No Way to Treat a Child: a needed corrective to the dominant narrative

No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives

These days, It is a bit difficult to be a left-leaning liberal while also being an advocate for abused and neglected children. I would never have expected that a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Naomi Schaefer Riley, would be one of my closest allies in child advocacy. Or that my proudest achievement since starting this blog would be my service on a child welfare innovation working group that she organized out of AEI, or that, with a few quibbles over details, I would agree with the main points of her new book. But that is the case in these strange times, in which many of my fellow liberals appear effectively indifferent to the fate of children whose parents they view as victims of a racist “family policing system.”

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a journalist, a former editor for the Wall Street Journal, and the author of five previous books. In her new book, No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives, uses examples, data and quotes from experts to show in heartbreaking detail how policymakers from the left and the right have converged in creating a child welfare system that puts adults first. Much of this occurs because in deciding how to treat abused or neglected children, the people who create and carry out child welfare law and policy “consider factors that are completely unrelated to and often at odds with a child’s best interests,” as Riley puts it.

Take family preservation and reunification, for example. Instead of placing the safety of the child as the highest priority, Riley illustrates that child welfare agencies leave many children in dangerous homes long past the time they should have been removed, with sometimes fatal results. They give parents more and more chances to get their children back, long after the law says that parental rights should be terminated. The book is full of stories of children ripped away from loving foster parents (often the only parents they have ever known) only to be returned to biological parents without evidence of meaningful changes in the behaviors that led to the children being removed.

Not only do today’s advocates of “family first” wrest children away from loving families to return home, but Riley describes how they send other hapless children to join distant relatives that they never knew, on the grounds that family is always best even if the relative does not appear until as much as two years after an infant has been placed in foster care. The fact that a relative may display the same dysfunction that the parent showed may be ignored. I would add, based on personal experience, that in my foster care work I often met grandmothers who seemed to have gained wisdom (and finally, for example, gave up drugs) with age, as well as aunts and uncles who avoided the family dysfunction and went on to lead productive lives, making their homes available to the children of their less well-adjusted siblings. But Riley is right to say we should consider not just blood, but also fitness and bonding before removing a child from a good pre-adoptive home to live with a relative.

As Riley describes, one of the primary factors that is now taking precedence over a child’s best interest is that of race or ethnicity. Riley explains how data on the overrepresentation of Black and Native American children in foster care in relation to their size is being attributed to racism in child protective services, as I have explained elsewhere, ignoring the evidence that the underlying disparities in abuse and neglect are largely responsible for these differences in foster care placement. And they don’t seem to have a problem with holding Black parents to a lower standard of parenting than White children to equalize the ratios. Moreover, many of these “racial activists” are recommending eliminating child welfare systems entirely along with abolishing the police. As Riley states, Native children are the canaries in the coal mine, “for what happens when you hold some parents to a lower standard, as we have done with the Indian Child Welfare Act with devastating effects for Native children.

Another way we subordinate the interests of children is by minimizing their parents’ responsibility for their treatment by saying it is simply due to poverty. Riley addresses the common trope that “neglect,” the reason that 63 percent of children children were removed from their families in 2019, is “just a code word for poverty,” a myth that I have addressed as well. I’d venture that anyone who has worked with families in child welfare knows there is often much more going on in these families than poverty alone, including substance abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence. Riley puts her finger on an important issue when she suggests that part of the problem may be that we use a general category called “neglect” as the reason behind many removals. However, I don’t agree with her recommendation to discard neglect as a reason for removal. As I explain in a recent post, we need to distinguish between the over-arching categories of “abuse” and “neglect” and the specific subcategories of neglect such as lack of supervision, educational neglect, and medical neglect. Contrary to Riley’s suggestion that they are types of neglect, substance abuse and mental illness are factors that contribute to it. This important information should be included in the record but should not be confounded with types of neglect.

Another way that policymakers disregard the best interests of the child is by deciding that foster homes are better than institutions for almost all children instead of recognizing that some children need a more intensive level of care for a limited time, or that others can thrive in group homes that simulate a family setting but provide more intensive attention than a typical foster home can provide. The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), which went into effect for all states on October 1, does allow for children to be placed temporarily in therapeutic institutions, although it sets some unreasonable limits on these institutions and on placement of children in them. But it does not provide any funding for placement in highly-regarded family-like group settings such as the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches. (I’m not sure why Riley says in later in the book that FFPSA “is looking like another piece of federal legislation that will be largely ignored by states, many of which have already been granted waivers from it.” Those waivers were temporary and there is no way states can ignore the restrictions on congregate care).

In her chapter entitled “Searching for Justice in Family Court, Riley describes the catastrophic state of our family courts, which she attributes to a shortage of judges, their lack of training in child development and child welfare, and their leniency with attorneys and parents who do not show up in court. As a model for reform, Riley cites a family drug court in Ohio that meets weekly, hears from service providers working with parents, and imposes real consequences (like jail time) on parents who don’t follow orders. But this type of intensive court experience is much more expensive. These programs are small, and expanding this service to everyone would require a vast infusion of resources.

I appreciated Riley’s chapter on why CPS investigators are underqualified and undertrained.” Having graduated from a Master in Social Work (MSW) program as a midcareer student in 2009, I could not agree with her more when she states that the “capture of schools of social work and child welfare generally by a social-justice ideology has produced the kind of thinking that guides social welfare policy.” I’d add that someĀ students are ill-prepared for their studies and may not get what they need while in school to exercise the best judgment, critical thinking, effective data analysis, and other important hard and soft skills. Riley suggests that the function of a CPS worker is really more akin to the police function than to the type of traditional social work function performed by other social workers in child welfare–those who manage in-home and foster care cases. As a matter of fact, Riley quotes my post suggesting that CPS Investigation should be either a separate specialty in MSW programs or could be folded into the growing field of Forensic Social Work.

Riley’s chapter on the promise of using predictive analytics in child welfare shows how concerns that using algorithms in child welfare would exacerbate current discrimination are not borne out by history or real-world results. Use of an algorithm to inform hotline screening decisions in Allegheny County Pennsylvania actually reduced the disparities in the opening of cases between Black and White children. As Riley states, this should not surprise anyone because data has often served to reduce the impact of bias by those who are making decisions. As she puts it, “if you are concerned about the presence of bias among child-welfare workers and the system at large, you should be more interested in using data, not less.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is Riley’s two chapters on the role of faith-based organizations in child welfare that made me uncomfortable. Riley describes the growing role of these groups, especially large evangelical organizations, in recruiting, training, and supporting foster and adoptive parents.” Like it or not,” she states, “most foster families in this country take in needy children at least in part because their religious beliefs demand such an action.” But the Christian Alliance for Orphans, an organization often quoted by Riley, was one of the groups behind the “orphan fever” that took hold among mainstream evangelical churches in the first decade of this century. Many families were not prepared for the behaviors of their new children and some turned to a book by a fundamentalist homeschooling guru named Michael Pearl that advocated physical discipline starting when children are less than a year old. Many of the adoptions were failures, some children were illegally sent back to their own countries, some children were abused, and at least two died of the abuse. But Riley’s narrative suggests that many evangelical churches working with foster youth are using a trauma-focused parenting model (Trust-Based Relational Intervention) that is diametrically opposed to the Pearl approach. Nevertheless, the association of evangelical Christianity with a “spare the rod” parenting philosophy as well as the possibility that saving souls is part of the motivation for fostering or adoption, make me a bit queasy about over-reliance on evangelical families as foster parents, and I would have liked to see Riley address this issue.

In her esteem for religious communities and their role in child welfare, Riley is worried that some jurisdictions will bar all organizations with whom they work from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, driving religions institutions out of business. Since the book was written, however, the Supreme Court has ruled that the City of Philadelphia violated the First Amendment when it stopped referring children to Catholic Social Services for foster care and adoption because the agency would not certify same-sex foster parents. So this threat may be dwindling for the time being. In general, unlike many liberals, I agree with Riley that, as long as there is an agency to work with any potential foster parent, we should “let a thousand flowers bloom” rather than insisting that every agency accept every potential parent.

Riley ends the book with a list of recommendations for making the system more responsive to the needs of children rather than adults. She agrees with liberals that we need an influx of financial resources as well as “better stewardship of the money we already spend.” We need both a massive reform of our child welfare agencies and a family court overhaul, she argues. She wants recruitment of more qualified candidates for child welfare agencies and better training for them. She urges the child welfare system to move away from “bloodlines and skin color” and allow a child to form new family bonds when the family of origin cannot love and protect that child. I certainly hope that policymakers on both sides of the aisle read and learn from this important book.

2 thoughts on “No Way to Treat a Child: a needed corrective to the dominant narrative

  1. This type of commentary is so needed in the field of Child Welfare. I sure wish there was a way to get this information before the folks responsible for making policy. Child Welfare should be guided by those who put children first. This seems so obvious, but of course, we see over and over again how the needs of adults are put first and how children pay the price. I am listening to NSR’s book and I agree she is spot on in so many aspects. I do have a tough time with her antipathy towards CPS workers. Experienced Child Welfare social workers who have been around long enough to see trends come and go and are frustrated by their inability to help children know better then anyone how the system needs to be reformed to meet the goal of actually protecting these children.

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