Caring about Children Isn’t Racist

Well, it happened. After a lifetime of service to poor and maltreated children, I’ve been accused of racism. I knew it would happen eventually. I couldn’t keep saying with impunity that children shouldn’t be collateral damage in an attempt to avoid “punishing” parents who happen to be members of a minority group.

It was a prominent critic of government intervention to protect children who noticed an op-ed that I wrote for the Chronicle of Social Change in August 2017 and demanded a retraction.

In the offending piece, I critiqued an article in the New York Times entitled Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of Jane Crow. In my rebuttal, entitled Foster Care as Punishment? A Case of Biased Reporting by the New York Times, I attempted to highlight the naivete of the reporters, who accepted the statement of a birth mother that she splurged on brand-name diapers for her baby as an indicator of her fitness as a mother.

As the authors put it, “Maisha Joefield thought she was getting by pretty well as a young single mother in Brooklyn, splurging on her daughter, Deja, even though money was tight. When Deja was a baby, she bought her Luvs instead of generic diapers when she could.” The authors went on to describe the night when an exhausted Ms. Joefeld put Deja to bed and “plopped into the bath with earphones on.” Ms. Joefeld was indeed tired. Deja was placed in foster care after she was found wandering the streets of Queens at midnight after trying and failing to rouse her mother.

I thought the authors’ concept of good mothering seemed to be a little backwards, as it prioritized spending on brand names over being available to respond to a small child at any time of the day or night. So I wrote, “It is odd to me that the authors seem to consider splurging on brand-name diapers, sneakers, or apparel to be an indicator of good motherhood.”

Little did I know the firestorm I was launching. The authors had said nothing about sneakers or apparel, but I grouped them with diapers, because I was making a general point about some parents’ undue preoccupation with brand names. And those words were a trigger to to those advocates of family preservation under all circumstances who are always looking for a chance to cry racism.

In an email I received 15 months after publication of my op-ed, the Publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change told me that the Chronicle would be publishing a publisher’s note concerning my use of “racially charged language” and asked me whether I wanted to submit a statement that he would consider including.

What the Chronicle eventually published was called An Apology for a Regrettable Chronicle Op-Ed. In it the publisher and Editor state that “the trope of a low-income mom buying children designer clothes, at the expense of spending on more critical family needs, does exist as a crude and often racial stereotype.” They apologize for their “poor judgement” in allowing “a callous dismissal of a young single mother’s very human efforts to do right by her daughter” to stand.  They deleted my piece from their website. And they did not publish my statement that I had sent to the publisher at his request. Here is what I said:

This statement [about brand-named diapers, clothing and shoes] was based not on racism but on my experience as a social worker in foster care. It was not unusual for birth parents to complain when foster parents dressed their kids in clothes that were not stylish or (God forbid) handed down. It was also not uncommon for them to splurge on high-end apparel or athletic shoes, or talk about splurging on them, in visits to their children. All of these behaviors together made a big impression on me. That some parents who had subjected their children to abuse or neglect seemed to care passionately about the brand of diapers, clothing or shoes their child wore seemed contradictory and illustrated a fundamental problem with their parenting.

I expressed my feelings most clearly in an adoption hearing that I will never forget. One of my favorite foster parents, an African-American woman I will call “Ms. Brown,” had petitioned to adopt “Ronald,” a little boy whom she had loved and cared for as her own for several years. “Ronald’s” father, a drug user who often showed up to visits with his son high or exploded with rage during visits, often requiring a police presence, was fighting the adoption tooth and nail with the help of his very aggressive lawyer. Through the lawyer, the father raised the issue that “Ronald” was often dressed in what seemed to be hand me downs or cheap clothes. The Judge asked for my opinion and I gave it to her. I told her how this father resembled many other birth parents, who are more concerned with the newness and style of their children’s clothes than with the safety, security and most importantly love provided by the foster parent. For me, the father’s question illustrated his inability to understand what matters to a child (love and security) and what doesn’t (brand names.)  The judge cut me off, admonishing me sharply for my editorial comments. But I hope she understood. She eventually approved the adoption. I recently saw “Ronald,” and he is thriving with “Ms. Brown.”

Because I worked in the District of Columbia, most of my clients (parents and children) were African-American. If I had worked in Maine or Indiana, I have no doubt that I would have seen some of the same patterns among white parents. Perhaps it is an issue of class [to some extent]. But I think most of all it reflects parents who have not grown up sufficiently themselves to understand that their children are not dolls to be dressed up in a way that reflects well on parents and that they need love, not brand-name diapers or fancy clothes. No, my words were not racist. They were about what matters for children, and what doesn’t. Children should be at the heart of this debate, not racial groups.

Readers who have worked with abusive and neglectful parents as social workers, therapists, or in other capacities will recognize the phenomenon I describe here. The fact that neither the New York Times journalists nor the publisher of the Chronicle (who was clearly puzzled by where my reference came from if not racism) understood this shows their distance from the people they are writing about. Nor do they understand that many healthy and mature parents of all races, such as the foster parent I called “Ms. Brown,” are completely unconcerned with brand names.

I have written before, and will write again, about what has been called “the liberal dilemma of child welfare reform.” Many of my fellow liberals seem to be reluctant to “punish” parents whose problems in parenting stem from poverty and racism by taking away their children or even monitoring and offering services to these families. The whole idea of “punishing” parents, which was used in the title of the Times article, reveals the emphasis on parents’ rights over child safety. But if we succumb to this attitude, we may be condemning poor and minority children to years of suffering and even death. Is that really the anti-racist position?

Some of these who advocate family preservation at any cost are eager to describe any criticism of an African-American parent as racist. They use the fear of being called racist to suppress expressions of alternative viewpoints. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I am well aware of what can happen when fear paralyzes free speech. I was sad to see the Chronicle respond so pusillanimously the demand that I be silenced.

 

 

 

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 third (larger and more rigorous) National Incidence Study published in 2010 estimated that black child maltreatment rates are 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.”