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December 2020Vol. 21, No. 9To Be Relentless for Children, We Must Be Relentless for Families

Written by Richard Wexler, executive director, National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

Crystal Baker-Burr, now an attorney for The Bronx Defenders, has represented children and parents in child welfare proceedings. Two years ago, she began an essay for Vivek Sankaran's Rethinking Foster Care blog this way:

"Can I have that quarter?" Anita asked me, pointing to the change she found in the chair in the courthouse interview room. I asked her what she needed it for. "I am saving all the change I find on the ground and keeping it with me," she said. "If they ever kidnap me and my brothers again, I can take a cab back home to mommy."

Anita collects coins. Other children returned to their homes from foster care dive under the bed when they hear a siren. Others cling to their parents whenever there is a knock at the door. We know the outcomes can be far worse. One study found the rate of posttraumatic stress disorder for foster care "alumni" was twice that of veterans of the first Gulf War, and only 20 percent were "doing well" in later life. More foster care alumni go to prison than to college. Although most foster parents try to do the best they can for the children in their care, other studies find abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes. The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is worse. 

In the name of "child protection," "child safety," and "children's rights," we have created a system that sometimes destroys children in order to "save" them.

It happened because the system is built on a foundation of myth. The mythology has prevented us from building a system based on children's needs.

One myth holds that the system is blameless for the rotten outcomes for youth in foster care—it was all their parents' fault. But study after study finds that, in the typical cases seen by family-policing agencies (a more accurate term than "child welfare" agencies), children left in their own homes fare better in later life than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care. But this research has been no match for the mythology, a mythology rooted in what's been called "health terrorism"—knowingly distorting the true nature of a problem by generalizing from extremely rare horror stories in the name of "raising awareness."

So, we get the myth that parents are beating, raping, and torturing their children on a massive scale and the family police are the "thin blue line" protecting millions of children from parents who are at worst evil and at best sick.

This explains how, even as we are supposed to be having a reckoning about racial justice, we buy into another myth: as soon as mostly White middle-class professionals no longer have their "eyes" constantly on overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately non-White children because schools are closed due to COVID-19, their parents supposedly will unleash upon them a "pandemic of child abuse." The myth continues to spread, even after news organizations such as the Associated Press, The Marshall Project, Bloomberg CityLab, and even Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago debunked it. 

In fact, out of every 100 calls to child abuse hotlines, 91 are false reports. Six more are cases in which the caseworker thinks there was neglect. In rare cases, neglect can be extremely serious, but more often it means the family is poor. For example, multiple studies have found that 30 percent of America's children in foster care could be home right now if their own parents simply had decent housing.

Decades of "health terrorism" have led us to accept the biggest myth of all—the idea that even the enormous trauma of removal is worth it because, once in foster care, at least the children are safe. So, we are told the system is just "erring on the side of the child" or "erring on the side of caution." The outcomes for youth in foster care and the studies on the rate of abuse in foster care tell us that's not true either.

But even that isn't the worst of it. The more caseworkers are overloaded with false reports, trivial cases, and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect, the less time they have to find children in real danger. That is almost always the real reason for the horror stories that make headlines.

America's take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare makes all children less safe. In contrast, a system built around children's needs would recognize that there is nothing cautious about tearing apart a family—it is a profoundly reckless act. A system built around children's needs would recognize that if we really want to err on the side of the child, we must err on the side of the family.

For this to happen, there are things we need to do, but there are also things we need to undo because child welfare has painted itself into a corner.

We want to create a system that emphasizes prevention. But the people who would deliver the prevention services almost always are legally required to report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect. So, people who need help are scared away from asking for it.

Mandatory reporting laws were put in place with no studies to see if they work. Many former proponents have changed their minds, and new research shows these laws backfire. They need to be repealed.

The myth that poverty has nothing to do with child maltreatment led us to pass the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which encouraged the creation of a child welfare surveillance state so extreme that one-third of all children, and more than half of Black children, will have to endure a child abuse investigation before they grow up. CAPTA should be repealed.

The myth that child safety and family preservation are opposites led to the enactment of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). The law encouraged a sharp increase in children taken from their homes and significantly increased the number of children who age out of care with no home at all. ASFA should be repealed.

Clearing away the rubble left by health terrorism will make it far easier to actually put in place a system geared to children's needs. Such a system should be built around concrete help—housing subsidies, child care assistance, and similar help to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty. Where substance use really is a barrier to parenting, we need family-based drug treatment on demand. And where concrete help is not enough, we need to embrace proven approaches such as the Homebuilders intensive family preservation services program.

To accomplish all this, Congress should revive a bipartisan idea: Give states the option to take their foster care money as a flexible flat grant instead of an open-ended entitlement, and allow the money to be used not just on foster care but also on better alternatives. In a 2003 op-ed column, which has been subsequently entered into the Congressional Record, Hillary Clinton and then Senate Majority Leader Tom DeLay said the plan, which originated in the George W. Bush Administration, "deserves careful consideration." Seventeen years later, it deserves to become law. At a minimum, Congress should restore the right of states to obtain waivers from the current financing system, which encourages foster care and discourages better alternatives.

All of these reforms have one thing in common. They are not something to be done because it's what parents want. We should do it because it's what children need.