These analyses showed a large difference between reports, investigations, and substantiations of maltreatment in 2020 relative to 2019, followed by a convergence in data during the summer when schools are normally closed. In our local blog, we analyzed data from the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). For this post we used our DC data and information from three other jurisdictions for which data was readily available: New York City, Los Angeles, and Florida.[1]

In the District of Columbia, schooling has remained virtual since the onset of the pandemic, with a small number of students joining their virtual classrooms from school buildings while supervised by non-teaching staff. Figure One shows the number of reports received at the CFSA hotline in January through September 2019 and 2020. The contrast between the two years is obvious. In the “typical” year of 2019, the number of reports increased every month until May,[2] dropped to a much lower level in July and August when schools were closed, and then bounced up in September after schools reopened. The pandemic year of 2020 looked very different. The number of calls fell from February to March with the closure of schools, followed by a much larger drop in April, and stayed fairly flat until a modest rise in September with the opening of school. It’s as if summer vacation started in March, with a slight increase of reports when virtual school started again. In every month of the pandemic, the number of hotline calls in 2020 was considerably less than its counterpart in 2019. The total number of hotline calls received between March and June and in September (roughly the period affected by COVID-19) fell from 7916 in 2019 to 4681 in FY 2020, a decrease of 40.8 percent.

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/, data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor DC.

New York City data show a similar picture, as shown in a report from the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) comparing hotline calls in 2020 to those in previous years. It is clear that 2020 is the outlier, with reports in 2017 through 2019 displaying similar seasonal patterns. In contrast to the previous years, reports fell in March 2020 with the schools closing on March 16 and then plunged in April during the first full month of school closure. There was a slight uptick in May and then reports remained basically flat before jumping up in October (when school buildings reopened) and falling again in November after schools closed again on November 19. ACS does not provide the numbers for each month but for January through November of 2020, there were 46,375 reports compared to 59,539 during that period in 2019. That is a difference of 22 percent; this difference would clearly be greater if we were able to look only at the weeks when schools were closed due to COVID-19.

Figure Two

Source: NYC Children, Flash Monthly Indicators Report, December 2020, available from https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/acs/pdf/data-analysis/flashReports/2020/12.pdf

Data from Los Angeles, where school buildings have not yet reopened, tell a similar story–a decline in reports in March after the pandemic emergency and school closures and then a big drop in April, the first full month when schools were closed. Referrals remained below the previous year for the rest of 2020, though the difference narrowed. The total number of referrals was 44,959 in March through November of 2020, compared to 61,515 in the same period of 2021–a decrease of 26.9 percent, and the decrease would be greater if only the weeks of school were included.

Figure Three

Data from Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, https://dcfs.lacounty.gov/resources/data-and-monthly-fact-sheets/, analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor

It is interesting to look at Florida, where the governor mandated that school buildings open in the fall semester. Florida data for last spring looks a lot like that for DC, New York City, and Los Angeles. But referrals almost matched 2019 during June and July, with the onset of summer break. August 2020 referrals were slightly lower than those in August 2019, perhaps because many schools opened virtually, but the gap narrowed again in September, October and November as more schools opened in person. And the shape of the fall curves was nearly identical in both years, with referrals rising in October.

Figure Four

Data from Florida Department of Children and Families, https://www.myflfamilies.com/programs/childwelfare/dashboard/intakes-received.shtml?Landing%20Page%20InvRec=2, analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor

Not everybody agrees that the loss of reports from school staff is a problem. Teachers have sometimes been criticized for making too many reports, and some analysts have suggested that the COVID closures might serve a useful function by eliminating frivolous or inappropriate reports. Indeed, some analyses have shown that the reports that are being made tend to be more serious or high-risk, suggesting that more of the less serious reports are being suppressed. If there was a large increase in the percentage of reports accepted for investigation or found to be substantive, there might be less reason to worry. But this does not appear to be the case.

  • In the District of Columbia, as shown in Table One at the bottom of the article, the percentage of reports accepted for investigation was slightly greater in 2020 than in the previous year. But as Figure Five shows, this percentage increase in accepted reports was not enough to substantially narrow the large gap between the number of accepted reports in the two years. Both the number of hotline calls accepted for investigation and the number of substantiated investigations showed the same sharp decrease as the number of reports to the hotline.
  • Similarly, the number of investigations in New York City showed the same precipitous drop from 2019 to 2020 as did the number of reports, as Figure Seven shows. And the percentage of investigations that “showed some credible evidence of abuse or neglect” in January through September 2020 was actually one point lower than that in the same period of 2019.
  • In Los Angeles, the percentage of referrals accepted for investigation actually declined during the pandemic, as indicated in Table Two below. So the year-to-year gap in number of referrals accepted for investigation (see Figure Seven) was even greater than the gap in total referrals. (Los Angeles does not provide data on substantiated reports.)
  • In Florida, as indicated in Table Three, there was a very slight increase in the percent of of intakes accepted for investigation during March-May 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. But as Figure Eight shows, the total numbers were much lower than in the previous year. (Florida does not provide data on the number of reports that were substantiated.)

It is clear from data in the four jurisdictions described here that reports to child abuse hotlines fell steeply in all four jurisdictions after the pandemic school closures, absolutely and relative to the same months of the previous year. In Florida, where schools reopened in September, reports increased to almost the level of the year before. It seems indisputable that measures imposed to fight COVID-19 were behind these changes and highly likely that school building closures were a large factor behind the reporting reductions. Moreover, as reports decreased, so did the numbers of reports investigated and substantiated, thus dashing any hope that only frivolous reports were being weeded out by the school closures.

Now that a vaccine is available, some Governors in states that have not reopened schools have proposed plans to prioritize teachers for vaccines and finally reopen buildings. Governor Gavin Newsom of California has offered a reopening plan including prioritization of school staff for vaccinations throughout spring 2021. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice has announced his plan to open pre-K, elementary, and middle schools for in-person learning on Tuesday, Jan 19. High school students will return to in-person school only in less-heavily-infected counties. Justice announced that the state will vaccinate all teachers and school personnel over the next two to three weeks as part of Phase One of the state’s vaccination plan.

Data from around the country clearly show that child welfare agencies received fewer reports, conducted fewer investigations, and made fewer findings of child abuse or neglect in times and places where schools were virtual. This fact adds to the many other reasons to open all closed school buildings as soon as possible. Opposition from teachers and their unions has been a major reason for keeping schools virtual. It is understandable that teachers were reluctant to return to buildings. But now, availability of vaccines makes it possible for schools to reopen throughout the country without endangering teachers–as long as all teachers are offered the vaccine before returning to classrooms. The high costs to to students of closed school buildings, among which undetected abuse should be included, mean that we should not wait any longer to bring students back to school in person.

[1]: These jurisdictions were chosen as large state or county child welfare systems that had readily available about reports, investigations and substantiations. Many other large jurisdictions do not post such data.

[2]:DC’s pattern of increasing reports from January through May is different from the other jurisdictions and may be related to its law requiring schools to report educational neglect when a student accumulates ten unexcused absences in a school year.

Table One: Hotline Calls Accepted for Investigation, District of Columbia

Source: https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor DC

Figure Five

Source: https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor DC

Figure Six

Source: NYC Children, Flash Monthly Indicators Report, December 2020, available from https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/acs/pdf/data-analysis/flashReports/2020/12.pdf

Table Two

Source: https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor DC

Figure Seven

Table Three: Intakes Accepted for Investigation, Florida

Source: https://www.myflfamilies.com/programs/childwelfare/dashboard/intakes-received.shtml?Landing%20Page%20InvRec=1; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor

Figure Eight

Data from https://www.myflfamilies.com/programs/childwelfare/dashboard/intakes-received.shtml?Landing%20Page%20InvRec=1; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor

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

Lisa Montgomery: Mercury News.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When social distancing can kill: child protection during a pandemic


NJbridgethegapSocial 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 natural disasters.

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 often by half and in some jurisdictions 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.

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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.

teachersCOVID

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 Time Magazine, “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.

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“Steady March Toward Child Fatality Prevention” leaves Many Endangered Children Unprotected

sad child
Image: socialworkhelper.com

In an April 26 Opinion piece in the Chronicle of Social Change, Teri Covington congratulated the child welfare establishment for a “steady march toward child fatality prevention,” citing new developments on the federal, state and local levels. Earlier that week, new details came out about a case involving six child abuse fatalities that had transfixed the nation. But any mention of the Hart case–or how we can address fatalities and near-fatalities from chronic and severe child abuse–was conspicuously missing from the article and the briefing conducted by Covington’s group on the same day.

On April 23, newspapers across the country carried new headlines about Jennifer and Sarah Hart and their six adoptive children, who drove off a California cliff to their deaths in March. The new information, released by the State of Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS), revealed that DHS knew of the Hart parents’ extensive CPS history in Minnesota and had convincing evidence of maltreatment in Oregon but was still unable to determine that abuse had occurred.

The Hart case may have been unusual in the sheer number of system failures involved, but none of the specific features of the case is unusual. In January, the 13 Turpin children who were saved from death by abuse and starvation by the extraordinary bravery of one child. Within the past year, we’ve learned about Brook Stagles in New York, Evan Brewer in Kansas, and many other children who were allowed to suffer ongoing torture and abuse because of failures of the community and the systems designed to protect them. And those are only the cases that made the headlines. We will never know how many other children have suffered and perhaps died of chronic and severe abuse without ever being discovered.

In the article and briefing, Ms. Covington cited a number of actions by federal, state, or local governments that fulfill one or more of the 100 recommendations of Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF). First and foremost according to Covington was the passage of the Family First and Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), which she hailed as a “seismic change,” because it makes resources available for the first time for services to prevent children who have already been abused or neglected from entering foster care. It’s hard to see how the passage of FFPSA could help victims of chronic and severe child abuse. The view that virtually no abused child should enter foster care may be one reason why many abused children are eventually killed by their parents. Moreover, it is hard to see how FFPSA will make the kind of difference expected by its advocates, since states are already funding the same services through funding streams like Medicaid and TANF.

Covington also mentioned the addition of $60 million in CAPTA funds in the current fiscal year for safe plans of care for drug-exposed infants as “another major federal improvement.” This is a good step that might aid in early identification of some children at risk of abuse, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the need.

Several state and local initiatives mentioned by Covington are steps in the right direction to identifying victims of chronic and severe child abuse. These include the introduction of predictive analytics, improved data sharing between agencies, and more interagency planning and action.

However, conspicuously missing from Covington’s narrative are a set of major reforms that need to occur if we are to avoid more tragedies due to severe and chronic abuse. Some of these reforms are listed below:

  1. Improve vetting of potential adoptive parents. Jennifer and Sarah Hart arranged the adoption of their children through a Texas agency that reportedly put together adoptions against the wishes of the child welfare agency. Moreover, the second set of children was adopted even though the parents had already been investigated for abusing one of the first set. Agencies must not let their desperate search for homes for children considered to be hard to adopt lead them to disregard the future outcomes for these children.
  2. Monitor children whose parents receive adoption subsidies. Given the disproportionate number of serious cases of child maltreatment among adopted children and a valid state interest in the well-being of children supported by the state, parents receiving adoption subsidies should be required to document annually the child’s well-being through a social worker or doctor visit.
  3. Monitor homeschoolers and ban homeschooling by known child abusers. It is all too frequent for parents who have been substantiated for child abuse to withdraw their children from school as soon as their case is closed and they are no longer under the supervision of the child welfare agency. Parents with a record of abuse should not be allowed to homeschool their children. In addition, since homeschooled children appear to figure disproportionately in serious cases of abuse, all homeschooled children should have at least annual contact with a mandatory child abuse reporter such as a teacher, doctor or social worker.
  4. Adopt and promote universal mandatory reporting. Only 18 states and Puerto Rico require all adults to report suspected child abuse or neglect; most states require only certain professionals to do so. And even in the universal reporting states states (including Texas, where neighbors did not report the numerous red flags surrounding the Turpin family), it is unlikely that people know or observe the law. It should be mandatory for all adults to report any reasonable suspicion that a child is being maltreated and this duty should be promoted through a massive public information campaign.
  5. Demand greater accountability from mandatory reporters, as CECANF recommended. Incredibly, an Oregon pediatrician who saw the Hart children at the request of DHS reported that she had “no concern” that five out of six were so small and thin that their weights and heights did not even appear on the growth charts for children their age. CECANF recommended that mandatory reporting training and competency should be a requirement for licensure when applicable. Licensees and their agencies should be responsible for maintaining and refreshing their competency. And doctors who fail to fulfill their responsibilities should lose their licenses.
  6. Revamp investigations. Agencies need to separate the determination of whether abuse has occurred (which can be difficult when frightened children are coached to lie) from the decision to protect vulnerable children. Furthermore the definition of “safety” needs to be changed in many states. Often, a child deemed to be at high risk can be simultaneously labeled as “safe.” Thorough investigations also require manageable caseloads, which in turn require sufficient funding, which is not available in many states.
  7. Interstate registry: In child maltreatment death cases like that of Adrian Jones, parents have been able to escape detection by moving to another state. States should be required to participate in an interstate registry of child maltreatment reports and findings. This was recommended by foster care alumna and 2017 Congressional intern Tonisha Hora, who along with her sister suffered ten years of severe abuse before she was rescued by CPS.
  8. Reform in-home child welfare services so that meaningful services are provided and feedback is obtained from providers about parents’ progress. No case should be closed unless a state obtains credible testimony from service providers, the children and other professionals who know the family that parental behaviors have changed. Again, this require manageable caseloads and adequate funding.

Why were none of these proposals mentioned in the article and briefing? The most direct cause is that only one of these proposals (holding mandatory reporters accountable) was recommended (in part) by CECANF. But that just begs the question of why they were not among the CECANF recommendations.  There are three reasons I can identify:

  1. More children die of neglect than abuse. Of the children who were reported to the federal government who died of maltreatment in 2016, 75% suffered neglect and 44% suffered abuse either exclusively or in combination with another maltreatment type. At the briefing, a speaker from the Virginia Department of Social Services stated that unsafe sleep was the primary driver of child fatalities in Virginia, so the department was concentrating its fatality prevention work on safe sleep. Of course we should promote safe sleep, but we can’t ignore those children who die of severe and chronic child abuse because they are fewer in number.
  2. Many of these measures would draw intense political opposition for ideological reasons or because they would require increased spending. Homeschooling parents and adoptive parents have been adamantly opposed to any monitoring of their children. Doctors would virulently oppose greater penalties for malfeasance. Beefing up child welfare systems would cost money and systems around the country are struggling to obtain enough funds to meet increasing needs.
  3. The narrative currently embraced by the child welfare establishment is that all parents want the best for their children and that all children do best with their parents, no matter how abusive or neglectful. Perhaps that is why there has been so little response to the Hart tragedy and similar tragedies from the agencies responsible for protecting children.

The child welfare establishment needs to recognize that there are some parents to whom the prevalent rosy attitude simply does not apply. Ms. Covington opened her article by stating that deaths of children from abuse and neglect increased by more than 7 percent from 2015 to 2016. We don’t know how many of these deaths stemmed from severe and chronic child abuse. If there is such a thing as “a fate worse than death,” then years of torture by the people who are supposed to protect you qualifies. As you are reading this, how many children are being deprived of food, chained to their beds, or being beaten? One is too many, and political barriers should not be allowed to prevent action.

Multiple System Failures Allowed Hart Children to Die

Hart family
Photo: Associated Press

On March 26, an SUV filled carrying a family plunged off a cliff. The car belonged to Jennifer and Sarah Hart. Their bodies, and those of three of their children, were found on the scene. Three children are still missing although another body found in the ocean may be one of the children. Initial coverage focused on the fact that the family consisted of two white mothers and six adopted black children. The family had had an earlier brush with fame when one of the boys was in a viral photograph hugging a police officer at a Ferguson protest.

As the days passed, disturbing details came to light. Days before the crash, Washington Child Protective Services (CPS) had opened an investigation of the family after a neighbor called the child abuse hotline. We eventually learned the family had a history of abuse reports. Then we learned that the crash appeared intentional, and probably triggered by the CPS report.

With each new discovery, we learned of another systemic failure to protect these vulnerable children. The Hart case brings together several common themes found in many cases of severe child maltreatment. Each of these themes highlights a different gap in the system that is supposed to protect our children.

Adoption: All six Hart children were adopted from foster care in Texas: three in 2006 and the next three in 2009. It is not that being adopted makes children more likely to be abused.  Indeed, one Dutch study indicated adopted children were less likely to be abused than children growing up in their biological families. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that adopted children are overrepresented among children who are severely abused or neglected, at least in homeschool settings. Many of these cases involve common elements, including locking children up in a room, withholding food, and isolating the child by homeschooling or other means, all of which were present in this case. One possible explanation for this pattern focuses on the traumatic backgrounds of many adoptive children, which may lead to behaviors that adoptive parents are not prepared to deal with. While they may start out with good intentions, they end up resorting to punitive and eventually abusive parenting to control the undesired behaviors.

Writer Stacey Patton has described a “white savior attitude” among some white parents who adopt black children from the U.S. or abroad. These parents “wear their transracial adoption as a status symbol.” These adoptive parents often post on social media about their extraordinary efforts to deal with their children’s emotional and intellectual challenges that they attribute to the deficiencies of their birth parents.” The Harts fit this pattern. According to the Oregonian, the Harts often said their children suffered a multitude of early childhood behavioral and developmental issues that made parenting a challenge.  Jennifer Hart also polished her image as an ideal mom who gave her underprivileged children a beautiful life. She frequently posted on Facebook portraying an idyllic family life full of trips, celebrations, community service, and events like the Ferguson rally in which Devonte sported a sign offering “Free Hugs.” When adoption is all about the parents, and the children become part of their public image, a bad outcome is not surprising.

There is reason for concern about the vetting process the Harts received when adopting the children. The Hart kids were among the 300 to 400 Texas children adopted each year by out of state foster parents, often because they are harder to place because they are in large sibling groups or have special needs. The Harts would have been vetted by a Minnesota agency, which would have submitted their home study to Texas for approval. After a child visit, the children would have probably moved in with the Harts for a six-month trial period. A Texas agency spokesman told the San Antonio Express-News that during the trial period for out-of-state adoptions, the out-of-state agency would be monitoring the family and reporting back to Texas. But in September 2008, probably during the trial period for the second adoption, Hannah Hart was asked about a bruise in her arm. She reported that her mother hit her with a belt. Police and social services interviewed the mothers, who denied the beating and said she had fallen down the stairs. Nevertheless, the second adoption went through. We need to know whether Texas was informed of this investigation.

Once the adoption was finalized, there was nobody monitoring the Hart children, even though Texas continued to pay for their care. The San Antonio Express-News reports that Jennifer Hart received nearly $1,900 per month in adoption subsidies from the State of Texas. The paper estimates that she collected a total of $270,000 from the state for caring for the six children during the time they lived with her. Unfortunately, children who receive adoption subsidies are not monitored to ensure that they are being properly cared for, are still in the home, or are even alive. Such monitoring has not been imposed even in the wake of cases in which adoptive parents like Renee Bowman and Edward and Linda Bryant have fraudulently collected adoption subsidies after killing–or allegedly killing–their children.

Home Schooling. On April 11, 2011, Sarah Hart made a plea agreement a week after pleading guilty to physical abuse of a six year old child. The next day, all six children were removed from school, never to attend again. The Harts joined a long line of abusive parents that removed their children from school after a brush with CPS. The notorious Turpin family, who gained worldwide attention this winter when one of their 13 malnourished children escaped confinement in their home, who also liked to dress their children in matching tee shirts. As the Coalition for Responsible Home Education points out, Pennsylvania is the only state that bars convicted child abusers from homeschooling, and then only if the conviction is in the past five years. No state has any mechanism to identify cases where parents remove a child from school after a child protective services case is closed, or after a series of child abuse allegations.

Failure to report: At a festival in Oregon, the Oregonian reports that one acquaintance observed the mothers become enraged after she brought Devonte and Sierra back to her parents from a day out, bearing food.  Sarah Hart grabbed Sierra’s arm, inflicting a bruise that lasted for days, and both mothers chastised her for “being selfish” and not sharing. Sierra told the woman that she often got in trouble for talking to people her mothers did not know. But the neighbor did not report the disturbing incident. The Hart family’s neighbors in Washington, Dana and Bruce DeKalb, told reporters that they had suspected that something was not right in the Hart household.  A few months after the Harts moved to Washington, the DeKalbs reported that Hannah Hart came to their door at 1:30 AM. She had jumped out of a second-story window and ran through bushes to their home, begging them to protect her from her abusive parents. The neighbors noted that she was missing her front teeth and appeared to be about seven years old, although she was twelve. The other children also appeared small and thin when the family came over the next morning.

The DeKalbs told the Washington Post that they considered calling CPS but “tried to overlook the incident.” In the next eight months, the DeKalbs saw Devonte doing chores but never saw the other children outside.  About a week before the crash,  Devonte began coming to the DeKalbs’ house requesting food and saying that his parents had been withholding food as punishment.  The visits escalated from daily to three times a day. It was only after a week of such visits that they finally called CPS, setting in motion the the escape attempt that ended in the fatal crash.The DeKalbs’ hesitation echoes that of the Turpins’ neighbors, who never reported the many red flags they saw.

Biased Investigative Process: As mentioned above, Oregon CPS was unable to substantiate a report from a family friend that the Harts were punishing the children by withholding food and emotionally abusing them. CPS interviewed the children but told the friend that it appeared they had been “coached” to lie, so there was no evidence to substantiate the allegation. The question is, why were the parents given enough warning that the children could be coached? This is only one example of how the system is biased toward parents’ rights over children’s safety.

Multiple systemic gaps allowed the abuse of the Hart children to continue until it culminated in the deaths of the entire family. A variety of policy changes are needed to address the gaps highlighted by this tragic case. I will discuss these in my next post.

 

 

 

 

Breaking the Silence: How to Encourage Family and Neighbors to Report Child Abuse

Report child Abuse
Image from: Michigan-Family-Law Litigation.com

Yesterday I published a post arguing for monitoring of home schools to prevent cases like the horrific story of the Turpins in California. But we really can’t be sure if regulation of home schools would have prevented the horrific abuse of these children. Even if David Turpin had not registered his home as a school, he would not have been caught unless somebody reported his children as truant. Given the silence of their neighbors and family about the disturbing signs of maltreatment, they might have been equally silent about the children’s apparent failure to attend school.

The silence of neighbors and family despite multiple signs that something was terribly wrong in this family was striking. There were numerous red flags. One neighbor reported trying to speak to some of the children when they were outside of the house. She reported that they “froze,” “shut down,” and were “terrified.” They also appeared thin and malnourished. And yet the neighbor did not notify authorities.

Multiple neighbors told reporters that the family was only rarely seen working in the yard or getting into vans at odd hours and always responded to greetings with silence. as a representative of the Riverside County Department of Social Services told USA Today, “Not one person called us. How sad,” she said. Sad indeed.

Before they moved to California, the Turpins’ household also raised questions among their neighbors in rural Rio Vista Texas, according to the Los Angeles Times. One neighbor, Ricky Vinyard, was concerned that the children rarely left their home,  lights were on at all hours with blinds drawn, and eight new children’s  bikes sat outside for months. A dumpster outside the house was filled with trash and David Turpin “would stand in the driveway shooting cans with his pistol, aiming toward the road.” Mr. Vinyard told the Times that he and his wife suspected abuse but decided not to report it, fearing repercussions, especially since Turpin had a gun.

Elizabeth Flores, Louise Turpin’s sister, tearfully told Good Morning America that all attempts by family members to see the children were rebuffed. When Flores came to her sister’s home in Texas, she was not allowed inside and visited with her sister in the driveway. The children never appeared. When her mother drove hours to visit in Texas, she was denied entry, and when her father bought a flight ticket, he was told not to come. The family must have discussed this strange behavior among themselves, but they never reported it to authorities.

The silence of neighbors and family seems to defy belief, yet similar silence has been noticed in other cases of long-term abuse. Is it part of American culture to believe that one’s home is one’s castle and neighbors should not interfere? What can be done to change this reluctance to intervene? This is not an easy issue so I would love to hear readers’ suggestions on how to get members of the public to report suspected abuse or neglect.

At a minimum, it seems clear that states should do a better job of informing the public of the signs of child abuse and neglect and the responsibility to report even a suspicion of maltreatment to avoid a tragedy. Brochures with this information should be available at libraries, pediatricians’ offices, health centers, departments of motor vehicles and police stations. This information should be given out along with drivers’ licenses and voter registrations and included with tax forms. Television and radio PSA’s (along the lines of “If you see something, say something”), bus ads, and other vehicles should be used to disseminate the information. Online training should be available to all citizens.
Beyond public information, the question is whether states should require reporting of suspected abuse or neglect with penalties for those who fail to report. All states require certain professionals, such as doctors and teachers, to report their suspicions.  But most states (including California) don’t require ordinary citizens  to report when they fear a child is being harmed.

However, Texas is one of about eighteen states that require any person who suspects abuse or neglect to report it. The identity of the reporter is confidential and cannot be released except under very limited circumstances. Failure to report suspected child abuse or neglect is a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment of up to one year and/or a fine of up to $4,000. And that law has been in existence in Texas at least 20 years. Nevertheless, Mr. Vinyard and his wife chose not to report.

This leaves several questions. Did the Vinyards know that they were required by law to report their suspicions of abuse? Did they know that failure to report was punishable by a fine or imprisonment? While penalties have been imposed on mandatory reporters who failed to report abuse that they saw in their professional capacity, I have not been able to find documentation of such a penalty being enforced upon a member of the general public. Such enforcement might be considered too heavy-handed by most citizens and legislators. However, one way or another it is critical that citizens report to the authorities  when there are signs that things are desperately wrong as they were in in the Turpin case.

The Turpin children have been rescued. But they are physically and mentally stunted, most of them probably for life. We don’t know how many children are currently chained to their beds, locked in rooms. and starved by the people who are supposed to care for them. Monitoring all children who are ostensibly home-schooled and campaigns to encourage citizens to support their suspicions of maltreatment seem like the best ways to save these children and prevent more horror stories.