“master narrative” has emerged about child welfare and COVID-19, spread by some
politicians, child welfare agency leaders and journalists. The claim is that in the absence of teachers
and other “mandated reporters” of child abuse constantly watching children, a “pandemic of child abuse” is going undetected. The claim is false,
racially-biased, and endangers the children it is meant to help.
child welfare system is not experiencing a pandemic of child abuse. The child welfare system is spreading a pandemic
● The claim keeps spreading, even after it was challenged by several major news organizations, such as Bloomberg CityLab, The Marshall Project and the Associated Press (twice), and It’s also been called into question by Chapin Hall, the child welfare think tank at the University of Chicago.
● Out of every 100 calls to child abuse “hotlines” 97 are screened out, false reports, or neglect reports – which often means poverty. So no, reducing the number of calls will not necessarily increase actual child abuse.
● In fact, fewer calls may have decreased abuse. That’s because, with far fewer false reports to deal with, workers may have more time to find children in real danger.
● In contrast, fearmongering that encourages even more people to call in their slightest suspicions increases the risk of traumatizing children with needless investigations. And as workers poke and pry through home after home it increases the risk of families – and workers – contracting COVID-19. At its worst, it increases the risk that children will be consigned, needlessly, to the chaos of foster care.
● Even if one believes there might be some increase in actual child abuse, the notion that, as some have claimed, as soon as all those (mostly) white, middle-class professional “eyes” are averted from (mostly) poor children of color it could unleash “a child abuse pandemic!” -- is racist. It suggests that the only thing stopping those uncivilized poor folk from torturing their kids is white paternalism and omnipresent surveillance.
Yes, the pandemic is putting more stress on everyone. But why do we rush to assume that for poor people in general and poor Black people in particular the only way they’ll cope is to beat up their children?
● Some child abuse has indeed been unleashed – by the response of the child welfare system itself. It is child abuse to prolong needless foster care, but unnecessary court delays do just that. It is child abuse to deny a young child in foster care a visit with her or his mother. Wholesale cancellation of court hearings and bans on visits are not necessary to curb the spread of the virus.
● Again, the increased stress we’re all under right now may cause some parents to lash out. It is even more likely to prompt the strangers taking care of foster children to lash out. The threat of being reported to child protective services only decreases the likelihood that people under stress will reach out for help. And it’s hard to imagine much that would add more stress to a family than a needless child abuse investigation.
Wild, unsupported claims about undetected child abuse risk becoming a self-fulfilling
prophecy. Months of hearing that
children will return to school victims of horrendous abuse makes it more likely
that teachers will “see” such abuse – whether it’s there or not.
CHILD WELFARE’S PANDEMIC OF FEAR
How a false, racially-biased “master narrative” about COVID-19
and child abuse hurts children.
A report from the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
The impulse is understandable. For generations, we’ve read horror stories about parents beating, raping and murdering their children. The stories often are followed by statistics leaving the impression that there’s a child abuser under every bed. No wonder people would assume that a decline in reports alleging child abuse, because mandatory reporters don’t have their “eyes” on children due to COVID-19, is cause for alarm. Oblivious to the racial and class bias that undergirds this master narrative, stories and opinion columns even claim that COVID has unleashed a “pandemic of child abuse.”
The claim keeps spreading, even after it was challenged by several major news organizations, such as The Marshall Project, Bloomberg CityLab and the Associated Press, (twice). It’s also been called into question by Chapin Hall, the child welfare think tank at the University of Chicago. The whole regime of mandatory reporting was put in place decades ago with no studies or tests beforehand to see if it would work. Many former proponents of mandated reporting have changed their minds. Recent research shows mandatory reporting backfires, making children less safe.
But instead of seeing COVID-19 as a chance to rethink this failed approach, one story after another calls for doubling down, complete with recommendations on how to turn a friendly visit or a drop-off of a food basket into a chance to spy on families, and how to use broad, vague lists of “symptoms” to supposedly detect child abuse through a computer screen. One agency -- known for its hair-trigger for tearing apart families -- actually has a cheat sheet to let anyone pretend to just be having a friendly video chat while they’re really sleuthing for reasons to call child protective services. (If it’s that easy, why do we have social work schools?)The “pandemic of child abuse” narrative involves a molehill of truth and a mountain of myth. It is the mythology that truly endangers children. Believing it and acting upon it risks scaring vulnerable families away from seeking assistance. (Would you admit to a problem if you had to wonder if the person in whom you are confiding is really spying on your family and might use anything you say as a reason to call Child Protective Services?) It risks deluging caseworkers with false reports, stealing time from finding the very few children in real danger. It even risks increasing the spread of COVID-19.
THE PRICE OF HEALTH TERRORISM
At the root of the problem is what’s been called “health terrorism,” an ends-justify-the-means approach to advocacy that says it’s OK to distort the true nature of a problem in the name of “raising awareness.” (The phrase did not originate with us. It was used by a group that admits to having engaged in it.) For decades, we’ve read stories that begin with a gruesome case of murder or torture. Then the story jumps to a statistic about the total number of “reports” alleging “child abuse.” So after decades of conditioning, when we hear that reports alleging child abuse are down, we assume that, behind closed doors, thousands of children are being tortured – just like in the horror stories.
As a result, we’ve created a child welfare surveillance state so omnipresent, particularly in poor communities, that one study estimates one-third of all children and more than half of Black children will be forced to endure the trauma of a child abuse investigation by the time they’re 18.
But pore over the federal government’s annual Child Maltreatment report and you find that nationwide, of every 100 calls to child abuse hotlines 91 are either so absurd they are screened out or they are found to be false after an investigation. Yes, defenders of the system sometimes say the reports weren’t false, the workers just couldn’t “prove” them. But no proof is required. In most states, all that is required to “substantiate” an allegation is a caseworker’s guess that it is slightly more likely than not that abuse or neglect occurred.
The only study we know of to try to second-guess these decisions is quite old. But it found that workers were two to six times more likely to wrongly substantiate an allegation than to wrongly label one unfounded.
|Source: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Child Maltreatment 2018|
Another six calls involve “neglect.” On very rare occasions neglect can be horrific. Far more often it simply means a family is poor. If a child is hungry, that is not a reason to call a child abuse hotline, it is a reason to call a foodbank. If a family’s housing is unsafe it’s cause to fix the house or move the family to better housing, not move the child out of the family.
That leaves three of every 100 calls with even the potential to be the kinds of horror stories we think of when we hear the words “child abuse.”
RACIAL JUSTICE AND THE FAMILY POLICE
Although child protective services agencies like to portray themselves as benevolent helpers, that is not how they are seen in poor communities – especially poor communities of color. In those communities, they are just another police force.
In fact, child protective services agencies have more power than police. Police can stop a Black teenager on the street, throw him against a wall and frisk him. Child protective services can march right into the home, strip-search a Black child and walk out with him, forcing him into foster care. Effectively, these family police can enter homes and stripsearch children without a warrant. Say no, and they can come back with the police and even break down the door. Even when the entry is less drastic, the terror of the investigation is something a child may never forget. Then they can put the family under constant surveillance, increasing family stress and driving families deeper into poverty. Worst case: The ACS caseworker takes away the children on-the-spot without so much as asking a judge first.
Here’s how one 14-year-old described the ordeal:
I’m scared when I hear a hard knock at the door. I think they are coming. I was scared to go to school because they will come to the school and remove me and put me in a foster home. All because if my Mom and Dad don’t do what they want, never mind they are not abusing us.
I will be so glad when I am 18 and my brother is 18. Then I know [they] will never be able to put us in a foster home again.
Yet we are told we should initiate this process based on a guess while peeking through someone’s door, or because of a behavior that matches a broad, vague list of symptoms. (Sometimes these lists even include mood swings – because only child abuse could cause that during a pandemic, right?) The head of a trade association for “children’s advocacy centers,” says you should bring down the full weight of the family police on a family if you so much as hear your neighbors yelling.
WILL THE RECKONING EVER REACH CHILD WELFARE?
Even as we are supposed to be in the midst of a racial justice reckoning, we have not stopped to consider the bias that underlies the messaging about COVID-19 and child abuse. The myth is rooted in the idea that children are endangered because professionals, such as teachers, who are “mandated reporters” – that is, required to report their slightest suspicion of child abuse - are no longer seeing children in person, and sometimes not at all.
But who are the reporters and who are those reported on? What we’re really saying is: Now that fewer mostly white middle-class professionals have their “eyes” constantly on overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite children, parents will unleash upon them a pandemic of child abuse. The racism in that message should be obvious.
Yes, COVID-19 is putting more stress on everyone – and that can lead to some increase in child abuse. That’s the molehill of truth. But why do we rush to assume that for poor people in general and poor Black people in particular the only way they’ll cope is to beat up their children in pandemic proportions?
As noted above, the myth continues to spread, even after it was challenged by news organizations such as the Associated Press (twice), The Marshall Project and Bloomberg CityLab. It’s also been challenged by Chapin Hall, the child welfare think tank at the University of Chicago.
And yet, a Washington Post story tells us that the lack of mostly white eyes on disproportionately nonwhite children makes it “terrifyingly difficult to keep a watchful eye on children who are being abused.” Now, imagine if a reporter wrote that curbs on stop-and-frisk policing make it “terrifyingly difficult to stop a crime wave.” The claim would be denounced for what it is: racist. Why are standards for racial justice – and for journalism -- so easily abandoned as soon as someone whispers the words “child abuse” in our ears?
In fact, just as stop-and-frisk does not reduce crime, research discussed below makes clear that the surveillance state approach to child abuse – all those “watchful eyes” calling child abuse hotlines to report anything and everything – has backfired and made all children less safe.
Compare the Post’s fearmongering to what CityLab found:
Some parents living in neighborhoods with historically high rates of child welfare investigations say the dramatic dip in maltreatment reports feels more like the pollution lifting — a much-needed respite from the intense and relentless surveillance of low-income moms, and especially those who are black and Latinx.
One parent [said]: “They’re not opening my refrigerator. They’re not opening my dresser drawers. They’re not strip-searching my children and they’re not asking me to take their clothes off for the camera, because that would be child pornography.”
MAKING ALL CHILDREN LESS SAFE
Of course, some might argue even all this damage to poor families of color is worth it to find those very few children in real danger. But the deluge of false reports only steals worker time from finding those children.
As Prof. Jane Spinak of Columbia University Law School has written:
[T]he vast majority of reports do not result in state action because a child has been mistreated; there is a lot of noise in reporting. Hunches, vague suspicions, better-safe-than-sorry beliefs, passing the buck to someone else instead of figuring out how to be helpful, anonymous calls and instances of malicious false reporting still require state investigations that cost time and money.
Reducing those types of reports because children are not as casually observed will reduce unnecessary family disruption and trauma and will give investigators more time to scrutinize when children are actually in danger, …
Indeed, the same Washington Post story that did all that fearmongering also acknowledged
that in Washington, D.C., from January through June, 2020 calls to the District’s child abuse hotline declined by 32 percent, but the number of children seen at the local children’s advocacy center – which sees the cases in which the most serious abuse is alleged -- declined by only three percent. That suggests that most of the decline in hotline calls does indeed involve calls that never should have been made in the first place.
Similarly, in a series of blog posts that take a deep, deep dive into data from Florida, Prof. Robert Latham of the University of Miami – a child advocate lawyer with an undergraduate degree in computer science – has found no evidence of a pandemic of child abuse.
MANDATORY REPORTING: THE HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE OF CHILD WELFARE
As noted above, mandatory reporting laws were rushed onto state statute books more than half a century ago, with no study to see if they actually would work. Over time, it became clear that they don’t. Year after year, more former proponents began to have second thoughts:
Mandatory reporting is the Hydroxychloroquine of child welfare. It was rushed onto the statute books with no testing to see if it would work, no examination of side effects and lots and lots of hype. Then it failed. Yet, instead of seeing COVID-19 as a chance to reconsider this failed approach, child welfare agencies are trying to double down on it, and one news story after another is encouraging it.
COVID BRINGS NEW DANGERS
The mandatory-reporting-based-racially-biased-hair-trigger approach to child abuse investigations has always hurt the children it was intended to help. But COVID-19 brings new dangers:
If a poor family has to worry that the person dropping off a food basket also is peeking through the door looking for “symptoms” of child abuse, will they ask for help when they’re hungry? Will they accept a neighbor’s offer of respite via a Zoom call with the kids if the neighbor thinks s/he somehow should be sensing if the child on the screen is really being abused and calling the child abuse hotline?
If the fearmongering encourages more frivolous calls, that means more caseworkers inspecting homes, looking through cupboards and closets, and stripsearching the children looking for bruises. Then they move on to another home and start the process all over again. That increases the risk of spreading COVID-19 to families and caseworkers alike. And, of course, the fearmongering can lead school officials and politicians, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, to use the health terrorism-fueled claims of a “pandemic of child abuse” to rush to reopen schools prematurely, heightening the dangers for students and staff alike.
The risk of spreading COVID is compounded if the child is taken from the home and thrown into foster care.
And while the rationale for inflicting all this trauma on children is to protect them from abuse that supposedly will take place because their parents are under stress, the children wind up, at best, in a foster home where the foster parents are just as likely to be stressed. At worst they face the even greater risk of harm in group homes and institutions.
Now, with all this additional stress, foster parents are, if anything, even more likely to lash out at the newcomer in their home because these strangers don’t have the secret ingredient that increases patience in the most stressful of times: love. Parents and extended family have that secret ingredient. That’s probably why, for example, kinship foster parents, such as grandparents are far less likely than strangers to demand that children be doped up on potent, sometimes dangerous psychiatric drugs.
THE CHILD ABUSE INFLICTED BY THE STATE
Among child welfare’s first, and ugliest, responses to the COVID-19 pandemic involved states rushing to issue blanket bans cutting off all in-person visits between children in foster care and their parents. Denying a child, often already traumatized by needless removal from the home, a chance even to visit with loved ones without assessing safety on a case-by-case basis is child abuse.
At the same time, courts shut down – but not for everything. They stayed open for hearings to take children away from their families, but stopped holding hearings to reunite them.
Prolonging the anguish of a child’s time in foster care because court hearings are only for taking away children, not for sending them home is child abuse. (It also increases the risk the children will catch the virus in a crowded foster home or group home.)
Among the worst examples of such callousness and cruelty: Washington state, where the head of the child welfare agency, Ross Hunter, pandered to the worst instincts of the worst foster parents, at the expense of children.
Blanket bans on visits and denial of reunification hearings are so abusive toward children that one of the federal government’s top child welfare officials sent out a letter strongly urging an end to these sorts of restrictions.
This kind of abuse is inflicted almost exclusively on children who are poor and disproportionately on children of color. As the Movement for Family Power put it:
Every day our family courts are reminding us that Black and Brown families are not "essential," that keeping our families together is not a "priority," that our prolonged separations are not "emergencies"
There’s more in this NCCPR column for Youth Today about why child welfare’s whole response to COVID-19 has been sickening.
Eventually, the real pandemic will end and things will return to some semblance of normal. At that point, vulnerable children will face another danger: self-fulfilling prophecy.
The fearmongering “pandemic of child abuse” claims often are followed by a prediction that, once schools fully reopen and the army of “mandated reporters” is back in action, there will be a big increase in foster care placements as soon as they spot all that supposedly previously-hidden child abuse.
But if you tell teachers over and over that while their students were out of school, they were abused in pandemic proportions, then the bruise that last year would have been seen for what it was, an accident, suddenly is “child abuse.” The hungry child for whom they might have called a foodbank now becomes a call to child protective services.
So yes, there may be a surge in foster care placements when the kids go back to school. But the relationship between rates of foster care placement and rates of child abuse have has always ranged somewhere between slim and none – as can be seen by the vast differences among states in the rates at which children are taken from their homes, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.
The coming surge in foster care placements, if there is one, will be no exception.
TOWARD BETTER ANSWERS
There’s at least one good example out there, and the source is surprising: One of those “children’s advocacy centers.”
In what authorities believe to be the most serious cases of alleged abuse, children sometimes are taken to such centers to be interviewed. At their best, such places reduce the trauma of investigation for children. At their worst, as we’ve seen, they spread paranoia and impede real solutions.
But for one such center, the COVID-19 pandemic apparently has been a revelation: All of a sudden, they figured it out: The biggest single factor in what we call “child abuse” is poverty. The stress of poverty is the major factor leading a very small minority of parents to lash out against their children. And to a much greater degree, poverty itself is confused with neglect.
With fewer mandated reporters calling in anything and everything to child abuse hotlines, the staff at the Marshfield Child Advocacy Center in Wisconsin had time to think things through. They made good use of that time. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
“[T]he staff pivoted to prevention within a week of the stay-at-home order, said director Kristen Iniguez. They recognized that if parents can’t meet their family’s basic needs, stress can cause them to respond to kids in unhealthy ways.
“To support those basic needs is to ideally prevent child abuse, emotional abuse and neglect of children in this lockdown situation,” said Iniguez, a physician.
Even better: They are not talking about the kind of prevention that primarily helps the helpers – inflicting “counseling” and “parent education” on families, something that often does no good and sometimes makes things worse. They’re talking about the kind of prevention the child welfare establishment usually hates:
[T]he center teamed up with other service providers. For example, school districts are providing lunches for families to pick up. For those without transportation, the center's staffers are dropping off the food. They are also delivering groceries and connecting families with emergency financial support to help with rent, electricity and cellphone bills.
That’s also a good question for Emilie Amundson who runs the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families and her counterparts across the country. Again, from the story:
Amundson hopes some things may change for the better. By the time the coronavirus crisis is over, she said, perhaps her agency will be viewed as a resource for families rather than a source of fear.
“We’re in the midst of a real sea change,” she said. “We have an opportunity through COVID … to de-stigmatize what Child Protective Services has been in the past and make it a place where people can go to get the help they need.”
But that sea change can’t happen as long as the child welfare system is structured as it is today. Child protective services workers can traumatize children with needless investigations, stripsearch them, tear them from the arms of their parents, and cast them into foster care and even deprive them of their parents forever. It would be crazy not to regard such agencies as a source of fear. That fear is not the result of “stigma.” It’s the result of the simple fact that such agencies take children from their parents more than 250,000 times every year.
An impoverished parent dare not reach out to that agency
for help in a crisis. It’s not that
reaching out that way would never lead to a good result – but it’s like playing Russian Roulette with their children. And as noted earlier, even the decision whether to seek help from professionals who are “mandated reporters” has to be weighed with care. Whether the family gets help or the child must endure foster care depends on the attitude of the mandated reporter, the culture of the agency, whether there’s been a high-profile child abuse tragedy in the news, which caseworker shows up at the door and what mood s/he’s in.
If child welfare really wants that sea change, here’s what has to change: For starters, help to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty must be made readily available to families without having to go through an agency that can take away their children. The people who work for those helping agencies must be exempted from mandatory reporting laws. (That doesn’t mean they’d be barred from calling a hotline if they saw real abuse, they just wouldn’t be under enormous pressure to report anything and everything.)
But that’s only a first step. Ultimately, if we really want to reduce child abuse, and if we really want COVID-19 to lead to any sort of change for the better, child welfare systems need to rethink the entire child welfare surveillance state, beginning with the abolition of mandatory reporting. But that kind of change will happen only if we finally free ourselves from the grip of health terrorism.
What else can be done? We propose a series of other solutions at www.nccpr.org