Sunday, March 29, 2020

No, the sky ISN’T falling because child abuse hotlines are getting fewer calls

In fact, it might clear some of the “pollution” of false reports from the system and make children safer – especially if we take this opportunity to rethink an approach that’s failed for more than half a century.


● Out of every 100 calls to child abuse “hotlines” 97 are screened out, false reports, or neglect reports – which often means poverty. So no, reducing the number of calls will not necessarily increase actual child abuse.

● In fact, fewer calls may wind up decreasing abuse. That’s because with far fewer false reports to deal with, workers may have more time to find children in real danger.

● In contrast, fear-mongering that encourages even more people to call in their slightest suspicions increases the risk of traumatizing children with needless investigations – and as workers poke and pry through home after home it increases the risk of families – and workers – contracting COVID-19.

● Even if one believes there might be some increase in actual child abuse, the notion that, as some have claimed, as soon as all those (mostly) white, middle-class professional “eyes” are averted from (mostly) poor children of color it could unleash “a child abuse pandemic!” -- is racist. It suggests that the only thing stopping those uncivilized poor folk from torturing their kids is white paternalism and omnipresent surveillance.

● Some child abuse has indeed been unleashed – by the response of the child welfare system itself.  It is child abuse to prolong needless foster care.  It is child abuse to deny a young child a visit with her or his mother.  Such wholesale policies are not necessary to curb the spread of the virus.

● Yes the increased stress we’re all under right now may cause some parents to lash out. It is even more likely to prompt the strangers taking care of foster children to lash out.  The threat of being reported to child protective services only decreases the likelihood of people reaching out for help.  And it’s hard to imagine much that would add more stress to a family than a needless child abuse investigation.

            Almost every news story about COVID-19 and its impact on child welfare focuses primarily, often exclusively, on one theme. Like the frantic robot on the original Lost in Space shouting “Danger, Will Robinson!” the stories cry out: Oh my God!  Calls to the child abuse hotlines are declining because schools are closed!  How will we find the child abuser under every bed?  Two stories have even included quotes warning of, as one official’s tweet put it “a child abuse pandemic!” [Exclamation point in original.]

            Two major exceptions I’ve seen so far: Impressive stories from Eli Hager in The Marshall Project and Roxanna Asgarian in Vox. [UPDATE: Here's another, from Rachel Blustain in City Limits and another from Abigail Kramer at the Center for New York City Affairs, and, one of the best: Kendra Hurley in Bloomberg CityLab. Even that bastion of the child welfare establishment, Chapin Hall, has debunked this myth.

            The assumption is that vast numbers of brutes and sadists have been lurking in the home all along, and the only thing stopping them from jumping out and torturing children is school personnel ever-vigilant to call child protective hotlines.  And, of course, the increased stress of coping with the pandemic will make things even worse as parents lash out at their children.

In fact, the reduction in calls might improve child safety, by giving workers more time to find children in real danger.  In contrast, encouraging everyone to call in their slightest suspicion, in addition to all the other ways it harms children, now increases the risk that families – and caseworkers – will contract the virus as the workers go through homes opening refrigerators and pantries and asking intimate questions of everyone in the house.

Meanwhile, this outpouring of mostly white middle-class angst ignores the real child abuse that has been unleashed by the pandemic – abuse that targets children who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite, abuse inflicted by the child welfare system’s own response to the pandemic.

            It’s not just the usual mainstream media suspects.  Mother Jones is a publication that prides itself in championing the poor, the working class and people of color. But they jumped on the same bandwagon.

            The profusion of these stories is a testament to two things: The first is the extent to which the unconscious biases about race and class that afflict child welfare itself also afflict newsrooms.  

            But also it’s a tribute to the success of America’s latter-day “child savers” in their decades-long effort to foment hysteria about child abuse by making selective use of horror stories and selective use of statistics. Indeed, at least one of the groups responsible for doing this decades ago has effectively admitted it – and even suggested it may have been a mistake.

The child abuse many stories ignore

 It is child abuse to prolong the anguish of a child’s time in foster care because court hearings are only for taking away children, not for sending them home.  (That also increases the risk the children will catch the virus in a crowded foster home or group home.)  It is child abuse to let white, middle-class foster parents veto a child of color’s chance to visit her or his mother and bond with her because the foster parent doesn’t want to “risk” it – even though there often are ways to do in-person visits safely.  And yes, that is happening in some states. In other states the visit cutoff is absolute.

These practices are so abusive toward children that one of the federal government’s top child welfare officials has sent out a letter strongly urging an end to these sorts of blanket restrictions.

  All of this is discussed in detail in NCCPR’s column last week in Youth Today.

This kind of abuse is inflicted almost exclusively on children who are poor and disproportionately on children of color. 

As the Movement for Family Power put it:

Every day our family courts are reminding us that Black and Brown families are not "essential," that keeping our families together is not a "priority," that our prolonged separations are not "emergencies"

Similarly, at its core the notion that taking (mostly) white middle-class “eyes” off families that are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite could unleash a “child abuse pandemic!” is racist. It suggests that the only thing stopping those uncivilized poor folk from torturing their kids is white paternalism and omnipresent surveillance.

Most journalists like to think of themselves as open-minded, and certainly not biased based on race or class -- and all of their stories about child abuse reporting were written with the best of intentions.  But what else can explain the near universal refusal to report on this kind of pandemic-related child abuse – even by news organizations such as Mother Jones?

Foster parents lose their temper, too

As for all the talk about added stress on families, of course that is true.  But foster parents lose their temper, too.  And you’re not going to ease a family’s stress by sending in an investigator to ask traumatic questions of children, possibly stripsearch them and maybe walk out with them (and in the process put everyone at greater risk of COVID-19).  Instead, you traumatize the children if you tear them from everyone they know and love.  And now the damage is compounded: Their risk of contracting COVID-19 increases further as they go from home to car to office to shelter to car to foster home. 

After all that, they wind up in a foster home where the foster parents are just as likely to be stressed.

Even in the best of times multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes – and the record of group homes and institutions is even worse.

Now, with all this additional stress foster parents are, if anything, even more likely to lash out at the newcomer in their home because these strangers don’t have the secret ingredient that increases patience in the most stressful of times: Love. Parents and extended family have that secret ingredient. That’s probably why, for example, kinship foster parents, such as grandparents are far less likely to demand that children be doped up on potent, sometimes dangerous psychiatric drugs.

Why the sky isn’t falling

            To understand why very few actual cases of serious abuse are being missed – and more such cases may now be found – we first need to look at all those reports to child abuse hotlines.

            In 2018, calls were made concerning 7.8 million children.  But many of them were to obviously false, or so clearly not maltreatment that they were screened out and never sent on for investigation.  Cases involving 4.3 million children were investigated.  But 83 percent of those cases involved false reports – usually well intentioned, but sometimes including CYA reports by “mandated reporters” such as teachers terrified not to report their slightest suspicion.

            So now, let’s look at the “substantiated” cases. The first thing to understand about them is “substantiated” doesn’t mean what many people think. It doesn’t mean a court convicted the accused, or even that the accused had a chance to present a defense to anyone. It means only that a caseworker checked a box on a form – it could be no more than a guess.

And in most states, the worker need merely guess that it is slightly more likely than not that abuse or neglect occurred; in some states the standard is even lower.  So consider again: Even with that incredibly low standard of proof and no chance for families to defend themselves, 83 percent of the time, the report was not substantiated. Oh, and one more thing: The only study I know of to second-guess those caseworker guesses found that workers are far more likely to wrongly substantiate an allegation than wrongly say one is unfounded.[1]   

            Of the cases that were substantiated by far the largest category is “neglect.” Yes, sometimes neglect can be extremely serious.  A parent locking a child in a closet and starving him to death is neglect.  But so is running out of SNAP aid at the end of the month. Guess which happens more often.  Two-thirds of all “substantiated” cases involve allegations of neglect – and nothing else. 

            So out of every 100 children who are subjects of calls to child abuse hotlines, 45 are screened out, 46 are false reports and six are neglect.  Sexual abuse and all forms of physical abuse, from the most minor to the most horrible involve three of those 100 children.

 When less is more

            One could argue that if even one case is missed then the sky really is falling.  And indeed, the only acceptable goal for child abuse is zero.  But fewer reports might well be the best way to bring us closer to that goal.
            As the pie chart makes clear, during normal times investigators for CPS agencies spend an astounding amount of their time – at least 83 percent of their time – spinning their wheels. They go to a home, often traumatize the children through the investigation itself – and find nothing.

The pandemic adds a whole new danger: An investigation means not just walking into a home, but walking all over the home, opening cupboards and refrigerators, looking into every bedroom. It also means questioning every member of the household.  The caseworker does this again and again going from home to home.  This, of course, greatly increases the risk of spreading the virus both to families and to caseworkers.  But more than four times out of five, it’s all for nothing. We should think long and hard before doing anything that’s likely to increase false reports.

            All this is a result of a jury-rigged system created more than half a century ago – put in place and expanded over and over with no evidence that it would work.  So huge numbers of people – most notably, at the moment, teachers – are mandated reporters. They can wrongly report as often as they like and there’s no penalty – but they could lose their jobs, or worse, for failing to report.  Now that research finally is being done, it turns out this system is backfiring – increasing the danger to children.

            That’s because all those false allegations, trivial cases, and poverty-confused-with-neglect cases overwhelm workers. Because of those huge caseloads, it’s often impossible to investigate any case thoroughly – so some children are needlessly torn from everyone loving and familiar while other cases involving children in real danger are missed.

            If hotline calls continue to decrease, that has the potential to significantly cut worker caseloads.  That means they’ll have time to make the extra phone call, question more witnesses, and even call a teacher at home to see if s/he had any concerns back when the child still was in class.  And it may reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus to families and to caseworkers.  Yes, the reduction in hotline calls might lead to some cases of children in real danger being overlooked – but it may well lead to more children in real danger being found, and rescued.

            At least that might happen if the fearmongering doesn’t ratchet up hysteria by telling us all, over and over, to report our slightest suspicion, now that teachers aren’t on-hand to do it.  If that happens, workers will remain overwhelmed and the percentage of false reports is likely to increase – as people are encouraged to report even the most trivial concern based on little or no evidence.

A chance to start over?

            But now we have a chance to do better.

An irony of the pandemic is that it led to far less pollution in China when all the factories were closed and traffic stopped.  

It’s possible that with schools and other places children congregate closed, the child welfare system may be less “polluted” by false reports and poverty cases – and workers may be able to more clearly see, and save, more children in real danger.

For example, in Vox, Will Francis, Texas chapter director of the National Association of Social Workers offers this lament:

“Normally, if a kid wasn’t getting fed at home or was having a bad day, it was a teacher that saw them. You’re losing a huge number of eyeballs on kids.”
But “a kid [not] getting fed at home” is not a reason to call child protective services – it’s a reason to call a foodbank!

None of this means we should keep the schools closed forever – just as we shouldn’t close factories and ban traffic forever. But perhaps from all of this we will learn lessons about better ways to reduce child abuse.  We now have a chance to rethink the entire report-anything-and-everything model that has failed for decades. We can start over and build a network of support for families instead of a network of omnipresent surveillance. 

In the process we’ll save more children, and do far less collateral damage.

[1] - Study Findings: Study of National Incidence and Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect: 1988 (Washington: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, 1988), Chapter 6, Page 5.