It’s family regulation, not computer glitch | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

Stephanie ‘Stevie’ Glaberson

In August, the Arizona Department of Child Safety announced that for two years, courts relied on a flawed computer system in as many as 3,800 cases to make decisions about whether Arizona should take children away from their parents. As a result, records loaded into the court’s file-management system were erroneously hidden from the court’s and parties’ view. This is not just a story about a data glitch. It’s a revealing story about the surveillance tentacles of the state’s “child welfare” system, the pervasive failure of the system to listen to the people it targets, and the ways adding a layer of technology magnifies the system’s harms.

First, let’s talk about what exactly the court was doing here. The starkest cases are the approximately 140 families where parents’ rights were terminated, permanently severing all legal ties between a child and their parents. Each year, tens of thousands of families are destroyed this way, on the misguided belief that doing so is best for children. While ensuring children can thrive in stable homes is a worthy aim, the evidence shows that cutting children off from their birth families undermines that goal. Nevertheless, the system grinds on, performing this “civil death penalty” again and again.

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Marshneil Lal

Marshneil Lal

More than 3,600 other affected families were experiencing the quotidian violence of what advocates now call the “family regulation” system, in which state officials monitor and sometimes separate families. In Arizona in recent years, more than 90% of children in this system were there based on allegations of parental neglect, not abuse. Neglect is a vague term that often is more revealing of communities’ unmet basic needs than parental misdeeds.

This system relies on a particular form of intense surveillance, which is clearly on display here. Reports indicate that many of the hidden records included reports from medical and mental health providers. These reports might have documented a parent’s engagement in an evaluation or in therapy, given progress reports, or shown completion of a demanded service.

Research is clear that treating relationships like these require trust. Yet targeted parents lose the privacy that is fundamental to that trust. In its place, parents get documentation and court reports.

But when those reports are missing, as here, it can be a big problem because of the lack of credibility the system affords targeted families. Simply by having an allegation made, parents often lose the ability to have their word counted without corroboration from some more-trusted source. And so this “glitch” might have resulted in judges disbelieving testifying parents if a report backing up the parent’s testimony was missing from the records.

Finally, this story illustrates clearly how layering on technology can magnify a system’s harm. Technology is fallible. But system actors tend to trust it implicitly — again, often over the word of the living, breathing humans appearing before them. When it fails, those failures can be harder to spot, go undetected for longer, and spread harm more widely. And because technology is often deployed first on the most vulnerable among us, those failures harm the very people who need protection most.

Despite this episode, Arizona’s “child welfare” machine grinds on. As it does, Arizonans should recognize that this was no mere computer glitch. It was a symptom of the ways the system works, by design, every day.

Follow these steps to easily submit a letter to the editor or guest opinion to the Arizona Daily Star.

Marshneil Lal is a licensed clinical social worker based in Phoenix. She formerly worked for the Department of Child Safety.

Stephanie K. Glaberson is the Director of Research & Advocacy at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology. She previously represented parents subject to state regulation of their families in Brooklyn, N.Y.


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