Child Abuse Fatalities Commission Staggers to a Close

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richard wexlerDuring a congressional hearing in 2011, Michael Petit, who then ran an organization called Every Child Matters, was asked which states do the best job protecting children. His answer: those that have “smaller, whiter populations.”

Today, Petit is the driving force behind the so-called Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, a federal commission that seems to view part of its job as squelching any discussion of the pervasive racial bias in child welfare.

At least that’s how it sounded as the commission deliberations stumbled and bumbled to a close last month. The commission’s final report is scheduled to be released this morning.

The commission spent two years and millions of dollars, churning out blog posts so empty of substance they could be turned into Mad Libs, and drawing conclusions not on scholarship but on a steady diet of newspaper horror stories (listen to commission conference calls or read transcripts and you’ll hear the constant references to those stories). Then the commission nearly ran out of time without managing to draft a final report or hold in-person meetings to vote on recommendations.

So they held two marathon conference calls — each more than four hours long — and voted on recommendations which, in some cases, they’d seen only minutes before.

Exactly what those recommendations are remains unclear. After NCCPR exposed the absurdity of recommendations in early drafts in a series of blog posts and released a full “pre-buttal,” the commission reacted not by improving its work, but by hiding later drafts — a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of federal open meetings laws.

So while the public could listen to the conference calls, the documents the commission was discussing remained secret.

Even after the conference calls, they weren’t done. Staff had to rewrite the drafts and the final report was voted on by email. It’s not clear if the public even will know how commissioners voted on specific recommendations.

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It was only during these last-minute conference calls that the commission got around to discussing issues of race — in particular the special problems in Native American child welfare and the issue of racial bias in the system.

Illinois’ Cook County Judge Patricia Martin, the presiding judge of the Circuit Court’s Child Protection Division, and one of only two African-American members of the commission (the other is the chair, David Sanders), led the effort to get the commission to address these issues. But she didn’t seem to get very far.

What I heard on those conference calls was the voting down of one recommendation after another. I’m not saying all the recommendations were good — it’s hard to know without actually seeing them, and, from what I could gather, I disagree with at least one of them myself – but it sounds as though those chapters of the report were pretty well eviscerated.

Worse was the way it was done. Judge Martin was in transit during much of the time the discussion of racial bias recommendations took place during the conference call. She would call in from an airport, then have to get off the call, then call in again from a taxi.  She did everything she could to be a part of the process.

But the commission did nothing to accommodate her. On the contrary, several times I heard commissioners ask if Martin was on the phone so she could answer a question. When she wasn’t there, in a display of disrespect bordering on contempt, they proceeded to vote the recommendations down anyway, one after another after another.

Sanders might argue that there was no choice; they were on a tight deadline. But that’s only because of the chaos that characterized the commission’s work as they raced to get the final report to the printer.

The commission was chaotic, angry, dysfunctional and secretive. And it made decisions based on newspaper horror stories. In other words, the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities didn’t study the child welfare system, it recreated the child welfare system.

Between the lack of rigor, the lack of organization and the lack of respect shown to a colleague who dared suggest that the commission face squarely the issue of race, when the final cobbled-together report turns up this week, it deserves to be treated with exactly as much respect as many of the other commissioners showed to Judge Martin.

(This column was written before Judge Patricia Martin, whose work on the commission is discussed below, issued her own scathing dissent from its final report.)

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

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