Monday, October 10, 2011

Child welfare and race: The smoking transcript

The director of Every Child Matters tells Congress that the states that do best at preventing child abuse have “smaller, whiter populations.”

I’ve written before about the hype and hysteria spread by the group that calls itself “Every Child Matters” in its effort to stampede child welfare systems into diverting $3 billion to $5 billion into hiring more child protective services workers to take away more children.

I’ve noted how their executive director, Michael Petit, spent 45 minutes comparing rates of child abuse deaths among the states – and maligning states that allegedly rated high – only to admit that it was, in fact, impossible to make such a comparison.

Over the past couple of years, Petit spent an enormous amount of time and effort  trying to get Congress to hold a hearing on the issue where he could be in the spotlight as a witness.  If any nonprofit has gone through so much just to give its director five minutes of this kind of fame (you don’t even get 15 for your statement) I’m not aware of it.

On July 12, Petit got his hearing, before a House subcommittee, complete with the obligatory celebrity witness, a second-tier cast member from Law and Order: SVU, to guarantee a crowd.  But I’ve said nothing about Petit’s remarks until now because one thing he said was so disturbing I decided to wait until the transcript came out to be sure I’d heard it correctly. 

Unfortunately, I did, in fact, hear what I thought I heard.  It happened when Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Washington) asked Petit “what states have had the best system in place to predict and deal with and prevent [child abuse]?”

Petit said it was a complicated question, and he explained some of the complexity.  And then he said:

But I will tell you the states that do the best overall are the ones that have smaller, whiter populations. 

Petit immediately realized that might not have been the best thing to say, and rushed to clarify:

So where ‑‑ which translates into less poverty and less complicated issues around domestic violence, around imprisonment issues, around substance abuse."

But then he couldn’t resist raising the issue of race again:

If you take a look at the overall distribution of these issues, they are concentrated especially most severely in the states with large minority populations.  And I say that, saying that that correlates, in turn, with high rates of poverty in those communities.


Notice how Petit repeats the common canard about minorities and substance abuse.  In fact, as the Annie E. Casey Foundation notes in this report:

Despite being more likely to be poor, black and Hispanic Americans use drugs at levels comparable to, and in some instances, lower than white Americans.

So if Petit is really referring to the impact of substance abuse on child maltreatment, why would he claim that “whiter” states do better at curbing the child abuse that stems from substance abuse?  Perhaps he got his misimpression the way so many Americans do – by looking at who gets punished for substance abuse.

As that same Casey study notes:

Despite having drug use rates comparable to whites, black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to experience negative consequences from drug use, including being involved in the child welfare system and in the criminal justice system          

And as The New York Times reported in this recent story about children being taken from their parents because of those parents’ marijuana use:

Over all, the rate of marijuana use among whites is twice as high as among blacks and Hispanics in the city, the data show, but defense lawyers said these cases were rarely if ever filed against white parents.

So first, child welfare systems apply racially-biased double standards when it comes to dealing with substance-abusing parents, and then Michael Petit runs to Congress to perpetuate stereotypes resulting from those very double standards.

A little later in the hearing Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) a hero of the civil rights movement, demonstrated grace equal to his well-known courage and gave Petit a chance to walk back his remarks.  But Petit only dug himself in deeper with comments veering disturbingly close to the stereotypes about Black women debunked in this excellent article from Colorlines.  Petit’s comments can be found by going to the transcript and doing a search for “Mr. Lewis.”

There is no evidence that there is more child maltreatment (or more of what we label child maltreatment) in poor Black communities than in poor white communities.  Even those who are “in denial” about the racial bias that permeates decisions to take away children claim that Blacks are overrepresented in child welfare systems only because of the pressures of poverty.  (In fact, the overrepresentation of African American children in foster care is due to both poverty and racism, as is discussed in detail in our Issue Paper on child welfare and race.)

So all Michael Petit needed to say was that the states doing better have smaller, richer populations.  When it comes to solving the problems, he’d still probably be wrong -  there is strong evidence, for example, that one of America’s most successful child welfare systems is the one in Alabama - but at least he wouldn’t have taken any gratuitous swipes at an entire race. 

Michael Petit is not a racist.  Like most people in child welfare, he cares deeply about helping vulnerable children, of all races, and sincerely believes his approach will help do just that.   But his comments reveal the extent to which our feelings about race bias our policy choices more than we realize - until something slips out, as it did at the hearing.  And what do such comments from Petit, who once ran an entire child welfare system and who had been a top official in the Child Welfare League of America, tell us about the unconscious biases of frontline workers and others when they decide to remove children from their homes?


Petit’s comments raise another question that is at least as troubling:

Why have none among Petit’s small group of allies, the groups supporting his crusade to divert funds to hiring more CPS workers, called him out on this?  Particularly disturbing is the silence from the National Association of Social Workers, which remains a part of the alliance Petit formed to push his agenda and continues to promote it.

Sadly, this isn’t all that puzzling. 

NASW is a trade association for social workers.  So of course, NASW would be pushing Petit’s agenda.  Three billion dollars can buy a lot of social work jobs.

But I would have hoped Petit’s linking child abuse to race would have prompted an end to an unseemly alliance.