In New York State, the number of fatalities from child maltreatment went from 69 in 2019 to 105 in 2020. There were 51,000 reports of child maltreatment concerning more than 66,000 children. Just last month, three Black New York City children under the age of four were murdered by their parents; all had previously been reported mistreating their children.
The city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) has its hands full dealing with horrific instances of child abuse. Or so you might think. Unfortunately, for the leaders of ACS and so many others in the field of child welfare, the goal of keeping children safe is taking a back seat to anti-racism. And activists who want to dismantle child welfare agencies now seem to have the ear of politicians and policymakers.
A case in point: Instead of focusing its attentions on protecting vulnerable children from abuse, the agency in charge of protecting children has decided that now is a good time to “become an antiracist organization.”
As a first step toward that goal, ACS commissioned a report from a non-profit called the National Innovation Service (NIS), which surveyed 50 Black and Hispanic caseworkers and agency managers, parents and advocates. The resulting “Racial Equity Participatory Action Research and System Audit”—which has been featured on the front page of the New York Times and public radio—found the agency to be a “predatory system that specifically targets Black and brown parents” and subjects them to “a different level of scrutiny.”
Of course, if this were true, it would be consistent with child welfare to investigate further. But it’s not. The entire report is nothing more than bad social science wrapped in academic jargon. Even worse, its recommendations are likely to leave more kids—and more Black kids in particular—in danger.
The NIS, which produced the report, shut down in 2021, so it might be hard to ask its authors any questions. But the methodology of the report is a joke. About 50 workers participated at an agency with thousands of employees. Only Black and Hispanic employees were invited. And who would volunteer to participate in a survey about whether their employer is racist? Probably people who think their employer is racist.
The NIS also held focus groups with parents who were investigated by ACS. Researchers asked these “stakeholders” to define “what safety looks like for families” and whether ACS contributes to making families safe in those ways. The report then concludes that the system should “reorient around family-defined safety and needs.”
Actually, the system is supposed to be oriented around safety as it’s defined by New York State law. And it’s supposed to revolve around the needs of children, not the parents they have been taken away from. Often the needs of children do align with the needs of families, but in the case of families who have been reported for severe abuse or chronic neglect, the goal is to protect children—not to make adults feel better.
None of this is to deny that there are real racial disparities in the child welfare system. Black children are more likely to be reported for maltreatment, and investigations into these claims are more likely to be substantiated for Black children, who are also more likely to be removed from their parents’ care.
But is this just because of racial bias in the agency?
In order to answer to that question, you’d have to find cases that were equivalent in their level of severity, including how many times reports had been filed. You wouldn’t simply do a survey of how a few workers feel.
Then you’d have to look at other factors. Black children nationally are three times as likely to die from child maltreatment as their white peers. And a recent New York Times analysis of child homicides in New York City from 2016 to 2022 found that Black children “were killed by family members at about seven times the rate for white and Asian children and three times the rate for Hispanic children.”
Might these factors be driving black involvement with child welfare? The report’s authors don’t say.
The report found that parents “felt penalized for being poor, as investigatory processes sought to catalog the ways in which parents struggled to provide food, housing and resources for their children and frame it as neglect.” But workers are not just “framing” circumstances as neglect in order to harass innocent families. Neglect is actually more likely than abuse to lead to fatalities.
A recent study of almost 300 case files in California, for instance, found that “nearly all investigations of physical neglect (99 percent) included concerns related to substance use, domestic violence, mental illness, co-reported abuse or an additional neglect allegation (i.e., abandonment).”
These problems don’t disappear with more money.
The efforts to eliminate racial disparities in child welfare will result in more Black children being unsafe.
But that has not stopped advocates up and down the system from repeating this nonsense. A major conference at the Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect at the University of Colorado featured panels like “Intersectionality in Adoption and Foster Care–Managing Multiple Identities,” “The Urgency of Intersectionality,” and “Structures of Oppression: Setting the Context.”
The Child Welfare League of America recently devoted an entire issue of its journal to “anti-racist approaches” in the field. The Biden administration official in charge of child welfare compared the workers in the field to “overseers on plantations” and advised the public not to call child protective services: “Save Black children from that knock on the door and that tunnel of child welfare, out of which they may never see their way.”
It would be easy to dismiss all of this as woke gobbledygook. But this nonsense is gaining a foothold in child welfare agencies and family courts across the country.
At best they are distracting child protection agencies from their core mission. At worst, they are leaving more dead Black children in their wake.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Her book No Way to Treat a Child will be published in the fall.
The views in this article are the writer’s own.
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