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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Race, journalism and child welfare: The double standards run deep

The Tampa Bay Times is earning well-deserved praise for a package of stories called "Why Cops Shoot."  Among other things, the series found racial bias in some police shootings.  Yet the same newspaper insists there is absolutely no bias in child welfare decisions.

I wrote about the Times' double standards for an online national child welfare journal.

You can read the full column here.

Friday, January 27, 2017

“I Don’t Wanna Live No More”

The Florida foster-care panic did not cause Naika Venant to die. It just made it more likely

UPDATE, March 14: The Florida Department of Children and Families has now issued a report in which it portrays the birth mother as brutally abusive and neglectful. The mother’s attorney – and no friend of family preservation – Howard Talenfeld – says the report is inaccurate.

But let’s assume that the report’s portrayal of the mother is accurate. Does that let the Herald off the hook?  No way. It would mean only that the place in a good, safe foster home that should have been taken by Naika Venant instead was occupied by some other child who was a victim of the Florida Foster Care Panic and never needed to be taken away.

The overload of the system with children who don’t need to be there leaves no room in good foster homes for children in real danger. Perhaps Naika Venant was one such child; perhaps not.

Either way, the Herald and its acolytes in the Florida media, especially the Tampa Bay Times, still share responsibility for another child welfare tragedy.

            Late Saturday night Naika Venant wrote on Facebook “I Don’t Wanna Live No More.” A few hours later, she walked into a bathroom in her Miami Gardens foster home and hanged herself outside a shower stall. She livestreamed her suicide on Facebook.

            Would this tragedy have occurred even had the Miami Herald not effectively collapsed the Florida child welfare system by setting off an enormous foster-care panic? Perhaps.  But the panic made it far more likely.  And that means, once again, the Herald, and its acolytes in the Florida media, especially the Tampa Bay Times, share responsibility for a child welfare tragedy.

The roots of tragedy

            Contrary to the Herald’s claims that Florida had made too much of an effort to keep families together, the state never has done enough.

            That can be seen by how Naika came into foster care in the first place. She was seven-years-old and the allegation was “excessive corporal punishment.” That can mean many different things. But, according to the Herald, even the lawyer for Naika’s mother, Howard Talenfeld – no friend of family preservation – said, in the story’s words, that the removal “was the first time the system failed Naika.”

            I’m not sure what he meant. Since the story was co-authored by Carol Marbin Miller, obviously she won’t pursue any angle that suggests any child was taken needlessly. But, to use a phrase the Herald loves, the case “raises questions,” about whether the initial removal was necessary and/or whether there were better ways to be sure that Naika did not suffer excessive corporal punishment. (Special note to Tim Nickens of the Times, who has suggested that nearly every removal is justified because judges rubber stamp almost all of them: A judge almost certainly approved this one, too.)

            This initial removal was not the fault of the foster-care panic – it happened in 2009, while Florida actually was making progress in curbing wrongful removal.  But not enough progress.

Florida never got its rate of removal down to the level of Alabama, for example, the state that Miller herself claims, in Innocents Lost, should be a model for Florida. (Of course, her story about Alabama never actually mentioned the low rate of removal.) So even at its best, Florida was taking many children needlessly.  Now, it’s much worse.

            One thing we know for sure: What happened to Naika after the State of Florida became her parent was far worse than anything that happened  before.  She was raped by a 14-year-old boy in the same foster home.

            When Naika was returned home, her mother couldn’t cope with the emotional harm the rape had done to her daughter.  The Florida child welfare system failed to help Naika’s mother help her daughter. She ran away and was returned to foster care. Again she got no help, but was sent back to her mother in 2014.

Here’s where the panic made things worse

            And 2014 was when the Herald started the foster-care panic. So this time, when Naika ran away she was consigned to a child welfare system so overloaded with children needlessly removed that it was far less able to cope with her than before.  During just the nine months before her suicide, Naika was moved ten times.

            No wonder that, in the hours before her death, she wrote to a friend on Facebook “Im Just Tired My Life Pointless I Don’t Wanna Do This Any More.”

            Of course the Herald and the Tampa Bay Times won’t face up to their role in all this. And Talenfeld isn’t helping. Instead, he’s blaming the fact that starting during the administration of former Gov. Jeb Bush Florida privatized child welfare services.

            That is, to use the polite term, nonsense.

            I’m a big government tax-and-spend liberal. I am no fan of privatizing public services.

But, as NCCPR said from the moment privatization began: It’s not good, it’s not bad – it’s irrelevant. There is no evidence from anywhere in the country that privatization makes child welfare systems better – or worse.

            Florida child welfare improved under privatization – when DCF was run by visionary leaders like Bob Butterworth and George Sheldon who emphasized safe, proven approaches to keeping families together. Then Florida got worse under privatization when their successors effectively let the Miami Herald dictate child welfare policy.

            Safe, proven alternatives to foster care make child welfare systems better. Foster-care panics make child welfare systems worse. Privatization does neither.

            And to those who are thinking: Jeez, are you going to blame every tragedy in Florida child welfare on the foster-care panic? Here’s the answer:


Not completely, of course. But foster-care panics make every kind of child welfare tragedy more likely.  So those who promote foster care panics have to share responsibility for the consequences.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The column the Tampa Bay Times doesn’t want you to see

One of the dangers from all the cutbacks and consolidations sweeping through the newspaper industry is that it becomes that much easier to monopolize the marketplace of ideas.

So in Florida, there is far less room now to get a word of dissent in edgewise than there was just a decade ago.

The only papers in Florida still big enough to cover child welfare on a regular basis are the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.

In 2008, the papers combined their statehouse bureaus – and state government is, of course, the source of much child welfare news. 

Then the Times republished Innocents Lost.  And ever since, the Times editorial page has marched in lockstep with the failed thesis behind that series, declaring in a January 2016 editorial “when it doubt, take the child.”

When I tried to get in a few hundred words of dissent at that time, it was disappointing that I got no response from Herald editorial page editor Tim Nickens or perspective editor Jim Verhulst.

Then in May, the Times bought out and shut down another possible venue for dissent -  the Tampa Tribune. That newspaper tended to be more amenable to sharing a wide variety of viewpoints on child welfare with readers. 

Last month, after the Times reported that, in Hillsborough County, so many children are being torn from their homes that they sometimes have to sleep in offices, I updated the column and tried again. Still no response. If the Times has published dissent from some other source that says too many children are removed needlessly, criticizes Innocents Lost, and calls for less use of foster care, I haven’t seen it.

I was reminded of the Times’ no dissent approach when I saw this story about a tragic child death in Tampa – the kind of death the Florida foster care panic was supposed to prevent, or at least reduce. In fact, in 2015, such deaths increased.

The Times is, of course, entirely within its rights to advocate for a position and ignore dissenting voices. As A.J. Liebling famously said “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” – and NCCPR doesn’t own one.

But we do have this blog.  So here’s the column.  You can decide for yourself if it was so utterly beyond the pale that the Times was right to be sure its readers never were exposed to it:

“When in doubt, take the child” is formula for more tragedy

            It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
            Nowhere is that more apparent than in Florida child welfare.
            In 1998, the headlines were about a little girl named Kayla McKean.  Just two months after Kayla’s death, Kathleen Kearney was named to run the Florida Department of Children and Families.  Her mantra: When in doubt, take the child.  The number of children torn from their families skyrocketed – increasing by 50 percent in a single year.  With no place to put all those children, some slept in offices.  And because the system was so overloaded, deaths of children “known-to-the-system” increased.
            In 2014 came Innocents Lost, the series of stories in the Miami Herald and the Times about children who died after their cases were known-to-the-system.  The Legislature said, in effect, when in doubt, take the child.  Once again the number of children taken from their parents is soaring.  And once again, deaths of children known-to-the-system have increased.
            Yet in January, in the wake of its reporting on another tragedy, the death of Phoebe Jonchuck, the Times told us the answer is “When in doubt, take the child” [Editorial, Jan. 15].
            Authorities listened.  Hillsborough County is taking children at a rate even higher than the state average.  And once again, children have slept in offices.
            It’s not some bizarre coincidence that this approach never works.  It’s a misreading of the problem.
            We look at a case where a child died, and it turns out the file had more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade.  So we think, Aha! There must be a “bias toward family preservation.”  But there is no such bias, and there never has been.  Florida consistently has taken away children at a rate at or above the national average, far above the rate in systems that have been nationally-recognized as models for keeping children safe – systems like Alabama, the very state Innocents Lost said Florida should emulate.
            The real reason for tragedies such as the death of Phoebe Jonchuk almost always is more frustrating, more mundane and harder to fix.  Children die when undertrained, underprepared caseworkers are overloaded with too many cases. They can’t investigate any case properly.  So even as they take more children needlessly, they also miss more children in real danger.  Despite being one of the primary proponents of the take-the-child-and-run approach, even Maj. Connie Shingledecker, who is in charge of child abuse investigations in Manatee County blamed this overload for a death on her watch.
            In contrast, the only time independent evaluators ever concluded that Florida children actually were getting safer was when Bob Butterworth and then Geroge Sheldon ran DCF.  They moved to curb needless removal of children – not because of some “bias” but because it’s the only answer that works.
            “When in doubt, take the child” is one of those fear-fueled, feel-good responses to tragedy – like “Carpet bomb our enemies” or “Ban all Muslims.”  But all of those strategies do enormous collateral damage to innocents.
In the case of child welfare:
● When a child is needlessly thrown into foster care, he loses not only mom and dad but often brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, friends and classmates.  For a young enough child it’s an experience akin to a kidnapping.  Other children feel they must have done something terribly wrong and now they are being punished.  The emotional trauma can last a lifetime. 
So it’s no wonder that two massive studies involving more than 15,000 typical cases – not the horror stories – found that children left in their own homes fared better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.
● That harm occurs even when the foster home is a good one.  The majority are.  But multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.  So when we say “when in doubt, take the child” we’re really saying “take the child and roll the dice.”
And then there’s that other collateral damage: a system so overwhelmed that workers overlook children like Phoebe Jonchuck.
            None of this means no child ever should be taken from her or his parents.  But foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used sparingly and in small doses. 
Every time Florida tries upping the dose, it backfires.

            Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.  NCCPR’s full response to Innocents Lost is available here: 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

More children forced to pay the price of panic

The Tampa Bay Times had a story this week about how so many children are being taken away in Hillsborough County that some had to spend a night or two sleeping in offices:

In the story, Lorita Shirley, operations manager for Eckerd Kids, the private agency that runs foster care in the county, says one of the reasons is:

…a spike in the number of children being taken into care that month used up available beds, she said. Typically, about 140 children a month are removed from their families because of concerns for their safety and placed with relatives, foster parents or in group homes, Shirley said. In May, that number went up to 195, a surge of almost 40 percent.

But actually, it’s even worse.

In the 12 months before Innocents Lost was published in March, 2014, 1,265 children were taken from their parents in Hillsborogh County.  During the same 12 month period, ending in February 2016, the figure skyrocketed to 1,592.  And that was before the recent “surge.”

Right now, the rate of removal in Hillsborough County is far above the statewide average – and that average has gone up significantly since Innocents Lost.

In other words, in part because of high-profile tragedies in the county, Hillsborough County has had a panic on top of the statewide foster-care panic.

The story also provided an official excuse for the spike in removals;

The decision to remove children from their families in Hillsborough is made by the Child Protective Investigative Division, a unit of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office. Capt. Jim Bradford said there has been no change in the criteria they use when deciding to remove a child. The increase in May is a result of more calls coming in on the Florida Abuse Hotline, he said.

Foster-care panics often prompt a surge in calls, but a greater percentage of those calls tend to be false reports – not because of malice, but because people urged over and over to report anything and everything tend to do just that.  That means hotlines need to be more discerning about which calls they pass on for investigation and investigators need to be more discerning about which calls really require removing a child from the home.

Neither is happening in Florida.

Once again, there is no evidence that this additional suffering inflicted on children by the Miami Herald’s shoddy journalism and the response by state and local officials has done anything to make children safer.

Once again, all that suffering is for nothing – except the greater glory of the Miami Herald and the desire by public and private agency officials to protect themselves from the wrath of the Herald – and the Tampa Bay Times, which encouraged the panic in an editorial in January.