Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The price of foster-care panic keeps getting higher

Now children are being forced to spend their days in cars – in a convenience store parking lot

UPDATE, FEBRUARY 9: Guess what: Gov. Rick Scott claims he's oh, so concerned about the WFLA-TV revelations. “DCF is going to hold people accountable,” Scott said in a follow-up story.  Really? And who is going to hold DCF accountable for the foster-care panic that allowed this to happen in the first place?

All over the country there have been times when foster-care panics – sharp spikes in children removed from their homes in the wake of high-profile tragedies - led to children being forced to spend their days, and sometimes nights, in child welfare agency offices or hotels. 

But as far as I know forcing foster kids to spend all day in a car in a convenience store parking lot is a first. Congratulations, Florida, once again you’re a trendsetter.

And once again, reporter Mark Douglas of Tampa television station WFLA-TV is focusing on problems the Tampa Bay Times not only ignores, but also helped to create.  Because the foster-care panic is at the root of all of this.

The Miami Herald started the panic with “Innocents Lost,” a series filled with distortion and misrepresentation. The Times has been fanning the flames.

Recall previous reporting from WFLA-TV on how the state admitted to taking away children solely because their parents are poor – and how, in one such case the child died in foster care. And recall the new Florida study showing that 40 percent of cases referred to court for either a foster care removal, intensive services or both could have been handled with less-intrusive options.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Florida AG’s office admits children trapped in foster care solely because of poverty

WFLA-TV, which last month told the story of a child taken solely because of a mother’s poverty only to die in foster care, had another excellent story: This time, the attorney general’s office admits that children are held in foster care solely because of family poverty.  Details and a link to the story in this post tothe NCCPR Child Welfare Blog

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A new study confirms the obvious: Florida is taking away far too many children

Even using a method that tends to bias findings toward removal, the study found a massive amount of needless intervention into the lives of families.

The findings were so striking that even the so-called Chronicle of Social Change, the Fox News of child welfare – couldn’t ignore them:

[A] study out of one of Florida’s most populous counties suggests that much of this new influx [of children into foster care] could be handled without the use of an out-of-home placement, and in some cases, without much child welfare involvement at all.
Broward County (seat: Fort Lauderdale) tested its current child welfare decision-making process against a predictive analytics approach, which relies on data collection and machine learning to predict likely future behavior. The study, conducted by a group of researchers and supporters of predictive analytics modeling, suggests that 40 percent of cases referred for either a foster care removal, intensive services or both could have been handled with less-intrusive options.

The Florida findings should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the foster-care panic that has engulfed the state for the past three years.

The study doesn’t break down what proportion of removals were unnecessary; the 40 percent figure is for all cases in which a court either ordered removal or the “services” for families, such as counseling and parent education.

But if even half  - 20 percent - of the removals are unnecessary that’s more than 3,500 Florida children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love every year - shoveled into a system that churns out walking wounded four times out of five, and placed at high risk of abuse in foster care itself.  Indeed, we’ve known for a long time that in typical cases children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

All that misery is being inflicted on children because, three years ago, the Miami Heralddecided more children needed to be taken away – and because what passes for leadership at the Florida Department of Children and Families caved in to the Herald’s campaign to smear efforts to keep families together.

When "help" doesn’t help

There’s another important finding from the study:  Providing the kinds of “help” that makes the helpers feel good – forcing parents into “counseling” and “parent education” -  instead of giving families what they really need, usually concrete help to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty, can be worse than not intervening at all.

Again, no surprise.  Advocates of family preservation have been making this point for decades.
Now, even the CEO of ChildNet, the nonprofit in charge of providing the services in Broward County, agrees, telling the Chronicle:
  “It might not be that my child was removed because I was bad parent, but that I’m homeless,” [ChildNetCEO Emilio] Benitez said. “If I lost my job, and I just don’t have stabilized housing, that doesn’t mean I’m a bad parent. But we almost always make them go to parenting classes.”

 The one surprise in the study

But one thing is a surprise: Predictive analytics tends to magnify the biases of child welfare workers. If, even using predictive analytics, it’s clear that Florida is taking away too many children, the study almost certainly underestimates the extent of the wrongful removal problem. In other words, the study underestimates the harm that the Miami Herald and the weak-kneed leadership at the Department of Children and Families have done to children.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Congratulations, Tampa Bay Times, you got just what you wanted (aside from the part where the child dies in foster care, of course).

“When in doubt, take the kid from abusive home,” said the headline on the Tampa Bay Times editorial on September 29.

“Take the kid,” the editorial begins.

That is once again the lesson from another death in Florida that could have been avoided if child welfare workers would have erred on the side of caution rather than on keeping a dysfunctional family together.

It is at least the second such editorial in the Times, which marches in lockstep with the Miami Herald – creating a near monopoly on child welfare reporting in Florida, and shutting out almost all dissent.

In fact, the Florida child welfare system already has been following the Times’ advice, with a vengeance. Statewide, removals of children from their homes are up 19 percent since March, 2014, when the Miami Herald ran its exercise in journalistic demagoguery Innnocents Lost. The number of children trapped in foster care on any given day is up 31 percent.

And even as that Times editorial was written, an infant named Kwon McGee was in the Tampa Bay area foster home where he would lose his life.

As far as I can tell his death has not even been covered by the Times.

From the story on the television station’s website:

It all started on July 29 when [the child’s mother, Shira] Sangamuang gave birth at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater and social workers began talking to her about where she would live after she left the hospital. Sangamuang was unemployed and broke and needed temporary shelter, but had plans to move to Connecticut with Kwon to live with her mother. 
Days later, those same social workers came to the Travelers Inn in Clearwater where Sangamuang was staying and demanded that she hand over Kwon. “She’s like, well two officers, two sheriffs came up and said, ‘look ma’am if you don’t give me your baby, I will arrest you and take you to jail and you will no longer have your baby,’”
Sangamuang said. The baby ended up in the care of foster parents in Pasco County while Sangamuang tried to arrange for counseling and other directives ordered by a judge to get her child back.

OK, let’s stop there for a moment. Why was the mother forced to get counseling? What she needed was housing and a job.

Now, back to the story:

The child’s father, Ladell McGee, was away when Kwon was born and says he never had a chance to see his son.

The reason for that is, of course, that the son is dead.

Again, from the WFLA-TV story:

The family’s rough patch turned utterly tragic Oct. 24, when the foster parent reported putting Kwon down to sleep in an adult bed after a feeding and later found him unresponsive. 
[Eckerd Connects, the private agency that runs child welfare foster care in the county] says the foster parents failed to follow Eckerd’s baby safety checklist that says all infants should sleep in a crib with a firm mattress and tight-fitting sheets without other materials that might suffocate a baby. 
“Our guidelines weren’t followed in this particular case and that’s the tragedy here. We feel this death could have been prevented if the child had been put in a crib,” Tobin said. …

This death also could have been prevented had Eckerd Connects or the Florida Department of Children and Families or the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, which does child abuse investigations in that county, simply said: Hey, wait a minute, all this mom needs is a rent subsidy and help to find a job – or simply some cash so she could move to Connecticut.

When anecdotes collide …

To conclude that this one case “proves” Florida is taking away too many children would be to make the same mistake as the Herald and the Times keep making – reaching sweeping conclusions based on horror stories.  When anecdotes collide, it’s time to look at the data.

What proves that Florida is taking away too many children is the fact that, when Florida took fewer children independent monitors found that child safety improved – a pattern that has been repeated across the country in the few places that have embraced safe, proven alternatives to foster care.

Rushing to “take the kid” is not erring on the side of caution – it is a profoundly reckless act.  Of course most children won’t pay the ultimate price, as Kwon McGee did. But they will pay a price.  The research is clear that in typical cases, even when there has been maltreatment – and there was none in this case – children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably maltreated children in foster care.

And while this child apparently died as a result of a tragic accident, study after study has found high rates of abuse in foster care – another reason not to throw children there just because their parents are poor.

So why did the caseworkers and the sheriff’s deputies ignore the research? Why did they so easily confuse poverty with “neglect” They probably were too terrified of being the subject of the next front page story in the Miami Herald or the next editorial in the Tampa Bay Times demanding they “take the kid.”

So they took the kid.

Now the kid is dead.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Florida foster-care panic: Still another child pays the ultimate price

Florida DCF seeks to evade responsibility for misuse of
psychiatric drugs on foster children.
For the third time in less than a year, a Florida foster child has committed suicide.

16-year-old Guilianna Ramos Bermudez hanged herself in a group home where she’d been bullied.  She’d also suffered another trauma; Her own daughter, who had been allowed to live with her at the group home had been taken away.

On the night she died, she had argued with the group home staff, refusing to take her psychiatric medication.

Giulianna’s best friend told the Miami Herald:

“She would always refuse her meds. ‘Mazzy, it makes me feel like a zombie,” Mazzelyn said. “The meds made her depressed. She wasn’t depressed.”

Would this tragedy have taken place even had the Herald not launched a crusade to tear apart more families, overloading the entire system?  We’ll never know. But this tragedy would have been less likely for at least two reasons:

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Fear and loathing at Florida DCF

Compare the kind of worker the Florida Department of Children and Families fires to the kind it keeps

I’m just catching up with a story from late last year, reported by The Palm Beach Post, that perfectly sums up the dangerous, defensive and arrogant mindset of many child welfare agencies in general and the Florida Department of Children and Families in particular.

Tiffany Sicard left her children, ages six and three, in a car to rush into a CVS pharmacy and pick up a prescription for the younger child.  It was 85 degrees outside, but the car windows were partially open, the doors were unlocked and police said the children “did not appear to be in distress.”

That part about “police said” is due to the fact that when Sicard got back to the car, about fifteen minutes after leaving it, the police already were on the scene. They arrested Sicard and charged her with two counts of child neglect.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The price of panic: It all starts at the hotline

Before Carol Marbin Miller and her colleagues at the Miami Herald set off a massive foster-care panic in Florida by distorting almost every issue in child welfare in its series Innocents Lost, before the Herald used the same tactics in its distorted coverage of the tragic death of Nubia Barahona, the Herald went after the Florida child abuse hotline.

The tactics were the same – broadbrush conclusions from horror stories and highly selective use of documents and data – as NCCPR documented here and here.

And now, once again, we see how the Herald’s distortions hurt children. 

The information does not come from the Herald, of course.  Rather it comes from the Palm Beach Post in partnership with WPTV television.  Their story deals with why caseworkers for the Florida Department of Children and Families are quitting in droves, and why those who stay are cutting corners – and worse.

As the story puts it:

…an inundation of paperwork, an ever-expanding job description and a ballooning number of cases have led to what some are calling a “mass exodus” of investigators statewide. “Out all night, up all day, you aren’t getting any sleep. How can you make a sound decision about a child’s safety?” a current investigator said.

As a result, some investigators told the Post, “the only way to do the job is to falsify records.”

But most revealing is what the workers themselves say is causing this inundation:

Employees interviewed pointed to the Abuse Hotline’s reluctance to throw out a complaint for the constant stream of new cases. … A former employee argued that investigators are assigned cases that have “absolutely 100 percent nothing to do at all with child safety.” Some blame a “knee-jerk reaction” and a fear of having a child fall through the cracks for leading to the inundation of cases. …
 Even when investigators question whether a case involves a child’s welfare, they are required to investigate — and fill out paperwork — as they would any other case. “When you get two or three cases a day, you literally cannot do what you need to do to make sure that you’re doing a good job. You can’t do it,” a former investigator said.

So some workers falsify documents, others quit, and none of them has the time to investigate any case carefully – making it both more likely that children will be taken needlessly and more likely that other children in real danger will be missed.

Mike Carroll: "It is what it is."
But what is truly bizarre is the response to all this from Mike Carroll, whose job title is Secretary of Post:
the Department of Children and Families. He told the

“We can’t shut off the hotline. It is what it is.  And as people call, we are mandated to get out there.”

Except that’s not true.  As in other states, the Florida hotline is supposed to screen out calls that are obviously false, or don’t meet the law’s definition of child abuse, or for which the caller lacks reasonable cause to suspect abuse.

In some cases, yes, they are “mandated to get out there,” in others not.

There is good reason for this. Needless child abuse investigations traumatize children – and divert time from finding children in real danger.

The real problem is exactly what the frontline caseworkers say it is: A knee jerk reaction and fear of being on the front page of the Herald if they screen out a call and a tragedy occurs.

But there will always be screening in child welfare. Either it will be rational screening at the hotline, or irrational screening by caseworkers cutting corners because they can’t keep up.

As for Mike Carroll, no doubt the vulnerable children of Florida sleep better at night knowing that they have a dynamic forceful leader always ready to confront a problem by declaring “It is what it is.”

But then Carroll doesn’t really run DCF.  For all intents and purposes Carol Marbin Miller does. The agency cowers in fear of her next story, and jerks its knees accordingly. 

Perhaps it’s time to consider how well that’s working out. Miler got what she wanted. The decline in entries into care – a decline that independent evaluators said improved child safety – is long gone. More and more children are torn from everyone they know and love.

Two weeks ago, The New York Times reported on how, in New York City, foster care has become the new “Jane Crow.” It told story after story about children needlessly taken from their homes because their parents are poor.  It is, of course, the kind of story Carol Marbin Miller would never write, even though the rate of child removal in Florida is more than two-and-a-half times as high as the rate in New York City. So all the horrors inflicted on New York City children by their equivalent of DCF are happening at least two-and-a-half times as often in Florida.

Raise your hand if you think that’s made Florida children safer.  Raise your hand if you think child welfare in Florida is better now than it was before Miller started on her crusade against keeping families together.

Tomorrow: The kind of caseworker DCF chooses to fire - and the kind it chooses to keep