Sunday, June 21, 2020

Will the racial justice reckoning ever reach child welfare?

#BlackLivesMatter protesters march on New York City family courts, and the
city Saturday, in a demonstration organized by the Parent Legislative Action Network
(Photo by Joyce McMillan)

 The link to this story that appeared on the New York Times homepage on June 13 said: “Calls for Racial Justice Touch Seemingly Every Aspect of American Life.” It should have said: Every Aspect But One. 

Not only has the child welfare system, which needlessly separates countless Black families every year, been untouched, it continues to engage in racist behavior and messaging. Sometimes journalists have been its enablers.

So it’s worth remembering again how Robert Latham of the University of Miami School of Law summed it all up: “The child welfare system has nothing to say about anti-Black state violence because the child removal system engages in it daily.”

The most obvious example is one I’ve alluded to before: One agency after another issues dire warnings about what often is called a “pandemic” or “epidemic” of child abuse now supposedly underway because schools are closed and teachers and other “mandated reporters” are not calling in reports to child abuse hotlines.

Of course there is reason for concern that a tiny fraction of parents will respond to the stress of COVID-19 by lashing out. But 97 percent of calls to child abuse hotlines are false reports or cases of “neglect” which often means poverty.  

It should be obvious that it is racist to assume that the moment mostly white, middle class “eyes” are averted form overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite children their parents will unleash savagery upon them in pandemic proportions.  Endless calls to ratchet up the child welfare surveillance state only drive families away from seeking help and overload child protective services workers, so they have even less time to find children in real danger.

The reduction in surveillance is viewed differently in communities of color. As Kendra Hurley writes in Citylab:

Some parents living in neighborhoods with historically high rates of child welfare investigations say the dramatic dip in maltreatment reports feels more like the pollution lifting — a much-needed respite from the intense and relentless surveillance of low-income moms, and especially those who are black and Latinx.”…
“One parent told [family advocate Joyce McMillan]: “They’re not opening my refrigerator. They’re not opening my dresser drawers. They’re not strip-searching my children and they’re not asking me to take their clothes off for the camera, because that would be child pornography.”

"Poor people are usually constantly inspected by all these agencies,” [one mother] said. “Now there is kind of a peacefulness.”

As Emma Ketteringham of the Bronx Defenders told Hager:

We have a child welfare system that is particularly, extremely sensitive to the media, so we should be very sure of narratives before we put them out there.

Child welfare, and a large chunk of American journalism, would do well to consider the words of David Kelly, special assistant to the Associate Commissioner of the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Health and Human Services:

“If confined to telling binary stories of heroes and villains, an objective view may reverse the roles. Who is the hero, the parent doing the best they can under circumstances more difficult than most of us will ever know or experience, or the folks writing about the likelihood they will fail or actually seek to harm their children?”

But that is only the tip of the iceberg.  Consider the other ways in which child welfare seeks to set itself apart from racial justice:

Defund the child abuse police? Child welfare establshment says: No way!

The Times story notes that

The flood of corporate statements denouncing racism “feels like a series of mea culpas written by the press folks and run by the top black folks” inside each organization, said Dream Hampton, a writer and filmmaker.

It also reprints a tweet from Prof. Crystal Fleming, author of How to be Less Stupid About Race:

In other words, in other fields no one is fooled.  No one should be fooled by the similar statements coming from the child welfare establishment.  Because none of those groups is willing to put real money where its press releases are.

A key component of the racial justice movement is defunding police; that is, transferring large parts of police budgets into better alternatives such as education, housing, and public health. Not only have there been no similar calls from the child welfare establishment, they actually have teamed up with several liberal Democrats in Congress to try to use COVID-19 as an excuse to increase funding for the child abuse police – child protective services investigations -- by up to $500 million.

Just as harmful: They propose funneling the money through the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, an odious law deliberately crafted to avoid issues of race and class in child welfare.  To get their share of this additional $500 million states would have to comply with racist provisions of CAPTA, most notably the so- called “Plan of Safe Care” provisions, which target substance using mothers and drive them away from prenatal care.

Apparently, to the child welfare establishment, forcing more than half of all African-American children to endure the trauma of a child abuse investigation – almost always needlessly – just isn’t enough.

In contrast, in the Senate it took two Republicans and two conservative Democrats to propose spending $800 million on what families actually need to prevent what the system calls child abuse: aid for things like housing, transportation and child care.

The proposal to put more federal dollars into child abuse policing is in keeping with a long, ugly  tradition of mainstream child welfare groups opposing real child welfare finance reform.

They successfully blocked a proposal to allow – not require, just allow – states to take the money they now receive through the huge, open-ended foster-care “entitlement” known as Title IV-E as a flexible flat grant that could be used both for foster care and for better alternatives.  Then they tried to block something even more modest: state-by-state waivers. And when they couldn’t block waivers they tried to undermine waivers through regulations.

Radical finance reform

What’s really needed is much more radical finance reform. The federal government should stop paying for foster care, period.  Not only should the open-ended entitlement be converted to a flexible grant, over several years states should be required to transfer the proportion of that grant used for foster care to better alternatives.  No, that doesn’t mean there would be no money for foster care. It just means that the state and local governments that put children in foster care would have to pick up the tab themselves.

Real finance reform also means ending the obscene practice of paying bounties to states for every finalized adoption over a baseline number, a practice that encourages a mad rush to needlessly terminate parental rights, as was well documented more than a decade ago.

The bounties are part of another racist law that needs to be repealed, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act.  In addition to the bounties, ASFA demands that, with certain exceptions, states presume parents unfit and move to terminate their  children’s right to any relationship with them based solely on how long a child has been in foster care – even if the child never needed to be in foster care at all, and/or is still there because of the agency’s failures. 

Just as harmful is the mentality enshrined by the law: the racist dogwhistling Big Lie of  American child welfare, that child removal equals child safety and that child safety and family preservation are opposites.In fact, family preservation is the safer option for the overwhelming majority of children the overwhelming majority of the time.

It’s no wonder ASFA led to a surge in foster care placements and an increase in the number of children “aging out” of foster care with no real home at all.

ASFA was one of a trilogy of racist bills passed during the mid-1990s.  But while the other two, the crime bill and the so-called welfare “reform” bill, have been called out for their underlying racial and class bias, child welfare has remained willfully blind to the fact that ASFA used the same myths and stereotypes to target the same population: poor women, especially poor women of color.

Jobs not on the line

In a section headed “Jobs on the line,” the Times story discusses the many people forced to resign  because they “made offensive statements.”  But in child welfare, you can make such statements and worse, act in ways that do enormous harm to families of color, and not only will you not have to resign, you might even get promoted.

Consider this offensive statement:

            “There are some things we’re finding with visits on video that are actually more positive than in-person visits.”

            That offensive statement came from Ross Hunter, secretary of the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families.  He was attempting to justify a cruel, blanket ban on in-person visits between foster children and their parents, something that is not necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19.

            But in a state where Black and mixed-race children are in foster care at twice their rate in the general population, and Native American children are in foster care at five times their rate in the general population, Hunter appears to have issued the ban to appease a bunch of appallingly selfish, white foster parents – like those who signed an online petition, which reads in part:

They say what about the bio parents who will miss [their children]? I say to this. [sic] They are the ones who made the choices which in turn lead [sic] to losing their children in the first place. They should not be worried about missing visits at this time.

            I know of  no calls in Washington State for Hunter to resign.    

UPDATE: The statement about visits isn't even the worst thing Hunter's said. He just outdid himself.

One month ago, the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog broke the story of Hunter's agency warehousing children who tested positive for COVID-19 in an office building.  Now that the Seattle Times has finally caught up, we know Hunter's response.

First, here's what some family defenders said:

Tara Urs, special counsel for civil practice and policy for the King County Department of Public Defense ... said its use amounted to “warehousing children in an office building,” sending a message to kids that no home will take them.
Already marginalized, exposed to COVID-19 and put at such a site, “it has to be terrifying for them,” said S. Annie Chung, a lawyer who represents youth separated from their parents.

But Hunter saw it differently: 

“It’s not palatial, but it’s a reasonable alternative for two weeks” — one not unlike the confined spaces millions of people are stuck in, Hunter said. “This is the challenge of the pandemic.”
       Illinois, where Black children are in foster care at triple their rate in the population, has the same blanket visitation ban.  The Shriver Center on Poverty Law has been leading efforts to get it overturned.  On June 12, they tweeted:

For Black lives to matter, Black families must also matter. For close to 3 months, @IllinoisDCFS has kept over 11,000 parents, children, and siblings apart, many of whom are Black. This is unacceptable. #LiftTheBanIL

That prompted a response from a deputy communications director for Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, which concluded:

To claim @IllinoisDCFS does not care about black families is frankly disgusting.

No. What is "frankly disgusting" is when a p.r. person for a white governor lectures a Black-led group fighting for racial justice about what they should say - while distorting what they actually said. 

I know of no calls from Illinois for the p.r. guy to resign.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services now claims it will begin a slow, grudging resumption of in-person visits, starting on June 26. [UPDATE, JUNE 24: But as the Shriver Center explains, it's not nearly enough.]

Nor has anyone I know of demanded the resignation of the California district attorney who declared that “For the most vulnerable people in our community ‘shelter-in-place’ is the same as putting them in a cage with a violent gorilla.”

Failing up

And then there is the case of Cynthia Figueroa, former commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services.  She has repeatedly tweeted support for #BlackLivesMatter, even posting a selfie as she took part in a march.

But during her tenure – and for long before – Philadelphia DHS tore apart familiesat the highest rate among America’s biggest cities, even when rates of child poverty are factored in. , More than 85 percent of those families are nonwhite, When confronted, the agency’s response was misdirection and obfuscation. Only now has DHS finally admitted what it sought to obscure for so long.

But that’s only the beginning. Not only does Philadelphia also ban all in-person visits, Philadelphia DHS falsely blamed federal guidance for the ban. Federal guidance is precisely the opposite.  And now, DHS has published a guide that effectively urges people to turn virtual visits into ways to spy on families.

Yes, I did say Figueroa is a former commissioner. But that’s not because she was forced to resign. On the contrary, she keeps failing up. Mayor Jim Kenney promoted her to a deputy major job. She still oversees DHS.

And then Kenney gave Figueroa new job: Chairing what the Philadelphia Inquirer says will be “a steering committee to help the city move toward reconciliation with residents.”

The reckoning is a long way from reaching child welfare.