Dorothy’s Never Coming Home:
New Law Puts Families in Crisis
States Report They are Increasing Efforts to Take Children From Their Homes to Collect Federal Bounty
by TCB CHRONICLES Staff
Child protective agencies nationwide are forcibly removing more children from their homes even when the agencies’ own investigations establish that the children have not been abused or neglected, according to reports submitted by state agencies to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect (NCCAN) during 1998. Once in foster care, state agencies further reported, children were much more likely to be maltreated than they are in their own homes.
Family advocates blame financial incentives offered through new federal legislation for the frightening trend that places increasing numbers of families at risk of losing their children and a national watchdog organization has pledged to use NCCAN’s statistics to alert parents.
According to statistics published in the recently released government publication, “Child Maltreatment 1998: Reports from the States to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect,” 18% of children placed in foster care were taken from homes with unsubstantiated reports of child maltreatment. Pennsylvania, Kansas and New Jersey led the 16 states reporting in this category. Nearly half (43%) of the foster care placements in those states were taken from families where child protective services (CPS) workers had unsubstantiated reports of child abuse or neglect. A complete breakdown of these statistics by state is shown in Table 1. While many states did not supply specific statistics for this category, there is no evidence to suggest that the percentages are different in non-reporting states.
Child protective agencies’ disclosures clearly challenge the public’s assumption that children are removed from their homes only under the most extreme of circumstances. However, further examination of the agencies’ own records discloses that the cure increasingly utilized by child protective services is worse than the problem.
Children are eleven times more likely to be sexually abused in state care than they are in their own homes, according to NCCAN. While 59 out of 100,000 children in the general population are alleged to be physically abused, 160 — more than twice as much — were physically abused in the foster care population. Neglect? The 32 states submitting data in this category reported that 490 per hundred thousand children were neglected in their homes and 760 per hundred thousand were neglected in state care. Tragically, 6.4 children per 100,000 were killed in foster care in 1998 compared to a rate of 1.5 per hundred thousand in the general population. (See Table 2).
Nationwide, states are reporting to the federal government that children are being abused by the very system mandated to protect them.
Federal law requires that each state submit statistics about its child protective operations to NCCAN, an agency under the umbrella of the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Congress mandated that DHHS oversee state child protective agencies and monitor their conformance to federal guidelines. NCCAN attempts to accomplish this by sending out annual surveys to the states and compiling the results in its national clearinghouse on child abuse and neglect. After spending more than 18 months verifying and organizing the statistics, NCCAN publishes the results in its “Child Maltreatment” series. The 1998 report was just released.
This is the first in a series of articles that will examine and report on the significance of the NCCAN data.
“Our investigators will be reviewing and analyzing every number the states handed over to the federal government, ” said Cheryl Barnes, Director of CPS Watch, a national organization of families and professionals that monitors CPS activities. “Our members are going to get this information out to the families that need it. Unlike DHHS, these watchdogs have teeth,” she said.
One of the country’s highest priorities is supposed to be the safety of its youngest citizens. Parents nationwide agonize over their responsibility to protect their children from the perils that sprout from an increasingly complex and violent society. The biggest peril faced by contemporary children may well be their own government. Yet surprisingly few citizens have voiced their concerns over the threatening DHHS statistics pouring out of the nation’s capital.
“With a nationwide budget exceeding that of the National Defense Budget, more than a few eyebrows should be raised,” says Susan Jackson, a family advocate and member of CPS Watch. “No one dares risk being politically incorrect, even to save hundreds of thousands of children who are sentenced to a life of disassociation and despair in multiple foster homes, and then, if they are ‘lucky,’ into an adoptive home, never to see their parents or siblings again.”
Federal legislation passed in 1997 appears to have dramatically increased child removals during 1998, even though the states had only partially applied it. The majority of the states were still in the process of drafting state laws to implement new federal guidelines in 1998. CPS Watch members who have reviewed the 1998 data expressed grave concern that the 1999 rates of child incarceration will astound both child welfare experts and the public alike and the foster care population will almost double by the end of this year.
Families who suddenly find themselves subject to CPS investigations are unprepared for the ordeal, parents who have gone through the experience explained. They suggest that parents who harbor the thought that it cannot happen to their family consider the implications of numbers released in NCCAN’s report.
If the 1998 rates of governmental intrusion are simply replicated in 2000, children will have a 1 in 25 chance of being subject to a child abuse/neglect investigation this year. On the other hand, the chance of getting a flat tire on the family car this year is 1 in 70 — enough of a possibility for the car industry to equip new vehicles with spare tires. (See Table 3)
“No family has any spare children,” says Barnes. “We have to do better. We have to do a better job of warning parents what these statistics mean to their families. We have to get to them before the government knocks on their door.”
In the worst states, Alaska, New York, Indiana and Missouri, a family is five times more likely to have a social worker knock on the door than they are to have a flat tire. “The idea that you don’t need to be concerned about CPS until they come to your door is about as ridiculous as thinking you don’t need a spare tire until you have a flat,” Barnes said. “We should protect our children from a government assault just as diligently as we protect against a flat tire or a house fire or any other threat to their well-being.”
Government statistics disclose that families are not only more likely to find themselves subject to CPS intrusion each year but that their children are far more likely to be removed after the investigation. States are reporting to NCCAN that they are increasingly choosing to remove children from their families as a solution, even when it appears there is no problem.
The state of Ohio reported to NCCAN that 22% of the children placed in state care were involved in reports that were ruled unfounded by child protective investigators. Ohio records indicated an additional 20% of the incarcerated children were “in need of services”, but not victims of substantiated abuse or neglect. An additional 4% were placed in foster care for “other reasons.” Ohio’s child protective agency said it did not know the reasons why 2% were taken into state care (Table 1).
Ten percent of the children incarcerated in Washington were placed as a result of unsubstantiated complaints of child abuse or neglect, according to NCCAN. An additional 26% placed in state care were cases “closed without a finding” and another 16% were placed for “other” reasons. These “other” reasons are not specifically named, but they were not based on founded charges of child abuse or neglect. In fact, only 48% of the children taken into state custody in 1998 were victims of child abuse or neglect.
New Mexico reported to NCCAN that 24% of the children it placed in state care were subjects of unsubstantiated complaints.
In Kansas, 41% of the children placed in foster care came from families where CPS investigators found complaints of child abuse or neglect to be unfounded. This, coupled with the fact that Kansas had the highest rate of termination of parental rights that year, could indicate a very serious problem in Kansas.
Twenty-five percent of the children placed in foster care in Wyoming came as the result of unsubstantiated complaints, state officials reported to NCCAN. An additional 1% of Wyoming children were incarcerated for “unknown” reasons.
Family advocates say that the reason states incarcerated children instead of providing the services they claim the children needed in their home has to do with money. State agencies do not receive nearly as much federal funding for family preservation as they do for foster care.
“As soon as I take a kid out of a home, I begin to earn federal money for the cost of caring for that child,” said Gary Stangler, who resigned as Director of Missouri’s Department of Social Services last month. “All of the federal incentives are in the institutional side,” Stangler told journalist Bill Moyer (Pellett, 1992).
In 1997, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). To qualify for federal funding, each state had to adopt legislation modifying its child welfare procedures to conform to ASFA’s guidelines. The new procedures place a premium on removing children from their homes and, once in foster care, accelerates substantially the time frame for severing their rights to be legally associated with their parents. ASFA provides what it literally refers to as a “bonus” for each child adopted in the state. The act continued the uncapped federal entitlements referred to by Stangler — states receive federal funds for each child held in foster care.
Family advocates claim that all the states have a powerful financial incentive to take children into custody and keep them there.
“These folks are fed by a child abuse industry to the tune of well over 12 billion dollars,” Jackson says. “Cash harvested by social workers, diagnosticians, attorneys, foster homes and group homes, to name a few. They are jumping on the abuse hysteria bandwagon like so many fleas to a dog.”
Federal funding not only encourages states to remove children from their homes, but provisions in ASFA make it far less likely that their children will ever be able to come home.
Throughout the 1990’s, children remained in foster care for an average of 2 1/2 years before being reunited with their families or put up for adoption. ASFA requires states to move to terminate parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the previous 22 months. ASFA also authorizes additional money to states that place children with foster caretakers who want to adopt them immediately upon removing them from their families. The foster caretaker then actively participates in CPS meetings where the decision is made whether to return the child to her family.
“Your baby is torn from your arms, even though you have not been accused of abusing or neglecting him,” says one parent, “and they put him in a house with strangers. They don’t even tell you where he is. You worry yourself sick over how he is being treated. You get to visit him one hour a week in a social services office while you’re involved in a custody battle with a stranger who has him 24/7.”
“That’s child abuse,” says the parent, who asked not to be identified because of his/her involvement in an active case.
In 1998, states reported to NCCAN that CPS workers removed an estimated 238,000 children, 34,000 more than the number of children that left the system that year. The foster care population has skyrocketed during the past decade. Currently, more than 550,000 children are in state custody.
Drawing from data submitted by the states, NCCAN estimated that 2,806,453 total reports of child abuse and neglect were phoned in to hotlines across the country in 1998. Thirty-four percent of those (955,186) were immediately judged unfounded and “screened out” of the investigative process. Of the 1,851,267 that were investigated, 295,169 were substantiated for physical or sexual child abuse — about 11% of the 2.8 million reports.
“Can we justify a 4.3 billion dollar budget for 295 thousand cases of abuse,” Barnes asks. “This is presuming that all the substantiated cases are actual cases of abuse, which is highly questionable.”
States reported to NCCAN that a large percentage of reports phoned into child abuse and neglect hotlines are made by social service workers themselves. Employees of social service agencies, which include the same workers who investigate the claims, make 15 percent of the reports. School teachers and administrators report 15 percent of the cases while police officers phone in 13 percent. Disgruntled neighbors family members and friends are responsible for 17 percent of the reports, NCCAN data shows. (See Chart 1)
The public is generally aware that false allegations of child abuse are often made to gain advantage in acrimous custody disputes.
All 50 states have passed legislation that requires certain professionals to report suspected child abuse and neglect. Mandated reporters face criminal penalties if they fail to report and, like other reporters, are immune from civil liability for falsely reporting innocent parents. Child welfare workers have grown accustomed to “knee jerk” reports from hypersensitive mandated reporters interested in covering themselves and these reports are given low priority in many CPS agencies. Mandated reporters made 53 percent of the reports in 1998.
While the states break down reporters by category in their reports to NCCAN, parents under investigation by state CPS agencies are never told who reported them for mistreating their children. Family advocates point out that it is impossible to defend yourself against false charges made by anonymous people who may be using CPS to pursue a vindictive personal agenda.
Barnes pledges that CPS Watch advocates will continue to probe NCCAN data and report on its ongoing investigation.
Family advocates suggest that citizens who are interested in protecting their families from governmental intrusion learn more about child welfare policy in their state. They say it is important for families who have not encountered CPS workers to be prepared. Citizens can write their Congresspersons and Senators to request they repeal the Adoption and Safe Families Act, the advocates suggested.
Child welfare experts and social workers have expressed concern over the effects of ASFA since it was passed in 1997. NCCAN’s 1998 data seems to confirm their worst suspicions.
In her commentary published in “Social Work” (March, 2000), Leslie Doty Hollingsworth warns of the ethical problems social workers face with the passage of ASFA. “Social workers should also advocate for policies that separate adoption incentives from child protection decisions and that are receptive to the well-being of children . . .”
“Because there are strong financial incentives to increase adoptions,” the professor of social work at the University of Michigan writes of ASFA, “practitioners may be compromised ethically if required to work for reunification and adoptive placement simultaneously.”
Hollingsworth objects to ASFA because the new federal law ignores systemic factors, such as poverty and single female parenthood. “Poor and single-parent families may be disadvantaged, whereas people desiring to adopt may be advantaged,” she points out.
“The comparative effects of terminating parental rights on children and their biological families are not addressed” in ASFA, Dr. Hollingsworth wrote. The law gives legal standing to strangers acting as foster caregivers to participate in court hearings and family planning meetings but denies grandparents and other relatives any standing.
ASFA allows state CPS agencies to make exceptions to making “reasonable efforts” to keep a family together. As Dr. Hollingsworth points out, CPS can avoid making any efforts to keep a child in her home “even if the health and safety of the child is not at risk” in her home.
Section 303 of ASFA requires the states to report to federal government any progress made in placing children with relatives — something that government agencies are strangely reluctant to do. Dr. Hollingsworth suggests to members of the social work profession that they abide by that ruling so that the data can be reviewed in the future.
Meanwhile, family advocates say, the child protective agencies continue to destroy families on the way to the bank.
“For every day that a parent has an open case against him or her, these agencies reap in the stipends, so there is no incentive to drop an innocent parent from the abuse registry or to finalize therapeutic intervention,” Jackson says.
“Government meddling is arbitrary and never-ending, and often ends up in termination of parental rights, yielding yet another cash windfall for Child Welfare.”
Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (P.L. 105-89). Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office.
Child Maltreatment 1998: Reports from the states to the National Clearinghouse for Child Abuse and Neglect, (2000). Washington, D.C.: US Department of Health and Human Services. US Government Printing Office.
Hollingworth, Leslie (2000). Adoption policy in the United States: A word of caution. Social Work, 45, (2), pgs. 183-185.
Pellett, Gail, Producer, “Families First.” Bill Moyer, Public Broadcasting Service. 1992: Public Affairs Television, Inc.
You can find out what information your state reported to the federal government here.
TABLES & CHARTS
Perpetrators of Maltreatment
Physical Abuse Sexual Abuse Neglect Medical Neglect Fatalities
Parents 59 13 241 12 1.5
State 160 112 410 14 6.4
Number of Cases per 100,000 Children
Children Removed from Their Homes
or Indicated Unsubstantiated In Need
of Services Closed Without
a Finding Other Unknown
Pennsylvania 38% 62%
Kansas 59% 41%
New Jersey 74% 26%
Wyoming 74% 25% 1%
New Mexico 74% 24% 2%
Ohio 51% 22% 20% 4% 2%
Connecticut 84% 16%
Virginia 84% 15%
Missouri 71% 14% 12% 3%
Washington 48% 10% 26% 16%
Illinois 89% 10% 1%
Michigan 94% 6%
Minnesota 94% 6%
Oklahoma 87% 6% 6%
Florida 89% 5% 6%
Texas 93% 1% 2% 3%
Percentage of Children Removed
Children Who Suffered
Number Rate per
Alaska 15,708 81.7 1 in 12
New York 334,094 74.2 1 in 13
Indiana 110,161 72.6 1 in 14
Missouri 97,197 69.1 1 in 14
Oklahoma 52,586 59.8 1 in 17
West Virginia 22,072 54.6 1 in 18
Idaho 18,717 53.3 1 in 18
Connecticut 41,354 52.3 1 in 19
Washington 76,569 52.0 1 in 19
Michigan 130,132 51.0 1 in 20
Rhode Island 11,920 50.1 1 in 20
Delaware 8,685 48.5 1 in 21
Maine 13,850 47.5 1 in 21
Colorado 46,514 44.7 1 in 22
Arkansas 28,371 43.4 1 in 23
New Mexico 21,479 42.6 1 in 23
Massachusetts 60,786 41.7 1 in 24
New Hampshire 12,392 41.5 1 in 24
Kansas 27,410 39.3 1 in 25
Oregon 31,521 38.2 1 in 26
Florida 125,314 35.4 1 in 28
Georgia 70,580 34.9 1 in 29
Utah 21,740 31.0 1 in 32
Texas 150,863 26.8 1 in 37
Wyoming 3,429 26.5 1 in 38
South Carolina 25,134 26.2 1 in 38
California 124,759 14.0 1 in 71
Total Children 1,683,337 39.9 1 in 25