“Upending child welfare” means devaluing Black children’s lives

Image; University of Houston/Center for study of Social Policy

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police, expressions of outrage from around the country and calls for police reform were soon followed by calls for completely abolishing police forces. It did not take long before a chorus of cries were launched to eliminate child welfare as we know it as well. Child welfare was described as yet another system that controls and punishes people of color. Yet, these calls disregard the suffering of Black children who are abused and neglected; it also ignores the evidence on the reasons for Black families’ high level of involvement in child welfare.

The call for the abolition of child welfare did not come out of the blue after George Floyd’s death. It is the direct descendant of a movement that began around 2004, when a coalition of foundations, nonprofits, and academics formed around the idea that the “disproportionate” representation of Black children in child welfare stemmed from a racist system.[1] This coalition launched a well-funded campaign to reduce the representation of black children in child welfare and especially foster care. They issued reports, held conferences, and provided training and technical assistance to help states analyze their disproportionality problems. The movement seemed to run out of steam afternew research (described below) debunked their major thesis, but it regained strength in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and came roaring to the forefront after George Floyd’s killing.

One of the leaders in the earlier coalition, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, has joined with the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston to launch a movement entitled upEND, with the aim of ending child welfare as we know it. Several representatives of upEND have published an article in the Journal of Public Child Welfare which attempts to explain their thesis. The upEND argument relies on two assertions: that the high rate of Black child and family representation in the child welfare system is due to racism within the system, and that this high rate of representation harms Black children and families. Unfortunately, these assertions are largely wrong, as I explain below.

ASSERTION ONE: The difference in Black vs. white involvement in the child welfare system are due to a racist child welfare system.[2]

There is no disagreement about the truth of upEND’s statement that Black children and families are more likely to be involved in child welfare than White children and families. In its article, upEND cites studies concluding that Black children are more likely to be reported to child abuse hotlines, more likely to be investigated, more likely to be found to be maltreated, and more likely to be placed in foster care. The ultimate result is that of this chain of disparities at each phase of the child welfare pathway is that in 2018, black children represented 14% of the total child population but 23% of all kids in foster care.

However, the real controversy (although buried in the upEND article) is about the reasons for this disparity. Is it due to a racist child welfare system, as upEND and its allies posit, or due to a difference in the underlying rate of child abuse and neglect among Black versus White families? Data suggest it is the latter. Of course, it is difficult to measure child maltreatment, which makes this question hard to answer. Although the U.S. Children’s Bureau collects annual data on official reports of child maltreatment and agency dispositions of these reports, these numbers leave out unreported maltreatment and may reflect erroneous determinations by investigators. To provide a better estimate, the Bureau periodically conducts National Incidence Studies (NIS) of child abuse and neglect. These studies are designed to estimate more accurately the incidence of child maltreatment in the United States by using community professionals to report on the actual cases of maltreatment that they have seen during the reporting period.

According to the most recent national incidence study, NIS-4, conducted in 2010 on data collected in a year spanning 2005 and 2006, Black children were almost twice as likely to be abused or neglected as white children. It estimated that 24.0 of every 1,000 black children experienced maltreatment severe enough to cause harm in the study year as compared to 12.6 per 1,000 white children.[3] There is other research evidence that Black and White maltreatment rates differ, including studies finding that black children have higher rates of preventable injury deaths; and “evidence that other predictors or markers of maltreatment are higher for black children, including maternal arrest rates, traumatic brain injury rates, parent self-reported maltreatment rates, intentional injury rates, and homicide rates.” A study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2017 concluded that the child abuse fatality rate for children aged four and under was 8.0 per 100,000 African-American children, compared with 2.7 per 100,000 white children.

A conference convened in 2011 by Harvard, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the National Court Appointed Special Advocates, brought together leading scholars on child welfare and race from around the country. A research brief summarizing the conference concluded that “there is a significant black/white maltreatment gap, one that roughly parallels the gap in official maltreatment reports. This evidence contradicts the belief that black children are included at high rates in the child welfare system because of bias.” One speaker noted that “African American children are at least as likely to be underserved as overserved” by current child removal rates. The authors of the brief suggested that the higher rate of maltreatment of Black children stems from the history of slavery and racism, which led to higher poverty and concentration in impoverished neighborhoods characterized by crime, substance abuse, unemployment, and limited community services. As Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School put it, “given the history of race and racism, given the deplorable conditions suffered disproportionately by black families—conditions that produce high rates of substance abuse and other self-destructive behavior—it would be surprising if black children did not have higher rates of contact with the child welfare system than white children.”

In her important book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America, Stacey Patton has added to this narrative by linking the legacy of slavery to current patterns of discipline by Black parents. Introduced to whipping by White slaveholders, Black parents adopted a similar practice to train their children to be docile workers and avoid worse punishments from their masters. Even today, Patton contends, some Black parents justify “whupping” their children as the only way to prevent them from being shot or locked up.

In other words, there is a strong argument that disproportionality is rooted in racism. But It’s not a racist child welfare system that results in disproportional representation of black children in the child welfare system. Rather, it is the our country’s history of slavery and continuing oppression of our Black citizens that has created the difference in child maltreatment which in turn resulted in disproportional representation of Black and White children in child welfare.

ASSERTION TWO: The disparity between Black and White representation in child welfare systems causes “pervasive and persistent harm” to Black children and families. 

The next pillar of upEND’s argument is that differences in child welfare involvement cause harm to Black children and families. The authors emphasize the placement of Black children in foster care, stating that “the act of forcible separation of children from their parents is the source of significant and lifelong trauma.” It is first worth noting that most children involved with child welfare are not separated from their families. Nationally, more children receive in-home services than are removed to foster care.[3] Moreover, it is not always clear that separation from parents is traumatic for a child. A child’s reaction to placement depends on the child’s age, the quality of the attachment with the parent, the type of environment from which the child is removed, and the way the placement is handled, according to Vera Fahlberg’s authoritative book, A Child’s Journey through Placement. A child who has been emotionally neglected and has no connection to the parent may have “almost no reaction” to the placement, Fahlberg points out. Moreover “if a child is actually fearful of his living environment, he may not react as adversely to the separation. Indeed, relief is occasionally observed.” And even if the child is traumatized by separation from abusive or neglectful parents, that child may still benefit from being removed from that environment.

There is an extensive literature on the harmful and often lifelong consequences of abuse and neglect. These can include impaired brain development, health problems; diminished executive functioning and cognitive skills; poor mental and emotional health; attachment disorders and social difficulties; post traumatic stress; unhealthy sexual practices; juvenile delinquency; alcohol and other drug use; and intergenerational transmission of maltreatment, as described in an issue brief from the Children’s Bureau. The specific outcomes for each child depend on “the child’s age and developmental status at the time of maltreatment, the type, frequency, duration, and severity of the maltreatment, and the relationship between the child and the perpetrator,” according to the Bureau.

Advocates of upending child welfare often point out that most children are removed for neglect rather than abuse, and they suggest that neglect is synonymous with poverty. But the actual prevalence of neglect versus abuse is unknown. One must remember that there may be several types of abuse and neglect in one family but the investigator may not be able to substantiate all of them. There may very well be abuse in a family where only neglect was substantiated. Moreover, the kind of neglect that leads to child welfare involvement is often serious or chronic and is not at all synonymous with poverty. Chronic neglect can lead to serious cognitive and social difficulties, chronic disease, and difficulties in emotion regulation similar to the effects of trauma, as discussed in another brief from the Children’s Bureau. Moreover, chronic neglect often “opens the door” for physical or sexual abuse by a mother’s male partner.

Even though child maltreatment can cause lifetime harm to its victims, one might still believe with upEND that the treatment (child welfare services) is worse than the disease, at least for Black children. To address this contention, Richard Barth and other well-known child welfare scholars recently published a review of the literature entitled Outcomes following child welfare services: what are they and do they differ for Black children? They reviewed more than 50 rigorous studies of outcomes following a child welfare intervention and found “very little reason to believe that children’s outcomes are worsened by participation in child welfare services.” They noted that the vast majority of children received short-term services, with only a fraction placed in foster care. Based on their analysis, they found that child welfare in general results in improved outcomes in the areas of safety and education for both White and Black children and generally neutral effects on health, mental health and behavioral outcomes. Moreover, they concluded that child welfare may protect Black children in particular against some future harms as early death, transitions to juvenile services (for girls), and early childbearing.  The authors found no evidence that Black children are doing worse than other children as a consequence of system involvement. Perhaps most important, the researchers found that Black parents and youth, like their White peers, are generally positive about their experience with child welfare. (Most interesting were the two surveys of 21-year-olds that found about two-thirds saying that they were lucky to have been placed in foster care.)

It is very sad that the measurable benefits of child welfare on children’s outcomes are so modest. This may be a consequence of the poor quality of services that are generally provided to many children and their parents. Far from the intensive parenting and enrichment that abuse and neglect victims need, many foster children and youth receive benign neglect at best and outright abuse at worst. As I have written based on my experience, many foster homes provide little nurturing and attention. The system is particularly unsuccessful for older youth with behavioral problems, who are often moved from home to home, placed in residential programs which vary from highly therapeutic to abusive, or spend nights in agencies and hotels, as described in an excellent blog post by Dee Wilson. Moreover, the services provided to children and families by other systems, like mental health and drug treatment, are often low-quality and plagued by waiting lists and provider turnover.

upEND’s policy prescription

In order to end racial disproportionality and its harmful effects, upEND proposes “the abolition of the child welfare system as we know it.” While the exact meaning of this phrase is not specified, the writers make it very clear that abolition means “that the forcible and involuntary separation of children from their parents is no longer viewed as an acceptable form of intervention.” To bolster their proposal, the authors contend that for Black families in America, forced family separation has its roots in the dehumanizing system of slavery.

The historical connection of child removal to racism and slavery is not clear. White children were removed from their families by child welfare agencies long before Black children. Dorothy Roberts, who herself has called for the abolition of child welfare, traces the intellectual roots of child removal to the early progressives around the turn of the twentieth century, who tried to address poverty by placing poor immigrant children in orphanages or sending them to work on rural farms. As Roberts describes in her famous book, Shattered Bonds: the Color of Child Welfare, “black families were virtually excluded from openly segregated child welfare services until the end of World War II.” When public agencies began to take over child welfare from private agencies, they started to turn their attention to Black children. But the disproportionality took some years to appear, according to statistics cited by Roberts. So it is hard to understand the logic of the claim that the practice of child removal by child welfare is rooted in racism.

While not clear on exactly what shape the new child welfare system (if any) would take, upEND states that it will replace the current child welfare system with “community-based supports for the care and well-being of children that are designed by and for families and communities…” The authors call for a broad range of policies including: creating and expanding critical safety net programs and affordable housing; expanding the use of informal care and supports for kin care providers; ending the use of congregate care placements; strengthening the efforts states must make to prevent foster care placement; and eliminating “arbitrary timelines” to terminate parental rights.

The authors do not explain how they would respond to maltreatment of children whose parents are not capable of protecting them, or who have seriously harmed them. As a member of the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Panel, I have learned about many deaths of children whose families had long histories of contact with the city’s child welfare system. These families were the subject of numerous calls to the child abuse hotline for physical abuse, school absenteeism, children left alone, parents under the influence of drugs or alcohol or both–often multiple types of abuse and neglect for the same family. Some of these calls were set aside as not worth investigating, in some cases child protective services found no cause for intervention, and in some cases the intervention was not enough. Whether the child was accidentally crushed as an infant while sleeping with a parent on drugs or alcohol, beaten to death by a parent or the mother’s boyfriend, or shot as a teenager by a member of a rival crew after years of unresolved problems in the home, these children were abandoned by the system that was set up to protect them. upEND’s prescriptions would likely result in more such deaths, even more serious injuries and damage to children, and much more suffering.

As upEND proposes, we need to address the the unconscionable inequality and poverty that affects a disproportionate number of Black families by creating a true safety net and making affordable safe housing available to everyone. To add to their list, we also need to reform policing and criminal justice to eliminate a huge source of stress on Black families. But we cannot wait to protect children until present inequities and the impacts of past ones are eliminated. We should develop programs specifically aimed at preventing abuse and neglect among high-risk families of any race as soon as a child is born, such as Pennsylvania’s new Hello Baby program. Another promising approach is to provide high quality early childhood education accompanied by family support to all infants who are at risk of maltreatment. And as we work toward eliminating child abuse and neglect before they occur, we must continue to respond to children who are currently being maltreated. We must improve the accuracy of this response by eliminating any racial or other biases that result in false positive or negative findings of maltreatment. For example, the use of predictive risk modeling to screen hotline calls has been shown to reduce the disparity between the case opening rates between Black and White children.

As Barth and his colleagues put it, not responding to maltreatment of Black children is a “violation of children’s essential rights.” If we accept upEND’s prescription for eliminating differences in child welfare representation between Black and White children, we will subordinate the rights of children for safety, security and love to the rights of parents to complete autonomy in childrearing. For those who say Black Lives Matter, the this is a sad lack of concern for Black children’s lives.

[1]: The term “disproportionate” or “disproportionality” refer to the fact that a higher proportion of Black children are involved in child welfare relative to White children. In general I prefer to use a more neutral term, such as black children’s “higher level of involvement” or “representation” in child welfare.

[2]: I have taken the. liberty of formulating these assertions to reflect the actual pillars of upEND’s argument. As stated in the article, it appears that their first pillar is that there are racial disparities. But there is no disagreement about that. The authors gloss over the reasons for these disparities, which is the actual point of disagreement between the child welfare abolitionists and others.

[3]:Black children were also nearly twice as likely to experience maltreatment as defined by the more inclusive “endangerment standard.” This broader concept of maltreatment affected 49.6 per 1,000 Black children as compared to 28.6 per 1,000 White children.

[4] According to the Children’s Bureau’s most recent Child Maltreatment report, less than half of the maltreatment victims who received services in Fiscal Year 2018 (146,706 out of 391,661) were placed in foster care. Unfortunately, we do not have these data by race.

4 thoughts on ““Upending child welfare” means devaluing Black children’s lives

  1. We cannot make a positive change for black children by ONLY making changes to the child welfare system. Changes have got to be made across the board, or changing child welfare will be all for naught. We must improve services provided to black families in regards to housing, employment, substance abuse, policing, community involvement, education, mental health, etc. Change must occur in all systems in order to be effective in any.

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  2. While I share the author’s value of caring deeply about children, I have deep concerns that her demonstrated lack of understanding of the upEND child welfare movement, the data that underpin the movement, child development, the trauma of family separation, and her fundamental beliefs about “saving children” fly in the face of what she asserts she is promoting. She continues to perpetuate a narrative that cares more about maintaining power, control, and supremacy than it does about promoting healthy, safe, thriving children, families, and communities. In the spirit of open discourse and critical thinking, I want to briefly address where and how she has dangerously missed the mark at the expense of the very children she purports to care about.
    First, the author clearly has not done her homework in seeking to understand the upEND movement. If she had, she would have read in their 10/14/20 Imprint article that their notion of abolishing child welfare as we know it will not be at the expense of child safety. It is not a binary or light-switch solution. As the leaders of the movement describe, “Abolition of child welfare does not mean abandoning the need to protect children. It means building new ways of protecting and supporting families that also dismantle coercive systems of surveillance and punishment.” Even Barth, et al., in the piece that she cites repeatedly in her article as she attempts to make a case against the upEND movement, agree with this sentiment. They say, “…significant reforms at the policy, program and practice levels are a moral imperative to generate better outcomes for Black children and families….The current state of the evidence supports the need for transformation…” No one is suggesting that child safety doesn’t remain paramount.
    Second, the author cites the NIS-4 data as some sort of conclusive evidence that Black children experience maltreatment at significantly higher rates than White children, thus explaining their disparate representation in child welfare. Yet this misses two critical aspects of these findings: the supplementary analysis on race differences and the NIS-4 methodology. Taken first, the NIS-4 Supplementary Analyses on Race Differences describe how maltreatment differences between Black and White children completely disappear when looking at all children in the low SES category, thus reinforcing (rather than negating) the theory that race, not increased rates of maltreatment or simply poverty, is a key driver in the disparities for low income Black children. And taken second, the NIS-4 methodology has bias baked into its design, as the data are gathered from sentinel reporters — essentially the same individuals who are already known to report Black children to child welfare agencies at disparate rates. Not only are these biases further reinforced by the work and research of Pryce, et al. through their work on Race Blind Removals, but these biases are strangely and paradoxically asserted by the author herself in her conclusion, as she explains that the use of predictive risk modelling has been shown to reduce disparities in screening. With this she is clearly acknowledging that without some “quasi-objective” algorithm (although predictive risk modelling is nowhere near objective), child welfare decisions are often biased and these biases result in disparities in screening, refuting the very point she was initially trying to make.
    Third, the author’s lack of understanding of child development and the impact of trauma are truly concerning. In suggesting that “it is not always clear that separation from parents is traumatic for a child” she seems to have reviewed only research focused on the most egregious forms of maltreatment, which thankfully comprise a very small number of those children who are involved in the child welfare system. Those egregious cases of maltreatment of course should be addressed by a child protection system. But the author does not address the significant majority of children involved with child welfare who are more often harmed than helped by child welfare intervention. It is universally agreed in the worlds of child development and child trauma that family separation is nearly always traumatic for children. In fact, this is so widely accepted that the American Bar Association has developed multiple resources describing and discussing the impact. And the most renowned group of child trauma experts in the U.S., the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, has developed an entire resource focused on the traumatic grief experienced by children and adolescents who have been removed from their families.
    Finally, anyone in child welfare who proclaims their focus as saving children must come to terms with the fact that the roots of the child welfare savior mentality is grounded firmly in White supremacy. There is simply no arguing that this has served as the basis for missionary work across Africa, the boarding schools that were developed and maintained to “civilize” Native American children, and the creation of our own child welfare system. If the author is a true social worker, she will do her own self-reflection about her beliefs and motives, as all who work in this field should be doing regularly (part of honing their most important tool – themselves). In doing so, she should read Mulzer’s piece in the City University of New York’s Law Review, However Kindly Intentioned: Structural Racism and Volunteer CASA Programs.
    Caring deeply about children requires caring deeply about their parents, families, loved ones, and communities. If one suggests they care deeply about children without doing everything possible to keep families safe, healthy, together, and thriving, I question if they truly care about the children or if they, perhaps, truly only care about seeing themselves as heroes.

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