“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.