How Child Protective Services Can Skip Due Process

On April 13, 2018, Emily Truitt, a dog groomer with a two-year old son, received a visitor at her doorstep. Responding to an accusation of neglect, an investigator with the Delaware Division of Family Services asked Truitt’s boyfriend for permission to enter their home while she was at work. This is a request millions of families receive each year, and though granting entry is not mandatory without a court order, many families—like Truitt’s—automatically comply.

Shortly after the investigator entered the home, Truitt says the investigator called to demand she leave work immediately to meet at the department’s local office. While there, Truitt, who takes methadone as part of her addiction recovery treatment, admitted to using marijuana daily for anxiety, and cocaine once in the week prior, but denied using illegal drugs in the presence of her child. After that admission, Truitt says, things went downhill fast.

“I saw she wrote I smoke around my son,” Truitt says of the safety plan her caseworker hand-wrote in pencil during their meeting. “I don’t smoke around my son…[My caseworker] said, ‘it’s the end of the day, we’re not changing it.’” (Due to confidentiality laws, the Delaware Division of Family Services declined to comment.)

Safety plans like these are widely used in the realm of child protective services investigations in an attempt to resolve perceived threats to a child’s health and safety without judicial involvement. Though informal, they are signed by both parties and are considered binding within the realm of the department. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a positive drug test (or other confirmation of a single act of drug use) is not enough to substantiate child maltreatment accusations, or to determine child placement. But because safety plans are not legal documents, local departments have discretion of how they apply those standards, so long as the parent agrees and signs the plan. It’s up to the department what happens if a family violates an agreement, but the possibility includes showing up with a police officer and a court order to remove the child.

It’s unlikely anyone will tell them that they don’t have to agree.

Truitt says she signed the safety plan because she was told the alternative was foster care. What she didn’t know was that the department would have needed to present the case to a judge before placing her son in foster care. Agreeing to a safety plan is not compulsory, nor are these plans technically binding in a legal sense. But parents, who are often pressured to appear compliant, don’t always know this. If they can’t hire an attorney on their own, it’s unlikely anyone will tell them that they don’t have to agree.

For Truitt and her family, this safety plan had devastating effects. As part of the plan, Truitt was asked to place her son in the care of a family member. She says she initially believed it was just for the weekend, but Truitt’s son ended up living with her sister for 30 days.

Because child services agencies are regulated at the state and county levels, we have no way to gauge exactly how many families are separated through these methods: The only data is voluntary and self-reported. In one class-action lawsuit related to safety plan removals, a case that began in the 1990s and covered only the state of Illinois, there were more than 150,000 plaintiffs. Child removals have only risen since that time.

In 2016, child services agencies across the United States received maltreatment complaints for more than seven million children, with close to four million of those children deemed as meeting the initial criteria for abuse, abandonment, or neglect. At least one-fifth were removed from their parents’ care. Rachel Paletta, senior associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, says that “the majority of child protective services referrals are for child neglect, so that may be inadequate housing or lack of clothing and food, and all of these things can be related to poverty…[however,] circumstances that are solely a result of poverty and not ill intent on the part of the parents should not be considered neglect or abuse.” Although it’s difficult to place an exact figure on the amount of low-income families that have child welfare involvement, there does appear to be a correlation between child removals and families who require financial assistance.

Safety plans have become the subject of legal scrutiny in recent years, but thus far, attempts to curtail their use have failed. Opponents of safety plans cite their coercive nature—it’s hard to say that a parent is truly volunteering to the terms when the other option presented is long-term separation from their children. Of course, although case workers are advised (and in some states, mandated) to inform parents like Truitt about the possibility that their children will be removed for a longer time by a judge, it’s impossible for these workers to accurately predict the outcome of a hypothetical hearing—especially since the parent could have access to legal counsel and Child Services would be forced to present evidence of maltreatment.

Although their separation was relatively short, Truitt says her family is still suffering the effects. Her son, who will be three in August, constantly screams to be held, which she says is a new behavior. He cries whenever they visit her sister, and he has developed an intense phobia of bugs. Truitt thinks this is because they told him he was staying with his aunt due to an infestation in the home. She is now “constantly paranoid” that child services will try to remove her son without warning again, even though she is actively engaged in addiction and mental health treatment.

Maia Szalavitz, a neuroscience journalist and co-author of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing, says that even short-term parental separation can have devastating lifelong consequences for children.

“Every single time a child makes a custody transition it’s an adverse childhood experience so it’s potentially traumatic. The more of these experiences you have, the greater the risk for addiction, mental illness, and physical problems like obesity,” says Szalavitz. She also notes that this goes both ways; once a child adjusts to a new custodial environment and begins bonding with his new caregivers, returning home counts as a stressor. That means that every time a child is placed into temporary out-of-home custody, he is guaranteed at least two adverse experiences. For children bouncing between homes in the foster care system, the number of adverse childhood experiences caused by child services involvement is even higher. One study found that four or more adverse childhood experiences indicated a significantly increased likelihood of physical and mental health problems later in life.

For now, Truitt is happy to be reunited with her son. In the thick of the Delaware summer, she enjoys splashing with him in the kiddie pool she has set up in her backyard. But she remains haunted by the possibility that a social worker could come by once again and, with nothing but a pencil, uproot her family like they did last April.



The Trump Administration Says Poverty Barely Exists and Measuring It Is ‘Arbitrary’

According to a recent Trump administration report, when poverty is “properly measured,” less than 3 percent of Americans are poor. If that sounds like a dramatic underestimation to you, that’s because it is—the comparable Census Bureau estimate is four times higher. That’s the difference between saying there are about 11 million people with below-poverty incomes in the United States (about the population of Georgia), or 44.8 million (roughly the combined populations of Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia).

Roughly half of the difference is because the Trump administration is measuring poverty with a federal survey that tracks household reports of spending, including spending financed by credit cards and other debt, rather than income. Luke Shaefer and Joshua Rivera at the University of Michigan have already detailed some of the problems with this approach, but in short, the measurement just doesn’t line up with any of the struggles we associate with poverty. In years when we know that more families had trouble paying for basic necessities (for example, during the Great Recession), the measurement the Trump administration used (labeled “consumption” in the chart below) shows a decline in the poverty rate. Every other measurement shows an increase.

chart of different measures of material hardship

The other half of the difference is because the administration is using a poverty line that will strike most Americans as far too low to be plausible: a mere $18,000 for a family of four in 2018. That’s $7,000 lower than the estimate used by other government entities, and about $15,000 less than the income that most Americans think a family would need to not be considered poor, according to public opinion research conducted by the conservative think tank AEI.

The public’s opinion is backed up by market data on the cost of housing and other necessities. A couple with two children will need to spend about $800 a month—$9,000 a year—to purchase the food necessary for a nutritious diet according to USDA’s “low-cost” food plan. The Trump poverty line would leave that family with $750 a month to cover the rest of their bills. If they live in Ohio, where living costs are below average compared to other states, that won’t even cover rent. Fair market rent for a three-bedroom apartment costs more than $750 a month in every Ohio county. That means this family, who the administration is arguing is barely poor, cannot afford housing, transportation, child care, utilities, student loans, clothing, or any other bills, if they also want to be able to eat.

The closest the administration comes to acknowledging the public implausibility of its poverty line is when it notes that “poverty thresholds are arbitrary.” It’s not exactly a reassuring defense. Moreover, it boggles the mind to hear the administration claim that the Trump poverty line is both “properly measured” and “arbitrary.”

To be sure, it’s impossible to pinpoint the precise amount of income needed to not live in poverty in 2018 terms. Establishing a standardized poverty line, even if we all agree on what poverty means, is always going to involve some subjectivity and discretion. But that is not the same as drawing an “arbitrary” line.

The administration is using a poverty line that will strike most Americans as far too low

At the very minimum, to properly measure what it takes to live at a dignified and minimally decent level in 2018 requires a poverty line that can be defended in terms of what it reasonably means to be poor today. Despite impressive technological advancements, a family of four still can’t take their $18,000 and travel back in time to live in 1960s.

Policy makers have long recognized this and adjusted eligibility thresholds for a number of income-tested services and benefits to keep pace with common sense. For example, a married couple with two children is eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) until their income is over $50,000. In most states, the upper income eligibility limit for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) reaches a similar level.

More likely than not, the Trump poverty line isn’t arbitrary at all. The administration and their right-wing allies are very determined to cut and impose punitive restrictions on pretty much every public service and benefit that goes to working-class and middle-class people based on their incomes. Artificially lowering the poverty line would help them do that—in effect, it’s an attempt to change the conversation. Instead of a continued focus on material hardship and the economy, the administration wants us to think that bad people on “welfare” are the real problem. Trump has explicitly said as much in discussions around benefits, describing people who receive them as lazy and having ”no intention of working at all,” yet “making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his and her ass off.”

And so, Trump’s argument goes, the issue isn’t poverty—that doesn’t exist. The issue is fictional freeloaders, and cuts to Medicaid and SNAP are the punishment they deserve.



Kavanaugh Thinks It’s Okay to Perform Elective Surgery on People Without Their Consent

Right now, Congress is in a deadlock over Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Senators are reviewing more than 1 million pages of his legal writing—which have laid out his stance on women’s reproductive rights (opposed), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (opposed), and the Affordable Care Act (opposed)—and members are battling over access to additional documentation that could reveal past experience with torture and wiretapping. While many of Kavanaugh’s opinions have been controversial—in particular his dissent from a decision that allowed an immigrant woman to have an abortion—one of his most problematic rulings has gone unreported.   As a Judge in D.C. Circuit Court, Kavanaugh argued that people with disabilities could be forced to undergo elective surgeries, including abortion, without their consent.

In 2001, three intellectually disabled D.C. residents brought suit against the city in Doe ex rel. Tarlow v. D.C, after they were subjected to at least three involuntary procedures: two abortions and one elective eye surgery. Ultimately, the district court agreed that these women’s due process rights had been violated and that “constitutionally adequate procedures” had not been followed. The District Court ruled for the plaintiffs and held that D.C.  must make “documented reasonable efforts to communicate” with patients and if unsuccessful, the government had to take into account the “totality of circumstances” before proceeding to ensure any decision is in the best interest of the patient. This decision codified patients’ right to self-determination, and struck down the practice of elective surgeries without consent from the patients at stake.

The lifetime pass Kavanaugh seems to be arguing for does not exist.

On appeal, Judge Kavanaugh vacated the District Court’s injunction, arguing that “accepting the wishes of patients who lack, and have always lacked the mental capacity to make medical decisions does not make logical sense.” That stands in contrast to even the most conservative interpretations of the laws that existed at the time, which required two separate health professionals to determine whether a patient had the capacity to make medical decisions before every procedure. The lifetime pass Kavanaugh seems to be arguing for, which would allow doctors to perform any procedures they wanted on a person who was once ruled unfit, does not exist.

One hundred years ago, Kavanaugh’s ruling would have been at home on the Supreme Court. In the 1920’s, in the famous 8-1 ruling of Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court found a Virginia statute that allowed for the sexual sterilization of a third generation, “feebleminded” women was constitutional because “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

For context, when the Supreme Court made that ruling, John Scopes had recently been put on trial for teaching evolution in public schools. Penicillin hadn’t been invented. It was still illegal in most states to marry someone of a different race. There was no such thing as a chocolate chip cookie, Scotch tape, or the Golden Gate Bridge. We didn’t know Pluto existed.

The 57 million Americans with disabilities are bracing themselves

We’ve made progress since then. Twenty-eight years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act granted people with disabilities access to society. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act expanded the right to an education 43 years ago, and the Olmstead v. L.C. decision gave disabled people the right to live in their communities 19 years ago. All that will be meaningless the moment Kavanaugh is given a seat on the Supreme Court that allows him to rule that disabled Americans are not capable of deciding what’s best for them. It’s not hard to imagine that happening. He could rule that it’s okay for teachers to use seclusion and restraint because they know what’s best for the treatment of disabled children in school. He could say that community living isn’t the best option for someone successfully living in a home of their own because that’s what the nursing home lobby says.

As both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate gear up for what is likely to be a long hearing process, the 57 million Americans with disabilities are bracing themselves for the negative consequences of Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment. If that happens, the disability community’s history of activism in all forms—from their work to preserve the ACA, to fighting to end the use of electric shock therapy on children, to pushing for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work—shows that when it’s most needed, the moral arc of the universe can be bent into a ramp to achieve justice.


First Person

Watching Tucker Carlson Eats At My Soul. Here’s Why I Do It Anyway.

I watch Tucker Carlson’s show every night. I actually watch at least three hours of Fox News programming each evening, but Tucker Carlson Tonight is the network’s primetime anchor: He’s on five days per week, at 8 p.m.—the slot Bill O’Reilly held until the news of his sexual harassment settlements forced him out. I’ve been doing this every night for more than a year, but I still find Carlson’s opening jarring: As soon as I hear it, my shoulders tense, I roll my eyes, and sigh. Sometimes during commercial breaks, I lie on the floor.

Unlike the 2.9 million people who choose to watch Fox News prime time, I do this as part of my job. When friends and family ask me about it, I usually just say, “I work in media” and hope that’s a satisfactory answer. What I actually do is track right-wing media and fringe outlets to hold bad actors accountable for their actions, whether it’s Sean Hannity’s conspiracy theories, Lou Dobbs’ insistence that Trump’s critics should be jailed, or Laura Ingraham’s campaign against immigrant children.

For a country that still relies on television for its news, this has always been important work. But it’s gotten more important now, since the president is Fox News’ most important and vocal fan. Trump reportedly forgoes daily intelligence briefings in favor of watching Fox and frequently tweets quotes from guests and hosts on the network. My colleague Matt Gertz has documented how the information feedback loop between Trump and Fox News has influenced immigration policy, generated presidential pardons, and launched daily attacks aimed at discrediting Robert Mueller’s probe into connections between the Trump campaign and Russian propaganda.

That would be terrifying enough if Trump was the only one watching, but he’s definitely not alone. Fox News is still the highest-viewed news network in the country, which means the stories it focuses on and the language it uses to report them holds a tremendous amount of sway. And more often than not, that sway is used to shame the poor and scapegoat immigrants.

This is where Tucker Carlson really shines. His bread and butter is pitting white working-class folks against immigrants (or, more accurately, his idea of white working class folks against his idea of immigrants). On the evening of Trump’s first State of the Union, he attacked Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan’s choice to host an empty chair as his guest to represent a Youngstown businessman who had been deported after 39 years in the U.S. In an interview with Ryan, Carlson dismissed concerns about deportations and suggested that Ryan’s concern for immigrants is at odds with addressing issues facing rural white communities. In another incident, he blamed immigrants for lowering the U.S. birth rate (to support this, Carlson incorrectly claimed that immigration is depressing wages among men, therefore decreasing “the attractiveness of men as potential spouses thus reducing fertility”). He’s also made the argument that DACA distracted congress from addressing unemployment and opioid overdoses, and claimed that Mexico in its entirety is a “dangerous country filled with violent people.”

This is how Trump garners support for dangerous policies

This fits into Carlson’s larger pattern that portrays white men as more deserving of aid than women, immigrants, and people of color. During Women’s History Month in March, Carlson ran a weekly series on “Men in America.” In the series’ first installment, he claimed the “so-called wage gap” not only doesn’t exist, but in many cases “may invert.” When HBO’s Insecure creator Issa Rae said she was “rooting for everybody black” at the 2017 Emmy awards, Carlson said her comments amounted to “race hostility” and “political indoctrination.” He repeats seemingly every night that diversity is an attack on white Americans and an attempt to “radically and permanently” change America.

This rhetoric is not a huge leap from a mob of white men chanting “you will not replace us” in Charlottesville last summer. In fact, white nationalists are big fans of Tucker Carlson. Richard Spencer described him as a “much better figure” than Bill O’Reilly because Carlson possesses “open-mindedness” towards white supremacist causes. Former grand wizard of the KKK David Duke has called Carlson a “hero” and “an influential voice,” and Carlson and his guests have repeatedly defended and promoted white nationalists on the show.

Honestly, watching this vitriol every day is exhausting. I deliberately unplug when I can, to clear out all of the racist hate that comes out of the television every night at work. It builds up in my brain, and unless I take care to let it go and not take it too personally, I drift towards hopelessness. But as tempting as it is to shut it out entirely, I still think it’s important to see it. Fox News reaches a tremendous audience—Tucker Carlson came in 3rd in cable news ratings in the second quarter of 2018, and Sean Hannity came in first. (Rachel Maddow finished second). The millions of people who tune into Fox News primetime are exposed to a divide and conquer narrative that capitalizes on stereotypes, spins every negative story about Trump, and often fails to even mention the news of the day that the rest of the media is covering.

To be completely clear, this is how Trump garners support for dangerous policies that he wouldn’t be able to pass otherwise. Polling shows 75 percent of Americans say immigration is good for the country, but when family separation started Tucker Carlson fearmongered about “demographic replacement” to stoke racial animus, and then Laura Ingraham downplays horrific policies by describing child detention centers as “essentially summer camps.” And despite the fact that 7 in 10 Americans support Roe v. Wade, Fox News (and Carlson in particular) focus their coverage of reproductive health care on campaigns against it. That level of coordinated cruelty from public figures makes it possible for Americans to set their own beliefs aside. Unless progressives are familiar with the ways the right-wing media machine pushes misinformation and racism, we won’t actually be able to fight back.



The Rollback of EPA Clean Car Standards Will Cost You At Least $500 A Year

This morning, the Trump administration proposed rolling back the clean car standards, Obama-era regulations that require new cars for model years 2017-2025 to average more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. In addition to the environmental impact that has already been reported by the New York Times and the Washington Post—which could be massive, since cars and trucks account for 45 percent of U.S. oil consumption and 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—this rollback will be expensive for the American public.

Today’s announcement, published in the Wall Street Journal by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Acting Administrator of the E.P.A. Andrew Wheeler, is part of a plan that was set in motion by Wheeler’s predecessor, Scott Pruitt. In just over a year as head of the E.P.A., Pruitt managed to roll back, reconsider, delay, or otherwise tinker with more than 14 safeguards that protect everything from the air we breathe to the water we drink. In total, taking away all of these protections will cost Americans  upwards of $260 billion annually in climate, health, and fuel impacts—that’s $2,000 in costs annually for every American household.

Here’s how the cost breaks down specifically for today’s clean cars rollback announcement:

The average American family will pay an additional $500 per year in fuel costs.

The current rules require automakers to nearly double the fuel economy of passenger vehicles by 2025. But with today’s announcement, the standards will be frozen at 2020 levels—meaning that fuel economy for new cars will stay lower, and Americans will be stuck with cars that consume more gasoline.

That increased cost to individuals will in turn cost the U.S. economy more than $450 billion over the next thirty years. Each family’s increased fuel expenses are ultimately withheld from the economy, and will grow with each year the standards are not in place and fuel savings are relinquished.

If the existing standards were left in place, Americans would have saved $1.7 trillion on fuel. Owners of model year 2025 cars were likely to see a personal savings of $2,800 over the lifetime of their vehicles compared to 2020 vehicles. For light trucks, owners would save $4,500.

The country will take on another $5.5-$7.9 billion in additional costs from worsening air pollution.

Already, 25 million Americans, including 6 million children, suffer from asthma; that’s around $81 billion annually in medical costs and lost work and school days nationwide. With a rollback of these standards, Americans would be stuck with the bill for an additional $5.5-7.9 billion each year in health and climate impacts. Those impacts can be anything from additional medical costs associated with bad air quality (treating asthma and purchasing inhalers), to costs associated with climate change (such as damage from extreme weather).

The country will also lose about 60,000 jobs.

According to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the United States could lose 60,000 jobs in 2025 as we turn over leadership on efficiency technology to other countries like China. With the clean car standards in place, the economy was projected to add nearly 100,000 jobs by 2025.

The great irony here is that the administration claims that the regulation would “impose significant costs on American consumers and eliminate jobs.” But basic math says the plan to roll it back will hurt a whole lot more.