Taking racialized thinking to its illogical conclusion: a state senator responds to David Almond’s death

Image: WJAR

Last week I discussed the scathing report by Massachusetts’ Child Advocate revealing the many opportunities that the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF), Juvenile Court, and schools missed to prevent death of David Almond and the serious physical and emotional injuries to his brothers.” All of these agencies were aware of multiple red flags in David’s case but somehow, unbelievably, managed to disregard them all. The report describes seven months of abuse, starvation and denial of their right to education of two autistic boys, as the family systematically lied to school and DCF staff and kept the boys out of their sight. The family’s efforts to use the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid any scrutiny of the boys’ well-being apparently transparently obvious to readers of the Advocate’s report but apparently raised no red flags for those paid to care for and educate these vulnerable children.

On May 4, Massachusetts Child Advocate Maria Mossaides testified about her 107-page report. If her testimony was anything like reading the report itself, it should have been devastating and left little room for questions other than “How could this happen?” and “How can we make sure it never happens again?” But Committee Chair Sen. Adam Gomez did not seem touched by the suffering of the boys and failure of any agency to protect them. As described in Shira Schoenberg’s May 6, 2021 article, Gomez’s first question had to do with race. What he wanted to know was “Did Mossaides’s analysis of the Almond case….incorporate a racial equity lens and consider whether there was a ‘racial difference in the treatment of the Almond family with similarly situated families of color?’”

How could this be the first question asked by the legislator tasked with protecting the most vulnerable Massachusetts children? As I stated in an op-ed published by Commonwealth Magazine, Gomez appears to be in thrall to a dominant narrative that has taken over the child welfare world with the help of some very wealthy foundations. in this view, CPS workers take children away from their capable and loving parents, especially parents of color, and often refuse to give them back. In this narrative CPS is likened to the police, interfering in families of color based on racial bias. Some of these advocating this view argue that both the police and CPS should be abolished.

It is true that Black and indigenous children are more likely to be placed in foster care than White children. National data indicate that Black children represent 23 percent of the children in foster care, compared to only 14 percent of children in the general population. Native American children are approximately two percent of the children in foster care compared to one percent of the child population. Latino children are actually underrepresented in foster care at the national level, though they are overrepresented in some states, including Massachusetts, as Commonwealth Magazine recently reported. 

There is considerable evidence that the disparities in foster care placement between Black, Indigenous and White families are due to differences in the underlying rate of child abuse and neglect. However, that is actually beside the point that Senator Gomez was making. He was asking if David Almond would have been reunified with his family had he been Black. Studies do indicate that families of color wait longer to reunify with their children.  But new research indicates that after adjusting for other relevant factors (like the cause of removal and the length of stay in foster care), there are no differences in the likelihood of reunification with their families for Black or multiracial children and White children. Hispanic children are more likely to reunify with their families, and indigenous children do have lower odds of reunification than White children. Moreover, a state’s degree of disproportionality in representation of Black and Hispanic children in foster care  did not affect its reunification rates for these children.  So there is no evidence that David would not have been reunified with his father had he been Black or Hispanic.

But let us set aside the research and follow Gomez’ thinking to its logical condition. Let us say he is right, and David would not have been returned to his parents had he been Black, Indigenous or of color (or “BIPOC,” as he put it). In that case, David would have been saved. The only logical conclusion is that Massachusetts ought to take steps to ensure that White children receive the same level of protection from deadly parental abuse as is currently afforded “BIPOC” children.  Yet somehow this does not appear to be the point Senator Gomez was attempting to make. 

Perhaps one key to Gomez’ apparent paradoxical thinking is that he and other child welfare “racialists” like to focus on the rights of parents, not children. According to this thinking, David’s parents benefited from White privilege by being given the benefit of the doubt over and over again. Perhaps if David’s parents had been Black, they would have lost custody of David earlier- before he had been removed from them and returned to them four times. But thanks to their White privilege, David’s parents got to keep (and kill) their child while Black parents would not have been afforded the same privilege.

Of course taking a child-oriented perspective flips the script, so to speak. Where David was allowed to die, a Black child in his his shoes might have been saved by a system that Gomez believes is harder on parents of color. But Gomez is not worrying about Black children dying at the hands of their parents. He and his allies are worried about the unfair treatment of Black parents who might not be extended the privilege of keeping their children long after compassion and common sense dictated a removal to a safe place.

I’m not sure why Gomez and his friends have chosen to focus on the treatment of parents rather than children. Perhaps the answer is that if they talked about children instead, they would have to make clear that they want lower standards for how children of color can be treated compared to White children. And that would hardly be a compelling argument for for anyone who cares about children of any race.

This is an expanded version of an op-ed published in Commonwealth Magazine on May 13, 2021.

“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.

Race, Tribe and Child Welfare: How Identity Policy Trumps Children’s Needs

rainbow children
Image: nataliekuna.com

Our country has a terrible history with regard to our African-American and Native American citizens. Centuries of racism have led to consequences that last until today, and racism continues to be a fact of life affecting minorities around the nation. But attempts to address historical wrongs can end up further victimizing the very people we are trying to help. A case in point is the Indian Child Welfare Act. While the recognition of these unintended consequences is spreading, some activists are trying to replicate the same harmful “protections” for African American children.

“The removal of Indian children from their natural homes and tribal setting has been and continues to be a national crisis,” according to a report issued in 1976. And indeed, it was estimated that 25% to 35% of Native American children had been removed from their homes and placed in foster homes, adoptive homes, or institutions. About 90% were being raised by non-Indians.

To put an end to “the wholesale separation of Indian children from their families” Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978. ICWA recognized tribal sovereignty over custodial decisions about Native American children, required that child welfare agencies make “active efforts” (defined as greater than the “reasonable efforts” required for other children) to keep Native American children with their families, and established a hierarchy of preferred placements, with family or tribe members as the preferred placements.

Unfortunately, ICWA in practice has had unintended consequences, depriving Native American children of the rights given to other children and putting the wishes of the tribe above the interests of the child, as I described in a recent post.  Because of ICWA, 26-month Lauryn Whiteshield and her twin sister were removed from a non-Indian foster family with whom they had spent more than a year and placed with her grandfather and his wife, despite her long history of child neglect and the fact that there were five other children in the household. But Lauryn never reached her third birthday. Her step-grandmother threw her down an embankment and killed her.

Ironically, a law designed to prevent family separations has turned into a vehicle that separates children from the only family they have known. Two-year-old Andy had lived with his foster parents for almost his entire life. But when they filed to adopt him, tribal officials intervened because of his Navajo and Cherokee ancestry. They wanted to send him to New Mexico to live with strangers and a Texas judge agreed, even though Andy’s birth parents approved of the adoption.

Andy’s foster parents appealed successfully, and eventually the tribe changed its mind. But Texas, Louisiana and Indiana filed a lawsuit along with the foster parents of Andy and two other children, to ensure that no more children would be threatened with removal from their families because of their race. On October 4, 2018, a federal judge in Texas agreed,  ruling that ICWA’s requirement of differential treatment based on race violated Native American children’s right to equal protection under the law. (See analyses by the Chronicle of Social Change and the Goldwater Institute.) The decision has been appealed and the appeals court has issued a stay of the Texas judge’s ruling.

Like Native American children, African-American children have been overrepresented in foster care, adoption, and involvement in child welfare systems. According to federal data, black children were 13.8 percent of the total child population in the United States in 2014. Yet, they constituted 22.6 percent of those identified as victims of maltreatment, and 24.3 percent of the children in foster care.

In order to address the racial disparity in child welfare, agencies around the country have adopted strategies like family group decision making, workforce retraining for “cultural competence,” and attempts to recruit a more diverse workforce. It is not clear that any of these approaches have been successful, in part because disproportional representation in child welfare may be due more to the historical effects of past racism than to a racist child welfare system, as I described in an earlier post.

There is no direct evidence that any of these policies have been harmful, although analysts have certainly expressed concern that artificially trying to equalize the proportion of black and white children removed from their homes could result in less protection for black children. However, things could get a lot worse. Black children could suffer similar consequences as Native American children are suffering if states decide to implement ICWA-like “protections” for them.

And indeed, two Minnesota legislators have proposed the Minnesota African American Preservation Act (MAAPA). Based on ICWA, MAAPA would set a higher bar for removing African American children from their homes than white children. Instead of requiring “reasonable efforts” to prevent removal and to reunify family as current law requires, MAAPA would require “active efforts,” the same term used in ICWA. MAAPA specifically defines these efforts  and states that they must be greater than the reasonable efforts required for other children.

MAAPA would create a new bureaucracy paid for by taxpayers to oversee the new requirements. An “African American Child Well-being Department” within the Department of Human Services would receive notification of all cases involving African-American children and “directly  oversee, review, and consult on case plans and services” offered to these children. The law would also create an African American Child Welfare Oversight Council “to help formulate policies and procedures relating to African-American child welfare services, to ensure that African American families are provided with all possible services and opportunities to care for their children in their homes.” MAAPA would also authorize a set of grants to fund services specifically for African-American families.

So what would the consequences be for African-American children? Like ICWA for Indian children, MAAPA would establish a substandard set of protections for African-American children.   The higher bar for child removal and the lower bar for family reunification could well result in more children being left in, or returned to, homes where they are in danger.

The creation of new bureaucracies based on race would create a fragmented child welfare system based upon the belief that black children and families are fundamentally different from others. Moreover, it might divert funding away from desperately needed uses like adequate staffing and pay for child welfare social workers.

There has been a lot of talk about identity politics and its effect on recent elections and party preferences. ICWA and MAAPA are examples of what might be called “identity policy,” in which people are treated differently based on their genetic ancestry. This is not the right direction for our country.

ICWA is under attack because it sets up a separate–and inferior–set of protections for Indian children. MAAPA would do the same thing for African American children. By all means, let us do what we can to eliminate discrimination by child protective services. But denying these children the right to equal protection under law is exactly the wrong way to help them.

Child Welfare Myths: Black/White Disproportionality in Child Welfare is due to Racist Child Welfare System

Graph: http://www.childrends.org

According to federal data, black children were 13.8 percent of the total child population in the United States in 2014. Yet, they constituted 22.6 percent of those identified as victims of maltreatment, and 24.3 percent of the children in foster care. In Minnesota, the disparities appear to be even greater. Citing these disparities, two legislators have proposed the Minnesota African American Preservation Act.

The Act would create an “African American Child Well-being Department” within the Department of Human Services to receive notification of all cases involving African-American children and “directly  oversee, review, and consult on case plans and services” offered to these children. It would also create an African American Child Welfare Oversight Council.  Similar to the Indian Child Welfare Act, it would set a higher bar for removing African American children from their homes than white children and require greater efforts to reunify children once removed from their families.

The bill’s sponsors argue that racial disparities in child welfare are caused by differential treatment of minority families in terms of how allegations of maltreatment are investigated, resolved, and responded to. This is belief, which was supported by early research, has become accepted by the child welfare establishment.

The idea of racial bias in child welfare found support in the first two National Incidence Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect, which were published in the 1980s and 1990s. These studies, which attempt to count all episodes of abuse and neglect rather than just those that are reported and substantiated, suggested that there was no difference in black and white child maltreatment rates. The study authors suggested that black families received differential treatment by child welfare systems, resulting in their over-representation in these systems.

Starting about 2004, a coalition of foundations, nonprofits, and academics formed around the idea that this disproportional representation of black children in child welfare stemmed from a racist system. 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.

As a result of this work, agencies around the country have adopted strategies like staff retraining, creating special administrative structures to advance racial equity, and special data collection efforts. As a social worker in the District of Columbia, I was subjected to multiple, often poor-quality trainings that tried to help me discover my hidden biases so that they would not affect my treatment of families. 

The fact that child welfare workers in many jurisdictions are disproportionately African American has not influenced the consensus in favor of such strategies, as pointed out in an excellent article by Naomi Schaefer Riley. When I pointed out in a training class that most District of Columbia child welfare social workers were African-American, I was told that did not matter, as Black social workers could be as racist as white ones.

But a cascade of new research has cast grave doubts on the accepted theory of disproportionality. The fourth (larger and more rigorous) National Incidence Study published in 2010 using data collected in 2005 and 2006 estimated that black child maltreatment rates were almost twice as high than those of whites. Further analysis showed that this difference was present in the earlier study, but due to small sample sizes, the differences were not statistically significant and hence not reported.

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 in front of an audience of child welfare leaders from around the country. A research brief summarizing the conference that was published by Chapin Hall 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.”

The brief’s authors based their conclusions on the National Incidence Study as well as other empirical work reinforcing the conclusion that child maltreatment rates are significantly higher for black children. They suggested that the higher rate of maltreatment among African-Americans 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.

In other words, 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 racist history of our country that has created the difference in child maltreatment which in turn resulted in disproportional representation.

The researchers concluded that trying to reduce racial bias in the system is not the way to address the inequity between blacks and whites in child welfare. Instead, we need to address the underlying social conditions. And until we can do that, we need to protect children, both by preventing maltreatment and by providing appropriate protective services.

Since the Harvard conference, the evidence continues to accumulate that black and white maltreatment rates differ. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics concluded that the child abuse fatality rate for children aged four and under was 8.0 per thousand African-American children, compared with 2.7 per 100,000 white children.

Unfortunately, many child welfare agencies, advocates, and legislators, including the sponsors of the Minnesota legislation, are either unaware of, or do not want to recognize, the new consensus among researchers. As The Los Angeles Times put it:

“Many left the [Harvard/Chapin Hall] conference believing that any caseworker bias against black families accounted for only a small portion of the disparity in foster care rates … Yet, Los Angeles County officials pressed forward with programs that assumed that racial bias was a significant cause for the high rate of [foster care placement] of black children.”

As I have written in the past, Native American children have been victimized by a similar type of reasoning. The Indian Child Welfare Act has been responsible for separating Indian children from loving foster families and placing them with relatives they do not know. On some occasions, these relatives have hurt or killed them.

This focus on reducing alleged systemic bias may do more harm than simply wasting child welfare resources on bureaucracy and training. If black children are more likely to be maltreated, equalizing black and white representation in the child welfare system would leave many black children in danger of years of suffering or even death. As Naomi Schaefer Riley put it, “No it’s not racist to save minority children’s lives.”

New book debunks prevailing child welfare myths

After the Cradle FallsA 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.