A new book by two leading child welfare researchers aims to elucidate the complex world of child welfare for the general public and policymakers. In After the Cradle Falls, Melissa Jonson-Reid and Brett Drake of Washington University provide a useful primer for the child welfare field. While they may be overly optimistic in assuming that a lay audience will pick up this book, it will certainly be useful for policymakers, journalists, students and advocates who want a general overview of child abuse and neglect, child welfare systems, and proposals for change.
Jonson-Reid and Drake make a particularly valuable contribution by highlighting myths and common misconceptions that are rife in the child welfare field. Among the common myths they debunk are the following:
- “Neglect” is just another word for poverty, and parents become embroiled with Child Protective Services just because they are poor. Johnson-Reid and Blake explain that while poverty increases the risk of neglect, most parents who are poor do not neglect their children. Neglect is much more serious than a missed dental appointment or a messy house. Some neglect cases are extremely severe, even fatal. But even less severe cases can result in devastating lifetime consequences on brain development and the ability to form relationships.
- Racial disproportionality in child welfare involvement is caused by racist decision-making by Child Protective Services (CPS). There is no dispute that African-American children are overrepresented in child welfare services and foster care compared to their share of the population. But Jonson-Reid and Drake conclude that “it is hard to find current empirical data that suggest that widespread bias within today’s CPS system is a significant driver of current disproportionality.” It would have helped if they had included the key research finding that actually debunked the myth about racism and disproportionality. As I have explained elsewhere, research has conclusively shown that higher Black representation in the child welfare system reflects higher rates of maltreatment in African-American families. This Black/White maltreatment gap may in turn reflect the relationship between race and poverty, as Jonson-Reid and Drake suggest.
- State and local agencies have an incentive to take more kids into foster care. This trope was mentioned over and over again by supporters of the Family First and Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), which was signed into law on February 9, 2018. Jonson-Reid and Drake rightly give it short shrift. They explain that states are required to make “reasonable efforts” to keep children with their families and can be sanctioned by the federal government if they fail to document that they have made such efforts. The authors could have cited some other key evidence against this myth. For example, only about half of children in foster care are eligible for federal foster care support under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act and the federal government pays only part (50 to 83% depending on the state) of the cost. States and localities spent about $8 billion on foster care in FY 2014, 47% of their total child welfare spending, so it is hard to understand how they could have an incentive to place children in foster care. Moreover, states have access to other federal funds for services to intact families, such as TANF, Title IV-B, and the Social Services Block Grant.
- Child welfare systems should prevent abuse and neglect. As the authors point out, child welfare systems (which they refer to as CPS, a term that I prefer to reserve for the investigation function only) have no truly preventative role. They are charged with responding to abuse and neglect after they have already occurred. This common misconception is particularly important in relation to the recent debate on FFPSA. Despite its name, the Act does not fund prevention; rather it funds treatment, or services to parents who have already maltreated their children. Obscuring the distinction between prevention and treatment prevents an honest and clear-headed debate about the appropriate allocation of resources between these purposes.
- Child welfare is a broken system: Jonson-Reid and Drake argue that rather than being broken, the child welfare system has never been completed. They compare it to a fire department that will will send out a fire truck only 60% of the time, and often after the house has been consumed by flames. When a truck does respond, the firefighters may have minimal training in firefighting. A firefighter might show up without a truck and will have to wait until a truck with water is found. An injured person, instead of being taken into a hospital, may be placed in the home of someone who has no idea what treatment they need.
- Child welfare can be fixed in a cost-neutral manner. Jonson-Reid and Drake point out that reform efforts (such as privatization or differential response) have often aimed to do more with less or the same amount of resources and have thus either done harm or failed to make a difference. They argue that any real improvement would raise costs but but could result in big long-run savings. They point out that we spend only $30 billion a year on child welfare when the long-term costs of child maltreatment have been estimated at $250 to $500 billion for each year’s cohort of victims.
The last myth is particularly poignant in view of the recent passage of FFPSA. It expands the use of federal Title IV-E funds to services to parents at risk of losing their children to foster care. But it finances some of this new spending by taking money from other key functions of child welfare. like congregate care placements (necessary both for therapeutic reasons and to make up for the foster parent shortage), and foster care payments to kin, who will now not be allowed these payments if the parent is receiving federally-funded services.
Jonson-Reid and Drake end with an extensive list of suggestions for changing programming, policy and law. These include primary (or universal) prevention such as poverty reduction and educating parents about positive parenting, systemic improvements to child welfare (such as completing the system), and improving and expanding treatment for children and families. The list is somewhat overwhelming, but gives policymakers and advocates many options for where to start addressing this massive and complex problem.
After the Cradle Falls is a realistic and informed discussion of child welfare. It will be a useful resource to those who are open minded enough to accept the conclusions of science and common sense even when they conflict with the facile platitudes of ideologues, which have all too often had a disproportionate influence on policy and practice.