Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Child welfare and terrorism: Lessons from the paranoia in Los Angeles

                                                                                     Photo by John Picken
Over at the Chronicle of Social Change, I have a blog post called “Donald Trump and the Child Savers: Not a Band But They Sing the Same Song.”  It’s about how people in child welfare, many of whom abhor Trump, use his tactics to whip up hysteria over child abuse and scare us into supporting policies that lead to the widespread, needless removal of children from their homes.  This does terrible harm to the children needlessly taken.  It also steals time and resources from finding children in real danger.

Anyone who lives in a poor neighborhood knows this, of course.  The threat that Child Protective Services (CPS) will confuse family poverty with neglect is a constant, nagging fear.  It dates all the way back to the 19th Century when Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children – who disguised an agenda of hatred and fear for the immigrant poor with lofty rhetoric about saving the children – were known in poor neighborhoods simply as “The Cruelty.”

Yesterday, the rest of America got a small taste of how much disruption can be caused when we give in to the Trump-style paranoia that has long dominated the child welfare system.  It happened in Los Angeles, when one crude hoax email led to the shutdown of the entire Los Angeles Unified School District – the nation’s second largest.  The only system that’s bigger, the one in New York City, got a nearly identical email.  They knew a hoax when they saw one, and decided not to overreact.

By the time Los Angeles officials made their decision, many students were on their way to school, or already there.  According to The New York Times:

The decision [In Los Angeles] threw the lives of millions of people — students, parents, teachers — into disarray and sent a wave of concern across an already tense region. “If they sent an alert, I never received it,” said Christine Clarke, who showed up at Hollywood High School looking frantically for her son after hearing the news on the radio. Parents scrambled for last-minute day care or called in sick at work, …

And that may be the least of it.  Police inspected more than 1,500 school sites before the search finally was called off.  How much real crime was missed while all those police officers were chasing down a hoax?

It could have been even worse.  How many very young children could have been left unsupervised, or gotten lost, in the chaos as parents tried to change plans and find them?  In short, the response to the hoax caused more danger to the children than the hoax.

The mentality on display in Los Angeles is the mentality that pervades child welfare.  It’s why caseworkers barge into the lives of more than three million children every year, sometimes based on little more than an anonymous call to a child protective hotline – and 80 percent of the reports are falseAs caseworkers spin their wheels on false reports and trivial cases, children in real danger are overlooked.

The mentality of those defending the response in Los Angeles is strikingly like the mentality that dominates child welfare.  Again from the Times:

[Rep. Brad] Sherman said elements of the message did not appear credible, including the number of potential attackers and the claim that they had access to nerve gas. ([New York City Police Commissioner William] Bratton … suggested that the writer might have been inspired by recent episodes of “Homeland,” with its plotline of a sarin gas attack on Berlin.) The message was signed by a male Arabic-appearing name, Mr. Sherman said, but added: “The word ‘Allah’ appears several times in the email, but once it’s not capitalized. A devout Muslim or an extremist Muslim would probably be more careful about typing the world Allah.”
But then Sherman says:
The author appeared knowledgeable about the structure of the Los Angeles Unified School District, referring to the system by its full name, which added to the concern, Mr. Sherman said. “Just because parts of the email are false doesn’t mean it’s all false,” he said [emphasis added].
Classic.  I’m reminded of the CPS caseworker who told me that even if someone is harassing a family with false reports, workers should keep right on going out and investigating the family time after time after time because of “the cry wolf example.”
There’s still another parallel.  Some have said, in effect, of course New York and Los Angeles responded differently – L.A. is near San Bernardino.  (Whereas New York, of course, has had no experience with terrorism.)
In child welfare, agencies are more likely to take the child and run if a high profile child abuse death is in theheadlines.
Or maybe it’s partly cultural.  Even when rates of child poverty are factored in, Los Angeles County takes away children at more than double the rate of New York City.  There is no evidence that Los Angeles children are twice as safe as their New York City counterparts.
There is one difference though.  When CPS agencies behave this way the stakes are a lot higher.  A child abuse investigation is not a benign act.  Having a stranger come to the door – or your school – pull you aside and ask questions about the most intimate aspects of your life can be an enormously traumatic experience for a child; and the younger the child the greater the trauma.  It can leave lifelong emotional scars.
Even worse, when the allegation is physical abuse – and, sometimes, even when it’s not - the investigation often is accompanied by a stripsearch by a caseworker or a doctor looking for bruises.  If anyone else did that it would be sexual abuse.  And if the allegation is sexual abuse, the medical exam can be a lot more traumatic.
Indeed, try to imagine the terror for a young child, suddenly taken from family by strangers, often including police.  She goes to a strange hospital, where doctors and nurses she’s never met before perform the most intimate possible examination.

All this is before we even reach the harm of panicky caseworkers using flimsy allegations to throw children needlessly into foster care.

Some will read this and say: But what if there really had been a terrorist attack and the school officials had ignored the warning?

Well, everyone involved would have been fired, we know that.  In contrast, no one will be held accountable for the chaos caused by the overreaction – once again, the parallel to child welfare is perfect.

But we also should know this: Life comes with risk.  Every time we get into a car we run the risk that a drunk driver is heading toward us in the next lane.  Every time we go for a swim we risk drowning.  But trying to take every last bit of risk out of our lives not only debilitates our psyches – it also, paradoxically, puts us all at more risk.