The Broken System of Child Protective Services

child protective services

The system that is supposed to protect children very often, too often, leaves them in harm’s way and children are left brutally injured or dead. The department of family and child protective services, an agency that every city has, the agency or the police that mandated reporters are supposed to contact for suspected abuse often end up coming to the rescue too late or not all. Or they investigate something innocuous like good attentive parents smoking pot – only because weed is a schedule I drug. 

There was one episode of Special Victims Unit where Whoopi Godlberg starred as the supervisor of one particular CPS agency office who falsified records to meet quota. A child died starving in a cage because of her negligence. When life imitates art more than art imitates life we have a problem. 

This past week the Director of the Los Angeles County’s Department of Child and Family Services Bobby Cagle announced his resignation effective next month. 

The departure of Cagle comes as DCFS faces mounting scrutiny over a series of highly publicized fatalities and abuse of children under the agency’s care.

The trigger to all this was a 4-year-old boy who was tortured last month in foster care and left in a coma. An investigation was ordered and criticism was directed at how Cagle was managing the department. 

Cagle did not cite this particular case as his reason for departure. Though he is leaving as he entered: on tragedy and with life imitating art. 

In a letter submitted Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors, Cagle said his resignation from DCFS would take effect Dec. 31. DCFS offered no explanation for the timing of the resignation, but in a statement the agency said that Cagle planned to enter the private sector after more than three decades in public service.

Cagle took over running L.A. County’s child protective services apparatus in 2017 after leading Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services.  At the time, DCFS was reeling from the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, the Palmdale boy who was abused and tortured by his mother and her boyfriend.

Four L.A. County social workers were charged with child abuse and falsifying public records in connection with their work on Gabriel’s case, although an appellate court last year threw out the case.

What is the point of this system if children are not being protected? The cost is the lives of innocent children. 

Over 1,000 children die of neglect or torture each year.  While under the care of CPS, studies have shown that children are 600% more likely to die a violent death.  In 2007, the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) reported 1,760 child fatalities attributed to child abuse.  Of those, more than half had prior Child Protective Services involvement before their deaths. 

Shame on these governmental agencies who are the contributing factors to the death of children. I worked in a school for over 10 years and we were mandated reporters. Luckily I never had to report. Looking back on it and reading this I’m glad I never had to be put in that position. A child would go from the frying pan into the fire. 

This problem is not exclusive to A Special Victims Unit episode or California. This is a problem of epidemic proportions across the United States as toxic as any of our other epidemics like the opioid epidemic, the failed war on drugs, or the systemic racism which permeates the fabric of our culture. Children are pulled out of loving homes to be put in abusive homes or kept in abusive homes. The system is broken across the board from coast to coast and keeps lawyers busy trying to help innocent parents keep their kids. 

If you follow our blog (or read the news) then you know that CPS is in trouble. A recent audit revealed that mismanagement, errors and poor case outcomes are not occasional issues, but daily norms at CPS. Hundreds of investigations not handled. Thousands of children left in seriously abusive situations, or pulled from loving families where there was insufficient evidence to support claims of abuse.

Reading the mission statement from the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services one would think they had their shit together. So why the disconnect in Los Angeles and elsewhere? 

In Out of Harm’s Way, published in 2017 to much less fanfare than it deserved, sociologist Richard Gelles offers a devastating account of how little effect bureaucratic reforms usually have.2 More money, more staff, more training, more lawsuits brought against child protec- tive services, or the ever-popular convening of more blue-ribbon com- mittees—nothing has really moved the needle on protecting children in recent years. In some cases, reform amounts to little more than changing the name of the agency.

Every day, some kids are forcibly taken from their parents for the wrong reasons while others are left to suffer despite copious warning signs. The children the system is failing are disproportionately poor and members of racial minority groups. In many cases, their families have been devastated by generations of family breakdown, unemploy- ment, drug abuse, and crime. But these cannot be excuses for leaving their fates to a system with such deep and abiding flaws.

Can analyzing Big Data and pre- dictive analytics really save kids? Los Angeles wants to try it out. 

Predictive analytics refers to the use of historical data to forecast the likelihood of future events. 

“Los Angeles is ready to learn from its mistakes and start using predictive analytics to help screen the calls that come into its child-abuse hotline. There were 219,000 in 2017, according to Jennie Feria, the DCFS regional administrator who oversees it. These can come from “mandated reporters,” such as teachers and doctors, or from anyone who comes upon something he or she considers an instance of child abuse or neglect.24”

“About a third of these calls result in an in-person investigation by a social worker. The rest don’t meet the standard of “reasonable suspicion.” But this determination is often fraught. The operators at the hotline frequently don’t have all the information they need in front of them to make a call, and when they do, it’s easy to overlook some important factor or to underestimate what might be a significant warning sign.”

“What kinds of signs are we talking about? The answer can be surprising. Pennsylvania has separate systems for reporting abuse and neglect. Child Protective Services monitors the former, while General Protective Services looks at the latter. That separation long resulted in useful information being lost.”

“Once they started to look at the data, Gelles says, “What you find is there are a series of neglect reports—four, five, six neglect reports—that predate a fatality.”25 Until this information was made available, he and most other experts and child-welfare workers assumed that there would be “a progression of physical violence up to a fatal incident. That isn’t the case. There are dysfunctions in the family that come to public attention,”26 but they sometimes stop short of abuse.”

“Red flags include a home in disrepair and multiple cases of util- ities being shut off. Social services will help the family find better housing or get the power turned back on. “But when a family keeps coming to your attention and isn’t changing, that’s a serious sign that there’s something we missed here,” Gelles says.27 When parents could get running water and heat for their children but either repeat- edly choose not to or simply forget about it, there’s something very wrong. Yet the current system does not pay any special attention to those families.”

“There is also information in big data that would make call screeners less likely to request an investigation of cases that don’t merit one. According to Putnam-Hornstein, one in three children in America will have contact with child services before the age of 18. That number suggests that agencies are wasting resources investigating cases that are highly unlikely to be substantiated. These false alarms significantly increase the caseload of child-welfare workers and make it difficult to focus sufficient time and energy on the cases that are most likely to need them. They also often justify further intrusions into family privacy. (In this sense, America’s child-welfare system is broken in much the same way its immigration system is: Law enforcement officers spend so much effort trying to catch people who want to garden illegally that they run out of resources with which to track down people who want to blow up buildings.)”

The next step in Los Angeles is stalled for the time being. The state of California is considering implementing predictive analytics at all of its county hotlines, since it is updating and revamping the technology it uses to field calls and collect data anyway. But doing so will be a long and bureaucratic process, Chough tells me. “L.A. County is anxious to get out of the gate. But now we have to wait for 57 counties to get on board, so we are in a sort of holding pattern.”28

But the problem is bigger than the abuse the children experience at the hands of foster parents. The problem starts with the children being taken away from their homes in the first place and parents struggling to get their children back before they never can. The umbrella of reasons families fall victim to child protective services is the problem. It’s a trap parents fall into. 

In the United States, 7 million children are reported to abuse hotlines each year. More than 3 million of those allegations trigger a child maltreatment investigation. But that’s just the beginning of the story: Once a finding of child neglect has been made, parents have to try to correct the issue or issues that led to child protective involvement. Typically, that involves mandates for parents to undergo addiction treatment, find stable housing, secure employment, begin therapy or psychiatric care, and so on.

There’s a problem, however: Taking all those steps and proving they’ve occurred can be a byzantine process, with hard deadlines, ignorant investigators, and unsympathetic judges who work against parents. For parents who are up against the clock set by the Adoption and Safe Families Act — which requires states to file for termination of parental rights if children have been separated from their parents for 15 out of the 22 most recent months — these delays can mean the difference between reunification or the permanent severance of a family.

The reasons a family might be reported to child protective services may not be what one thinks. A parent need not necessarily be breaking a child’s arm or beating a child raw with a belt but rather in California, for instance, even though weed is legal, it is still possible for children to be removed from a home for parental marijuana use.

If DCFS investigators determine that consumption of marijuana or other substances is inhibiting a parent’s ability to parent, they take action. The steps they take could involve removing the children from the home and requiring parents to attend treatment programs for recovery.

And all it may take is an innocent comment at school by the child about weed and some stuck up teacher makes the report. 

“Parents have had their children removed because they test positive for drugs, without evidence that the children are unsafe or being neglected,” the report said. “Several community providers described cases where a client tested positive for marijuana and had his/her children placed into foster care without other evidence of child abuse/neglect.”

But it’s okay to drink when alcohol is more problematic  and drunk is aggressive

Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, which represents children in L.A. County in cases of neglect, said that, in her opinion, DCFS discriminates against people who use marijuana, especially when compared to people who drink alcohol.The system needs revamping from the federal level. It cannot be left to corrupt state and city agencies and foster families looking to make a buck. There is a proposed amendment  to the U.S. Constitution seeking to protect parental rights. It’s currently in the Senate and being introduced to the House.  No longer can we let life imitate art because real lives are at stake.

Author: Sherri Margolin (Dark Matters)

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