Some years ago in Southern California, a 400-pound lesbian decided that life with her 300-pound partner and their three adopted children wasn’t worth living, so she drove into a semi truck, crushing her legs and hips and leaving her in the hospital for months. When she got out, she weighed just 90 pounds, but she was meaner than ever, a tweaker hooked on pain pills who took out her misery on the kids. One day, the youngest had to be airlifted out of the home with a knife in her chest.
“Her story on that changed many times,” an old acquaintance of mine, a lawyer who deals with these kinds of things, wrote me in an email. “The children say tweaker stabbed her. Tweaker says she fell running up the stairs. No CPS problem.” That’s CPS, as in Child Protective Services.
Since the late ’70s, the debate over child protective services has been driven by horror stories that have become a meta-narrative: social workers screw up by missing the telltale signs of abuse, kids get hurt, laws are reformed, and thus more at-risk children are taken out of their homes and given to loving adoptive families.
At least, we’re left to assume the kids live happily ever after, since newspapers rarely mention the terrible things that happen to many of the children who get kidnapped by the state. What you see in the newspaper is a very tight-focus shot of the very worst corner of the system, usually the product of a law requiring state agencies to publish reports on child deaths. But the system itself is vast and haunted throughout by evil. The children taken from their parents rarely live happily ever after; one expert chronicler of foster care dysfunction puts the number of well-adjusted kids coming out of that system at around 20 percent.
The latest example of the recurring narrative comes from two clever reporters at the Austin American-Statesman, who got their hands on a mountain of Texas CPS documents, which they turned into a 12-part series published last month month titled, “Missed Signs, Fatal Consequences.” The reporters say their work shows that Texas is “missing deadly patterns and key pieces of information that could help protect kids,” but they can’t back up the claim. That’s because the assumption underlying the project—that there are signals auguring child murder, and we could discover them if we only tuned out the white noise—is a bit of positivist arrantry. There are no signs in the chaos, no reliable predictors, just variations of savagery and ill fortune.
For instance, the reporters suggest that one sign is that “having a boyfriend living in a household can be a clear warning sign that regulators need to pay closer attention to how children are being treated.” This is less than useless. “Having a boyfriend” is not what the businessfolk would call actionable information. You cannot take away the kids of everyone with a live-in significant other, just because someone in Texas once had a psycho beau.
So it goes with so many of the complaints found in the paperwork of CPS agencies. Most people who smoke weed while pregnant don’t go on to murder their kids. Same for the folks who feed their children too many Pop-Tarts, and even the creeps who slap them around. Yet our country spends $20 billion a year on a system that bears closer resemblance to the psychics of the PreCrime division in Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report than anything in American law enforcement. There is value in what CPS agencies do: at some low threshold, violence against children ought to result in the termination of parental rights. If the parent has committed a crime against the child, it ought to be proven in court and punished appropriately.
But that’s not what CPS is up to. Only a quarter of child removal cases nationally involve abuse. The rest of the time, CPS is accusing the parents of some form of neglect, a catch-all term often used to describe poverty. Studies have shown that in scenarios identical except for the race of the family, caseworkers find that black children are at greater risk. That’s one reason that just 42 percent of children in foster care nationwide are white.
So why, in the absence of violence, do we tolerate a program of official racist kidnapping? It’s for the kids, of course—to save them from grisly ends. There are two glaring problems with this, one practical and one moral.
The practical problem is that it simply doesn’t work. A 2010 study by the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities demonstrates that “nothing CPS does has an effect” on the rate of child abuse deaths, according to Richard Wexler, author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse.
According to Wexler,
the report concludes:
• The rate at which people report child abuse, which is said to be below average in Texas, does not contribute to more child abuse deaths.
• The rate at which a state takes children from their parents, which is said to be below average in Texas, does not contribute to more deaths.
• The rate at which a state screens in reports for investigation, which is said to be above average in Texas… does not contribute to fewerdeaths.
In short, none of the traditional investigative and ‘police’ functions of child protective services contribute anything to raising or lowering the rate of child abuse fatalities.
Wexler compares the job of CPS to the old needle in a haystack: out of some 7 million children in Texas, a quarter of them below the poverty line, there’s little chance of stumbling across one of the 200 or so annual child fatalities at the right moment, even if we had a bigger army of social workers.
Still, the Austin-American Statesman insists the answer is finding more and better signs. They introduce us to an outfit promising that statistical analysis will discover the potential killers. Instead, the analysts offer circular logic about kids who’ve been removed from homes being at higher risk than the general population. If they’ve been removed, remove them again. The reporters write that “a previous removal is not absolutely predictive of a later fatality,” which is one way to put it. It’s not absolutely predictive. Nor is it kind of predictive or vaguely predictive or predictive in any way. According to their own reporting, Texas removes 12,500 children a year from their homes. Yet in the four and a half years of death records the reporters studied, they found that in “166 cases…a child previously had been separated from a caretaker because of safety concerns prior to the fatality. In 41 of those instances, it was the same child who later died.”
I don’t understand those last two sentences, but those two numbers are much smaller than the removal numbers. Even in the data set labeled “parents so bad they get their kids taken away,” the death of a child is an extremely rare outcome.
The moral question is the one raised by Dick in his science fiction: how can you punish someone on the basis of a crime predicted? Imagine taking the conventions of dead kid journalism and applying them to regular crime stories: of the eleventy-twelve murders committed in Houston last year, the suspect in umpty-three of them was previously known to the system, meaning the suspected killer had been contacted by police three or more times. The warning signs were there—poverty, gang affiliation, drug use, weapons—all indicators of homicide risk. Why didn’t the system stop these killers before they struck?
The effort would be absurd, grotesque. We don’t blame cops when a criminal’s name turns up in field interview cards from years earlier. Why would we? But journalists rush to blame CPS workers for failing to guess which one in a thousand of their contacts will turn killer or prove fatally negligent. This is the journalistic justification for stories that would otherwise be exploitative. In the Statesman’s case, of the 779 death reports they looked at spanning four and a half years, 144 of the families had been contacted at least three times prior by CPS. Either this points to system failure (hint: for journalists, it always does), or it’s 144 more cases of meaningless pain.
The problem is that journalists have to bang on about system failure, whether or not they’ve found any, to justify a big splash series. Then after it publishes, bureaucracy managers have to sacrifice somebody, almost always a low-level caseworker. “If a child dies, the very first person hung out to dry is the caseworker, even if the evidence is that they wanted to remove the child but were overruled by the supervisor,” one expert told the Statesman.
“In many ways, child protection is an almost impossible job,” the two reporters write. “The margin of error on either side of the work is razor thin: When investigators fail to catch even a subtle sign of abuse, the consequences can be tragic. But if they act too aggressively, parents’ rights are unfairly stripped, inflicting damage on undeserving families.”
This carefully edited paragraph is true in its way, but when one of the pair of reporters who wrote this series, Eric Dexheimer, tried to say the same thing on the radio, he presented it in a way that more accurately reflects the social worker’s point of view: “If they move too aggressively, they get all sorts of complaints from parents’ rights organizations that ‘you’re taking away kids that don’t deserve to be taken away.’ If you move to slowly, then the results can be fatal.”
I’m sure that’s how CPS workers experience it. The cries of the children you’ve seized all run together; you never know for sure when you got it right, and you either stop caring, quit, or let it eat you alive; the pain of the families registers as an occasional complaint from some organization.
But as Wexler puts it, “the damned if you do, damned if you don’t” line is simply not true. “In 24 years of looking at child welfare as a reporter and then as an advocate, I have never read a news story in which a CPS worker is criminally charged, fired, suspended, demoted, or even slapped on the wrist for taking away too many children,” he writes. “Yet all these things have happened to workers who leave children in their own homes when something goes wrong.”
In Texas right now, there are four CPS workers facing criminal charges, three of them thanks to the work of Jose Carrizal, a former state investigator. In that case, a detective reported that a 16-year-old girl had been sexually abused by a 49-year-old man he had just arrested. The detective was concerned about negligence by the mother, but CPS failed to contact the family. When the girl was reported missing two and a half months later and then turned up dead in the trunk of a car, a CPS program director named Laura Ard ordered a caseworker to close the file and falsify various findings, according to an internal report filed by Carrizal.
When Ard was confronted, Carrizal writes, she said that “until (the agency) starts paying a worker more money, this is the type of work they’re going to get. Ard advised that when a child dies people come in and start saying, ‘you should have done this,’ and ‘you should have done that.’ Investigator Carrizal re-directed Ard and advised her that this was a great concern because children were dying across the State of Texas. Ard responded by stating that children die, and that this is our job. Ard goes on to mention that she does not have a ‘crystal ball’ to tell her when a child is going to die.”
There is something in this exchange that represents the whole problem with CPS—and maybe with government in general. There are two kinds of people who work in government: the ones who don’t care, and the ones who do. Ard sounds like she doesn’t care, but maybe she’s just sick of being blamed for being unable to predict the future and/or failing to fill out all the relevant paperwork.
Carrizal’s the sort who cares a lot. He’s a total outlier for successfully holding someone above the level of grunt accountable, but if you have any doubt about how his superiors viewed that, just know that he’s an ex-employee now, pushing a whistleblower suit against the bureaucracy.
The Statesman dug up other examples of employee misconduct—always worth doing—but to me, the series is a classic example of a dog that didn’t bark. The reporters pick the worst of those 144 deaths, where the family was known to CPS, but none of them point to a systemic failure to remove children from danger.
If your angle is “Missed Signs, Fatal Consequences,” there ought to be at least one case of a child being removed for abuse, then returned home, and dying. The striking thing to me was that in example after example, the death couldn’t have been predicted; few of the prior contacts involved violence. There were a couple of cases where social workers failed to detect bruises, or lied about visiting a home where abuse had been reported. But the problem there is incompetent (or demoralized) employees, not policy.
The real problem, for the rest of us, isn’t CPS employees who care too little; it’s case workers who care too much, zealous to snatch children away from any possible risk. There’s almost nothing stopping them. While the rest of our system is characterized by checks and balances and procedural safeguards, parents suspected of mistreating their children find they have few legal rights, while their children face grave risks outside the home.
This many journalists working this vein fail to apprehend. The Statesman didn’t even mention, for example, Daystar Residential, a Houston-area foster care facility that lost its license after five kids died there. When you hear CPS workers talk about “erring on the side of the child,” they mean stashing them at places like Daystar.
I don’t really mean to beat up on the two Statesman reporters. Inadequate framing aside, their work is clean, factual, accurate, and not terribly freighted with ideology. Many do worse. When the Miami Herald did its version of this story last year, it fiddled with the numbers to turn its series into an argument against family reunification.
The political reaction to this sort of reporting dooms hundreds of thousands of kids every year to a grossly dysfunctional foster care system. Major studies have found that the rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among children exiting foster care is double that for Iraq War veterans. More than half develop mental health problems, and a third report maltreatment by foster parents (and more by other foster children). Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. prison population under 30 spent time in foster care. Wexler summarizes all the data in one major study simply: “Only 20 percent of the (foster care) alumni could be said to be ‘doing well.’”
An MIT researcher published massive studies in 2007 and 2008 comparing foster children to similarly maltreated children who had been left in their homes. He found that children left in their homes were less likely to get pregnant as teenagers, less likely to wind up in the juvenile justice system, more likely to hold down a job, and “that children placed in care have two to three times higher arrest, conviction, and imprisonment rates than children who remained at home.”
While reforms in California, New York, Illinois, and elsewhere have contributed to a 15 percent drop in the number of children in foster care nationwide between 2002 and 2012, Texas has been going the other way, leading the nation in foster care growth, according to the Administration for Children and Families.
That means tens of thousands of Texas children condemned to lives of drug addiction, crime, and mental disorder. The suffering we inflict on them may not be visible and dramatic enough for a headline, or even a CPS report, but it’s massive.