“Policy Brief” Touting Foster Care Shows Trump Has No Monopoly on “Alternative Facts”

When White House advisor Kellyanne Conway tried to explain away false claims made by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, she branded those claims “alternative facts.” To which Chuck Todd, who was interviewing Conway on Meet the Press, replied: “Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.”

But the Trump Administration has no monopoly on this Orwellian approach to truth.  It’s been a staple of hype and hysteria about child abuse for decades.

So this seems like a good time to bestow the first – drum roll, please:

Sean Spicer / Kellyanne Conway Award for Most Creative Use of “Alternative Facts” in Child Welfare

And the winner is: The group that calls itself California Advocates for Change for “Are There Too Many Children in Foster Care?,” a “policy brief” sure to become a classic in the alternative facts genre.

The brief states that “There is no data indicating that the prevalence of child abuse has decreased.” That is a classic “alternative fact,” since it is simply not true.

  • The federal government’s annual Child Maltreatment reports have measured the rate of alleged child abuse and neglect since 1990. The rate of child maltreatment peaked in 1993. It has declined almost every year since. It rose slightly in 2014 and 2015 but it is still 40 percent below the 1993 peak.

The federal government’s most recent National Incidence Study, which seeks to

Kellyanne Conway. Photo by Gage Skidmore

go beyond officially reported cases to estimate the actual prevalence of child abuse and neglect, found a dramatic decrease in child abuse compared with the three previous NIS studies.

It’s fine to argue about the validity of these studies – or any others. But to deny their very existence, by claiming that there are no data indicating child abuse is declining, is an “alternative fact” – a falsehood.

The brief deserves other awards as well.  So I am pleased to hereby confer upon it:

The Golden Fruit Basket Award …

for comparing apples to oranges.

Right after falsely claiming there are no data showing child abuse has declined, the report says:

“On the contrary, recent studies suggest that annual rates of confirmed maltreatment understate the cumulative number of children confirmed to be maltreated during childhood.”

But, as I’ve noted before, saying that more children are abused over the course of 18 years than over the course of one is not exactly shocking. And it does not mean that child abuse is increasing.

The use of the term “confirmed” also is misleading. It means only that a caseworker checked a box on a form indicating her or his belief that it is at least slightly more likely than not that maltreatment took place. Sometimes it means even less.

The authors of the “policy brief” do cite Child Maltreatment reports when it suits them, while ignoring more reliable data. The brief argues that “only” 21 percent of “substantiated” cases of alleged maltreatment lead to foster care. This is based on a Child Maltreatment 2014 report estimate of 702,000 such children (since revised downward to under 684,000, by the way), of whom 147,762 were said to have entered foster care.

But the Child Maltreatment reports are based on a voluntary survey of states. The mandatory, and more reliable, AFCARS database reports 264,746 entries into foster care in 2014; that would be at least 35 percent of cases workers claim are “substantiated.”

But the key question is not what percentage of children are in foster care, but what percentage should be. States such as Illinois and Alabama have improved child safety by emphasizing family preservation, reducing entries to well below the national average. This shows that the national average is way too high, and there’s plenty of room to further reduce entries into foster care.

The Silver Straw Award …

…for ignoring the mountain of research on the harm of foster care while grasping at a single straw: one study that, taken out of context, allegedly suggests otherwise.

The research literature is filled with studies documenting the rotten outcomes for foster children. There’s this one. And this one. And, as always, the two great big studies that directly compare outcomes in typical cases for foster children and children left in their own homes (and a third, smaller study that reached the same conclusion).

So what do the “California Advocates” do? They find one study from one state which does not even contradict those dismal findings. Rather that one study, the CalYOUTH study, questions children while they’re still in foster care and finds that 57 percent said they felt “lucky” to be there.

I’ve previously discussed, in detail, the problems with the CalYOUTH study in general and this figure in particular. But for starters: The foster children haven’t yet experienced what it’s like to face adult life after foster care.

And while some undoubtedly are lucky to be in foster care, and really feel that way, it may be hard to speak candidly knowing that after the interview, you have to go back to the same foster home or institution.

More important, the California Advocates brief uses the same CalYOUTH study to claim that foster children are taken only in cases of the most severe, most horrifying abuse. If that’s true, then 43 percent of foster children are saying, in effect, that foster care is as bad or worse than severe, horrifying abuse. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of foster care. (In fact, as is discussed in more detail here, a close look at the full CalYOUTH definitions does not support the claim about most children being taken because of severe abuse.)

The La-La-Land is the Center of the Universe Award

The brief claims that Los Angeles County was “one of the most aggressive in reducing caseloads …” but that now those caseloads are increasing. Therefore, it is argued, if Los Angeles can’t further reduce foster care, no place can.

This is misleading on several counts.

Los Angeles caseloads declined because they were so outrageously high to begin with. Even now, after all that caseload reduction, Los Angeles tears apart families at a rate well above the average for America’s biggest cities and their surrounding counties – and triple the rate of Chicago, where as noted earlier, independent monitors have found that the state-run system improved child safety while emphasizing family preservation.

Foster care is going up again in Los Angeles because of years of mediocre leadership and political interference by the Board of Supervisors. The experience of Chicago and other cities shows that L.A. and most of the rest of the country still can save thousands more children from the harm of needless foster care.

The Stephen Colbert Truthiness Medal

… for taking numbers out of context.

Stephen Colbert

When you define neglect as lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter, there is a good chance that child welfare systems will confuse poverty with “neglect.”

To divert our attention from this, the brief offers up a scare number: “42 to 45 percent of child fatalities are caused by neglect alone.” That would be up to 751 fatalities, according to the just-released Child Maltreatment 2015.

But according to that same report, 514,299 children were “substantiated” victims of neglect. In other words, 99.85 percent of allegedly neglectful parents did not kill their children in 2015. So the figure the brief pulls out of context tells us nothing about whether we really need to put those 500,000-plus other children into foster care.

And finally…

The George Orwell Achievement Award

George Orwell

… for abasing the English language. Who could be more deserving than a group that demands we maintain the system of substitute care essentially as it has been for well over a century, rejects any real reform, but calls itself “California Advocates for Change”?

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).