Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Why journalists need to override child welfare’s veto of silence

It’s tough to verify a story when a child welfare agency won’t talk or release records. But it can be done. At the end of this post I’ve included links to 23 24 examples.

This post has been updated to include a link to some excellent reporting by the Kansas City Star in 2019.

Imagine for a moment that it is 1972. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are investigating the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex.

One of the reporters calls the White House for comment. A spokesman (or as reporters might derisively call him, a “flack”) for President Nixon replies: “You’ve got it all wrong, but we can’t say anything – it’s all a matter of national security.”  To which Woodward and/or Bernstein reply: “Oh, well, in that case we’ll just forget the whole thing.”

Of course that would never happen – except in child welfare, where it seems to happen a lot.

A family complains that their children were needlessly taken by child protective services. They tell their story to a reporter. The reporter calls the child welfare agency and is immediately referred to their flack who says: “Oh, well, there’s really so much more to the story and we wish we could tell you but we just can’t; confidentiality, you know.”  And, of course, they won’t share any records either.

Over and over I’ve seen journalists who would never let other agencies get away with this give up when told this by a child welfare agency. Or worse, knowing that the records are secret, they won’t even try.

Most of the time, reporters won’t admit it.  But one newspaper reporter did recently during an email exchange. I won’t penalize her for her candor by naming her.

This reporter wrote that she would not write an in-depth story about a child welfare case unless she had access to the actual child protective services documents in the case or access to the relevant court hearings.

 Double standards

In fact, neither she nor most other reporters seem to apply this to all cases. This reporter has written many stories about deaths of children “known to the system” even though the child welfare agency stonewalled. But those are the kinds of cases reporters tend to be comfortable with. The heroes are people reporters can identify with – middle-class foster parents, and/or “child advocates.”  The villains are presumed to be birth parents – people who almost never have anything in common with reporters – different backgrounds, different life experiences, different class and, often, different race.

That also helps explain why cases in which a family alleges the children were needlessly taken are another matter entirely.  They make a lot of reporters queasy right from the start.

What all this means is that when it comes to cases alleging wrongful removal, child welfare agencies have a de facto veto of silence. All they have to do is stonewall and the story will go away.  So even as journalists who cover child welfare regularly, and rightly, complain about agency secrecy, they enable and encourage that secrecy.  I’ve long thought that every time a reporter refuses to override the veto of silence, somewhere an agency flack gets his wings.

A distorted picture

And, of course, this leaves the public with a distorted picture of how and when child protective services agencies err; that is, they seem to err only in the direction of leaving children in dangerous homes because that’s almost all that ever gets into the newspapers, online, or on television.

Among the reasons the newspaper reporter who emailed me recently gave for caving in to the veto of silence: “People lie.”

Well, yes. But case records also sometimes lie. So do caseworkers. Occasionally, caseworkers even assert what amounts to a right to lie – in court.  But somehow that doesn’t stop reporters from writing story after story about cases in which, supposedly, agencies bent over backwards to coddle abusive families – often based on nothing more than an unsupported claim by the reporter’s favorite “child advocate.” Because when it comes to who’s telling the truth, people like us always get the benefit of the doubt over people like them.

No, that does not mean a journalist can or should simply take a family’s word for what happened.  And yes, getting at the facts in a case of wrongful removal can be difficult.

Of the many people who claim a child welfare agency acted unjustly some are, in fact, guilty as sin. Some are crazy.  Some have been driven crazy by what has happened to them.  Some have a good point on some issues while others involve many shades of gray.  And some are absolutely right.

But even when the stories are true, because most victims of child welfare agencies are poor, they often are less educated. So they may be less able to gather their thoughts – and their documents – and compose a clear, coherent narrative. So it takes a lot of work to understand the story at all, even before trying to check it.

All that is why, when journalists do focus on wrongful removal a disproportionate amount of the coverage is devoted to those rare times when the long arm of child protective services reaches into the middle class – as in this case and this one.

And yet, for all that, it can be done.

Some families have enough copies of documents to bolster their case. They may have lawyers or other witnesses.  And good reporters know that when an agency truly is being treated unfairly and can’t talk on the record, usually someone will still leak their side of the story. If they won’t give specifics, even off the record, odds are they don’t have a good case.

 The honor roll

All over the country, good reporters are finding ways to override the veto of silence and tell families’ stories. They’re not doing it nearly enough, but some very important stories make it into print and on the air. A previous post to this blog cited five examples, four published over a period of less than two weeks.

Here are some more:

● NPR’s LatinoUSA overrode the veto of silence in this half-hour documentary about a typical child welfare case.

 The New York Times got past the veto of silence to report on how fostercare has become the new “Jane Crow.”

The Times got past the veto of silence again to report on how parents can lose their children for smoking pot.

● NPR refused to let stonewalling stop them from exposing what South Dakota child welfare does to Native American children.

● For a brilliant examination of a case filled with shades of gray, check out this series from The Boston Globe. When it was published, more than half of the hundreds of comments – and most were surprisingly civil – disagreed with my own point of view. But it’s on this list because it is comprehensively reported, beautifully written, and gives readers the information we need to make up our own minds.

But you don’t have to be a big news organization to override the veto of silence:

● The Kansas City Star produced this brilliant series. They overrode the veto of silence by starting where so many former foster children wind up: in jail.

● The Philadelphia Daily News, a small paper in a big city, did this storyAnd this oneAnd this one.

● The reporter who would go on to expose the Flint water crisis did this story for Detroit’s alternative weekly Metro Times about what typical child welfare agencies do in typical cases.

● And this story from the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Gazette. And this one. And this one.

● And this series from the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

It’s not just print reporters who do good work. 

● There’s this story from WXYZ-TV in Detroit. (There were many more from WXYZ, but broadcast websites tend to be less good about keeping their stories online.)

And then there’s what happened when the Biloxi, Miss. Sun-Herald ran into the veto of silence. Instead of backing down they made how secrecy harms families the theme of a six-part series.

When reporters cave in to child welfare’s veto of silence it’s usually not because there’s no way to get around it.  Usually, it’s because they don’t want to get around it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Attn: Liberals. If you sound like Kellyanne Conway, you’re getting child welfare wrong

Photo by Gage Slidmore
Kellyanne Conway justifies the Muslim ban in much the
same way many on the Left justify child welfare's  
infrigements on civil liberties.

Child welfare systems have vast power and little accountability. 

Caseworkers usually can take away children entirely on their own authority; parents often have to go to court after-the-fact to try to get them back. The poor often are not guaranteed a lawyer, and rarely get a good one. The standard of proof is far lower than in a criminal case, and in most states the hearings are secret. NCCPR documents those abuses, and more, in our Due Process Agenda.

Though the system was largely created and is now largely justified by people who consider themselves liberals, when they seek to justify running roughshod over due process they sound remarkably like Donald Trump and his top aides.

Not that many are detained

Liberals justifying a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare often will say something like: “Only a small portion of the children investigated as possible victims of child abuse actually are removed from their homes.”

Here’s what Kellyanne Conway said about the Muslim ban – and make no mistake, that’s what it ison Fox News Sunday today:

And so, you’re talking about 325,000 people from overseas came into this country just yesterday through our airports.  So, 325,000, you’re talking about 300 and some who have been detained or are prevented from gaining access to an aircraft in their home country.  They must stay for now.  That's 1 percent. 
And I think in terms of the upside being greater protection of our borders, of our people, it's a small price to pay. 

In fact, of course, the consequences often were far more serious. I’m sure that's one reason my fellow liberals found her comments as infuriating as I did. But consider what happens in child abuse investigations:

The definitions of neglect are so broad that neglect often is confused with poverty. And all it takes to “substantiate” an allegation is a caseworker checking a box on a form stating it is slightly more likely than not that the abuse or neglect occurred. And yet the percentage of children in “substantiated” cases who are “detained” in foster care is more like 35 percent. And the detention can last months, years, or an entire childhood.

It’s only temporary

Many times I’ve heard my fellow liberals in child welfare say “Foster care is only temporary. If we make a mistake, we can always give the child back.” They say they’re just erring on the side of safety. 

They argue that the harm of foster care is a small price to pay for making sure children don’t die of child abuse. They argue that if they are not allowed to run child welfare exactly as they see fit – civil liberties be damned – children will die.

Or, as Kellyanne Conway put it:

…this is what we do to keep a nation safe.  I mean, there are – [the] whole idea that they’re being separated and ripped from their families, it’s temporary … as opposed to the over 3,000 children who will be forevermore separated from the parents who perished on 9/11.

We know stuff that you don't

Over and over, when people in child welfare agencies are confronted with a case of wrongful removal they say "Oh, there's so much more to it, but we can't tell you - it's confidential." And their liberal supporters say: Trust them, they know more than we do and they are just acting in the best interests of the children.

Or, as Kellyanne Conway said:

[Tump] is privy to information that the rest of us aren’t, particularly the media.  The political media aren't national security and intelligence experts receiving briefings every single day like our president is.  

The Muslim ban and the take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare have something else in common: They backfire. In the case of child welfare, the infringements on civil liberties overload child welfare systems so they have less time to find children in real danger – and more children die.

I’ve written before about just how much people on the Left start to sound like Donald Trump when the topic is child abuse.  And, as noted above, NCCPR has documented in detail the lack of due process.

So while we on the Left are fighting the horrors the Trump administration is inflicting on men, women - and children - abroad by denying them entry into the United States, let’s also take a moment to do something for children here at home: Stop casting aside everything we claim to believe about civil liberties as soon as someone whispers the words “child abuse” in our ears.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A lot of good journalism about child welfare

Here’s a good problem to have: So much good journalism about child welfare lately that it’s hard to keep up.

●The Arizona Republic has begun a new project on child welfare – and it’s off to an excellent start. Check out the first story.  And a strong editorial.

● But you don’t have to be a relatively large news organization to do outstanding work.  Check out this story from The Day in New London, Ct., about the biggest problem in American child welfare: the confusion of poverty with “neglect.” The same reporter wrote this excellent story as well.

● The nonprofit journalism site ProPublica has a detailed look at the misuse of “psych evals” – and how advocates in New York City brought about some improvement.

● And, as you read this story from the Philadelphia Inquirer, imagine what the response would be if the status of the alleged killer and the people who lost custody of the child were reversed.

Why the “Foster-Care-at-All-Costs” Crowd Will Never Surrender Their Horror Stories

Imagine the following scenario: A child is taken from her parents. When child protective services decides to reunify the family the foster parents object. They wage a fierce fight, but they lose.
Sometime later, the child is dead. She was raped and murdered, allegedly by her mother’s boyfriend while her mother watched. Her body was packed in cat litter and stashed in an attic for four months. Then the body was dismembered and the remains dumped in the woods. Years earlier, a previous boyfriend of the same mother also had raped the child.
Such a story would be front page news for days, perhaps weeks where it occurred. It might well become a national story. And the theme, of course, would be that the Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy had struck again. A supposed fanatical desire to keep families together “at all costs” had led to tragedy.
Many journalists and politicians would gladly accept these claims as fact. Everyone from frontline workers to the agency chief would be fired. And entries into foster care would skyrocket.

The Real Story

As it happens, there really is a case like this in the news right now, involving a child in Pennsylvania named Grace Packer. With two slight differences.
Difference number one: It was the birth parents who fought for the child. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported:

Rose and Rodney Hunsicker battled Berks County child-welfare officials for two to three years to keep their children, according to their attorney at the time. They did not want to lose custody of Grace and her two siblings.

 But Children and Youth officials in Reading fought “aggressively” to remove the children, alleging abuse by other adults in the home, Norristown attorney David Tornetta told the Inquirer…

 “I can’t imagine what that young child went through,” Tornetta said. “I guarantee you if that child had been in Rose and Rodney’s care, it wouldn’t have been anything like this … The lawyer said he came to know the Hunsickers as a loving couple who were unemployed but could have become better parents with some help.

I’m sure you can guess the second big difference: The alleged killers are a foster parent and her boyfriend.

Sara Packer, a supervisor for a county child welfare agency who fostered and then adopted Grace, stands accused of her murder along with her boyfriend, Jacob Sullivan.

Back in 2010, when Packer was married to a different man, that man was convicted of raping Grace and another foster child. He was imprisoned, but they did not divorce for another six years.
Packer lost her county job. But she was allowed to keep Grace.
The story is generating headlines in Pennsylvania. But when it comes to “lessons learned,” the usual double standard is apparent. No one is saying the case proves that Pennsylvania relies too heavily on foster care. No one is saying that a push for “foster care at all costs” is endangering children’s lives. No one is asking if middle-class rescue fantasies are taking precedence over child safety.
Why not? Perhaps people feel it’s wrong to generalize based on horror stories.
I agree.

Let’s Make a Deal

That’s why I have a standing offer to the advocacy community and journalists who cover child welfare. While I will not unilaterally disarm, I am prepared to accept a mutual moratorium on the use of all horror stories to “prove” anything.
The family preservation community can afford to take such a deal for the following reasons:
§  We don’t need horror stories to show that Pennsylvania takes away too many children and journalists should be asking why. We’ve got the data showing the state’s rate of removal is above the national average and far above the rate in states where independent monitors have found that family preservation improved child safety.

§  We don’t need horror stories to show that foster care is often unsafe and journalists should question its overuse. We’ve got study after study showing appalling rates of abuse in foster care – with even higher rates of abuse in group homes and institutions.

§  We don’t need horror stories to show the inherent harm of taking away so many children needlessly. We’ve got those massive studies of typical cases which show that children left in their own homes typically fare better than children placed in foster care.

But those whose approach to child welfare really boils down to take-the-child-and-run/foster-care-at-all-costs wouldn’t dare take such a deal. Because take away their horror stories and you know what they’ve got?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Just what we need in child welfare: less accountability!

Pity the poor, oppressed “mandated reporter” of child abuse.
Sure, they already have protections from lawsuits that are so strong that they have to not only violate the law but have good reason to know they’re doing it, or be acting maliciously, before a jury can even consider what they’ve done to an innocent family.

But, says Franne Sippel, that’s not enough! How does she know? Because out of the millions of times mandated reporters have filed reports – or in some cases, even seized children on their own authority – she’s found a handful in which the reporter was sued or faced some kind of retaliation.

Since the entire structure of American child welfare is built on a foundation of horror stories, it’s no surprise that they constitute Sippel’s entire “evidence base.” But even some of the horror stories don’t hold up to scrutiny. She cites five instances of alleged retaliation against a mandated reporter, but provides supporting evidence for only one of them.
Then she cites two court cases. But she links only to items that support her position – not the actual court decisions.  The decisions tell a different story.
What the Courts Said

In one case, Sippel writes that “G.J., an infant, sustained skull and rib fractures while in his parents’ care. The story his mother gave was medically inconsistent with his injuries. Radiologists suspected child abuse, which was consistent with medical literature.”
But according to the actual decision, the parents made a strong case that there was overwhelming evidence abuse did not cause the child’s injuries, and that the doctor they sued allegedly used deception and coercion to hold the child in the hospital needlessly. Ultimately the child was separated from his family for months before a court ruled that, in fact, there had been no abuse.

The court did not say the doctor did all these things, ruling only that there was enough evidence to allow a jury to decide. But Sippel thinks even that is too much of a burden for a mandated reporter to bear.
Sippel also doesn’t link to the actual decision in the second case she cites. That decision paints a picture of a school administrator allegedly waging a vendetta against a parent fighting with the school over a child’s special education plan. The court found that “… the facts taken in the light most favorable to [the accused] suggest that she embellished or entirely fabricated [some] allegations, including those that most clearly suggested sexual abuse.”

Again, the court did not say the administrator is guilty – only that the alleged conduct is not protected by immunity, so the parents have a right to let a jury decide if it took place.
And, of course, the horror stories go both ways. Consider these cases of mandated reporters abusing authority. And this one.  And this oneAnd this story noting how even landlords are getting into the act, using false child abuse reports to retaliate against tenants.

What HHS Said

Sippel’s claim that “The Secretary of Health and Human Services made recommendations to Congress for strengthening immunity in child maltreatment cases” is also misleading.

The tone of the HHS report certainly is sympathetic to mandated reporters; as one would expect, since the authors consulted only mandated reporters. What would a report that questioned only the falsely accused and the lawyers who represent them have found?
But the report makes no actual recommendations of its own. Rather, it passes on recommendations from mandated reporters. Surprise! They want even less accountability.
Indeed, the extremism of some seeking to avoid accountability knows no bounds. This can be seen in the notorious “right-to-lie” case, in which child welfare caseworkers claimed they were not constitutionally prohibited from outright lying to the court to get a child taken from her mother.

In what The Chronicle aptly characterizes as an “epic dis” of this argument, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals points out that California passed a law specifically stating that immunity does not apply to child welfare workers who, acting with malice, commit perjury and fabricate evidence.

That seems pretty basic. But, the decision notes, the association of county welfare directors and the National Association of Social Workers, among others, actually opposed the law!
And finally, if you’re going to argue that even minimal accountability for mandated reporters might discourage them from reporting, “leading to more abuse and deaths,”  you probably should not choose a case from Pennsylvania as your example, as Sippel does.
In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, reports alleging child abuse have skyrocketed, deluging the state hotline and county child welfare agencies. And of course, in parts of the state, foster care has skyrocketed as well.

All of which makes it less likely workers will have time to find children in real danger – leading to more abuse and deaths.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

New columns on the "new normal" for Black children - and other child welfare system horrors

There’s a new study out which includes some frightening estimates about the likelihood that a child abuse investigation will be a part of one’s childhood. If the study is correct, enduring such an investigation is the new normal for African-American children. Unfortunately, the researchers were not frightened.  I wrote about it here

I spoke to Errol Louis, anchor of Road to City Hall on NY1, a local all-news cable channel about foster care panic.  The video is here.

Other columns deal with:

--How the McMartin Preschool case was child welfare's prelude to #Pizzagate

--How one writer's proposed "New vision" for foster care is just another call to go back to orphanages 

--The real lesson from the closing of a California group home: Group homes don't work.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The real lesson from the fall of R.I.S.E.: Group homes don’t work

The great filmmaker Costa Gavras, known for making “political films” such as Z and The Confession, once said: 
The issues in politics are not complex, even though politicians tell us so in order to convince us of the politicians’ importance … and to keep us from criticizing them.
It works the same way in child welfare. The bloviations of assorted “providers” concerning the complexity of this or that problem usually are rhetorical fog, created to obscure the simple fact that whatever it is the providers are providing has failed.

Case in point: a story in The Chronicle of Social Change  about the closing of the Residential Intervention for the Sexually Exploited (R.I.S.E.) group home for commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC – yes, there’s already a dehumanizing acronym) in Redwood City, Calif. [UPDATE, JANUARY 2018: The story is part of a disturbing pattern at the Chronicle - the Fox News of child welfare. The Chronicle loves to cozy up to the group home industry. Indeed, lately they've gotten even cozier. This column used to be available free on the Chronicle website, now it's been hidden behind their paywall.]

The story goes on and on about how the closing illustrates the “complexities faced by the entities engaged in serving and protecting [such] children,” how the group home ran up against “complicated” protocols, etc.
But the real story is simple:
1.       Group homes are almost always a bad idea.
2.       Someone opened a group home.
3.       It failed.
4.       It was forced to close.

Only item four on the list is unusual. Indeed, given what the San Jose Mercury News exposed about group homes and institutions California allows to remain open, you have to wonder about a place authorities found so bad they shut it down after only two years with the owner agreeing never to open a group home in Redwood City again.

But The Chronicle of Social Change does not wonder. It does not dig into the details about the failures at R.I.S.E. that led to the closure. Perhaps that’s understandable. Two years ago, TheChronicle did a 2,000 word encomium to R.I.S.E. featuring gushy paragraphs like this:

The interior walls of the yellow craftsman style home … are all painted bright colors and dusted with empowering quotes; the aesthetics a small indication of the lengths to which Annie Corbett … and her staff have gone to ensure that this home is a safe place …

Right. Because if the walls look pretty and the quotes are “empowering” what could possibly go wrong?
I’m sure Corbett meant well. But in that story, she already is portraying herself as a child welfare Gulliver, always at risk of being tied down by the Lilliputians of licensing who can, she says, “inflict torment any way they want.” As for actually helping these young people by placing them with families: Corbett says foster parents “don’t want these kids.” Needless to say birth parents are not even mentioned.
Layers of Faux Complexity

Now that the program has shut down, ThChronicle buries the basics in layers of faux “complexity.”
The most recent story begins:
In foster care most of her life, 17-year-old Amber [not her real name] finally found a little stability at R.I.S.E. House. After cycling through 35 foster and group homes, she developed relationships at R.I.S.E. and was poised to graduate from high school.

Normally in a news story a claim such as this would be followed by something to back it up – at least a quote from Amber herself. But no evidence, and no quote, is offered. Apparently, the reporter just took someone’s word for it. (In fact neither Chronicle story quotes any current or former resident of R.I.S.E.)

Only toward the very end of the story do we learn that, notwithstanding the claims about “stability” and “relationships,” Amber had run away from R.I.S.E. not once, but five times.

The story does quote from a report by the California Child Welfare Council – but selectively. The story notes the report’s call for “stable housing and specialized placement options.” But the report also says:

CSEC survivors who have successfully left their exploitative relationship often point to the emotional connections and trusting relationships they built with caring adults as significant factors in their recovery. In contrast, CSEC survivors identify significant difficulties with living in group homes. For example, in those placements, no one caregiver looks out for their well-being. CSEC may also pose risks to the other children in the home. Group home placement can even exacerbate CSEC victimization, because pimps use such facilities as recruiting grounds.

Pattern Seen All Over the Country

That’s exactly what has happened over and over, all over the country. Yet despite the mountain of evidence that group homes and institutions are a failure for all populations, the group home industry persists in pushing institutionalization for this especially vulnerable group.

And when it all goes wrong, it’s everyone else’s fault. The licensers are “harassing and intimidating us,” Corbett says.  The police put her program “in a vice grip.”  And, of course, only she really cares about the children. In a comment reminiscent of Donald Trump’s declaration that “I alone can fix it,” Corbett says she is working “with a population everyone else gets rid of.”  Shutting down her group home, she says, is just another example of “the marginalization and discrimination against these vulnerable and traumatized kids.”

In her telling, the problem isn’t that, as authorities said, there was no therapeutic program, issues with the staff-child ratio, poor school attendance, and trouble with staff training (which is odd since the earlier Chronicle story assured readers that staff already were specifically trained to deal with this population).

No, Corbett says, those awful police and licensing people were at the home so often there just wasn’t time to run a worthwhile program.
Here’s another possibility: They were there so often because R.I.S.E was a bad idea, badly executed.
There is nothing a group home can do that can’t be done better by providing wraparound services to children living either with their own families or with foster families. You can find foster families to accept “these kids” if they know they will have the intensive support they need to help them.

Indeed, the California Child Welfare Council report recommends that the state “create a CSEC subspecialty within Wraparound programs that will ensure caregivers have the knowledge and resources needed to care for CSEC victims.”

Some things in child welfare are complicated, such as funding formulas. But the issues in child welfare are not complex, even though providers tell us so in order to convince us of the providers’ importance. And to keep us from criticizing them.

Enduring a Child Abuse Investigation is the New Normal for Black Children

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 [no one] will never be able to put us in a foster home again.

Those words were written in 2006 by a 14-year-old girl who’d already endured needless foster care placement once.  A caseworker decided her mother couldn’t cope with being a single parent, holding a job and going to college. In 2006, the family was under investigation again – because the school system lost some records.

The girl’s mother also wrote about the experience:

As soon as they heard the loud knock on the door my children knew it was [child protective services]. And they were scared. It’s amazing how a hard knock on the door can only mean one of two things – or maybe both – in certain neighborhoods. 

 The Knock That is Now the Norm

Even more amazing, and more horrifying: the findings from a new study that attempts to estimate how often children hear that loud knock on the door. If you’re black, it’s more likely than not that it will be a part of your childhood. The study estimates that 53 percent of African-American children will be subjected to a child abuse investigation before they turn 18.

It will happen to 32 percent of Hispanic children. It even will happen to 28 percent of white children. In all, the study estimates, more than a third of all American children will endure the knock on the door and all that follows.

The study does not break down the figures by income level. We can only imagine the percentage of poor children for whom this trauma is a typical part of childhood.

Of course, the fear of that knock on the door is likely to be greatest in cases where a child has already been consigned needlessly to the chaos of foster care before, such as the 14-year-old quoted above. She was repeatedly abused in foster care. But even when it does not result in removal, a child abuse investigation is not a benign act.

At a minimum, children endure the trauma of strangers coming to their home, asking about the most intimate aspects of their lives, turning the house upside down, and leaving everyone in fear. If the allegation is physical or sexual abuse, the children may be subjected to a strip search and an intrusive medical examination. If anyone else did that, it would be sexual abuse.

That one should even have to point out that a child abuse investigation is traumatic for a child is testament to the willful blindness about race and class that permeates child welfare. Most of the time, when a black man is forced up against a wall by police and frisked, it doesn’t result in arrest. But only right-wing extremists dismiss the trauma of stop-and-frisk as harmless.

Of course, if you’ve already convinced yourself that a child abuse investigation is no big deal, it’s easier to oppose any change in the process to make it even a little less traumatic.

When Appalling Findings Don’t Appall

But there is something even more appalling than the actual findings: the fact that the researchers were not appalled. On the contrary, approaching child welfare as a public health problem and not a social justice problem, the researchers blithely suggest that their findings mean child abuse is rampant, and the fact that 78 percent of allegations don’t even meet the extremely low criteria for “substantiation” is irrelevant.

How do they know? Because some surveys in which questionnaires are administered to children and youth find that a whole lot of them have been maltreated in some way. One survey cited claims that 38.1 percent of children experienced “maltreatment.” But the actual questions posed by that survey use some very broad definitions. Here’s the question about “neglect”:

When someone is neglected, it means that the grown-ups in their life didn’t take care of them the way they should. They might not get them enough food, take them to the doctor when they are sick, or make sure they have a safe place to stay. At any time in your life, did you get neglected? 

They might as well have asked “At any time in your life were you poor?”

The researchers also cite a study which purports to show that the rate at which children are re-abused is about the same whether the first report was substantiated or not. But the researchers neglect to mention that the rate of alleged re-abuse in either case was very low – between 4.5 percent and 18 percent, depending on how one counts.

So even taking the substantiation study at face value, it merely tells us what we already know: substantiation decisions are arbitrary, capricious and cruel, and whether a case is substantiated depends more on factors such as which caseworker shows up at the door, the race of the family, and whether there was a high profile fatality in the news recently than on any objective measure of maltreatment.
The findings in the new study of exposure to child abuse investigations suggest not an epidemic of child abuse, but rather an epidemic of false reports and over-investigation.

British researchers understood that after they found similar staggering rates of investigation, and looked at them without the willful blindness that sometimes characterizes their American counterparts.
So here is a modest proposal for helping to open some eyes. The next time researchers embark on one of those grand surveys asking young people about the trauma in their lives, they should add this question: “Were you ever the subject of an investigation of a false report of child abuse?”

They can grab a bunch of headlines by reporting that the rate of “emotional abuse” has skyrocketed.