Sunday, April 19, 2020

A thought experiment illustrates the racial and class biases that underlie child welfare’s COVID-19 messaging

Why are so many journalists amplifying that message without a moment’s thought?

An advocate in Pennsylvania says videochats are a great way to
spy on a neighbor. If you get a gut feeling something is wrong,
she says, you should turn in the family to the child abuse hotline!
(Photo by aehdeschaine.)

UPDATE, JUNE 6, 2020: Thanks to this blog post from Robert Latham, I learned that several months ago, Michelle Burrell, former managing attorney of the Family Defense Team at Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, wrote an excellent law review article on exactly this topic.

Let’s try a thought experiment.  Suppose a police sergeant, giving orders to officers about to go out on patrol said this:

“It’s really dangerous on the streets right now. So if you see someone and something doesn’t seem quite right, don’t hesitate. Listen to your intuition: Stop him, throw him up against a fall and frisk him.”

What if one of the officers said: But what if I don’t have any evidence the kid is doing anything wrong?

“Doesn’t matter,” the sergeant replies. “Just trust your gut.” 

If that ever happened and word got out, the reaction from much of the public, and editorial boards across the country, would be swift and fierce: There is no excuse for that kind of blatant racism, traumatizing predominantly young men and boys of color with no reasonable cause to suspect they’ve done anything wrong.

That’s why the way New York City used stop-and-frisk was rule unconstitutional. That’s why, during his brief run for the presidency, the first thing former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg had to do was apologize for it.

For those unfamiliar with the practice, here’s an excellent tutorial from Trevor Noah:

Oh, and one other thing about stop-and-frisk: It didn’t reduce crime.  Even a National Review columnist admitted as much.

Child welfare’s version of stop-and-frisk

So now, let’s consider this recent advice to everyone in Pennsylvania, quoted in one of those ubiquitous “Oh, no! The sky is falling because fewer people are calling child abuse hotlines” stories:

State Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller urges residents who suspect a child is in danger to call the hotline. “Listen to your intuition and if you have concerns, make the call to ChildLine,” Miller said.”

Another advocate, Angela Liddle even suggests perverting the idea of helping out a neighbor – She says it’s a great chance to spy on your neighbor. According to the story, Liddle thinks

Those video chats offer an opportunity to check in on a kid who may not have the best home situation.

Then she makes clear what “check in” means:

If you’re on a vidochat “and something doesn’t seem right” don’t jump to conclusions, she says

“But she also said people should trust their gut if they sense a kid may be in real trouble.
“If you feel a child is being harmed, you don’t need to be a mandated reporter to call ChildLine,” Liddle said.

But, of course, calling a child abuse hotline based on no more than trusting one’s gut is jumping to conclusions.

Then Liddle adds a useful reminder for anyone who wants to seize the moment to, say, pursue a grudge against a neighbor or an ex-spouse: “People can call anonymously.”

There is no argument one can make in favor of this kind of advice that has not also been made for stop and frisk.  Just ask Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich , who put it this way:

You run into liberals who would rather see people killed than have the kind of aggressive policing … And a lot of the people whose lives were saved because of policing in neighborhoods that needed it the most, were minority Americans.

How does that differ from the justifications offered for telling people to spy on their neighbors and call in anything and everything to child abuse hotlines based on no more than “intuition” or “gut feeling”?

A child abuse investigation can be worse

But surely a child abuse investigation isn’t as bad as stop-and-frisk is it?  Actually, it can be even worse.

● A child abuse investigation is not a benign act. It is a terrifying experience, especially for young children.  At best, they will live in fear that the worker may come back and take them away to the chaos of foster care. At worst, that’s exactly what will happen.

● The stop doesn’t necessarily end with a frisk. It can be accompanied by a stripsearch by workers looking for bruises. Here’s how a story in The New Yorker described the process:

 What should you do if child-protective services comes to your house? You will hear a knock on the door, often late at night. You don’t have to open it, but if you don’t the caseworker outside may come back with the police. The caseworker will tell you you’re being investigated for abusing or neglecting your children. She will tell you to wake them up and tell them to take clothes off so she can check their bodies for bruises and marks. [Emphasis added].

● And now, there’s an additional risk: As investigators poke through cupboards and peer into refrigerators, both the families and the caseworkers are put at increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

Another element stop-and-frisk has in common with child abuse investigations is who is targeted: Overwhelmingly the targets are poor and disproportionately people of color.  If anything, COVID-19 has made even more apparent the racial bias that permeates the field. What is the real message when people claim that as soon as the eyes of white middle-class professionals are averted from parents who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite they will unleash their savagery against their own children?

And there is still another commonality: Neither stop-and-frisk nor the child welfare surveillance state have achieved their stated goals.

On the contrary, research shows that the child welfare surveillance state drives poor people away from seeking help and may increase child abuse by overloading workers, leaving them less time to find children in real danger.  Indeed, now in Pennsylvania, thanks to Angela Liddle and those spreading the same message, families even have to worry about whether to allow their child to have a video chat with a friend, in case the friend’s parents are really using it as a way to do a little civic-minded spying.

In fact, when it comes to harassing the innocent, child abuse investigations have an even worse record than stop-and-frisk.  At least 80 percent of those stopped and frisked in New York City were innocent.  But that’s a brilliant record compared to child welfare. Thanks to the massive, surveillance state go-with-your-gut-and-call-in-anything approach, we have the spectacle of 97 percent of those hotline calls being either too absurd to pursue, false reports or neglect cases, which often means simply that the family is poor. (Among those actually investigated, 83 percent are false reports and, again, most of the rest are neglect.)

For 50 years, we’ve used a regime of mass surveillance – put in place with no studies beforehand to see if it would work – to try to reach that other three percent or less in time.  It’s failed.  From the current crisis comes the opportunity to do better, if we’re willing to seize it.

When journalists amplify the message

            Now, let’s go back to that original thought experiment. This time, imagine that a journalist received a tip about what that police sergeant was saying.  What would most journalists do?  Would they say “This is wonderful! I can’t wait to write a story and spread the word about how this sergeant is keeping the city safe!”?  Well, if they worked for Fox News, maybe. But otherwise, they’d be more likely to contact civil liberties groups for comment and do a story raising questions about a rampant violation of civil rights that traumatizes people of color and does nothing to curb crime.

            So what does it say about the culture of journalism that as soon as someone adds the words “child abuse” to the same kind of mass trauma and infringement on civil liberties, the response is so different?