Sunday, August 23, 2020

Great news: We no longer need children’s advocacy centers! (If the head of their own trade association is to be believed.)

Turns out they know all the answers before they even ask the questions – so why bother?

The head of the trade association also says we should turn in our neighbors if we so much as hear yelling next door. That's far more likely to spread COVID-19 than it is to find actual child abuse. 

             The latest in a long line of stories repeating a stereotype about child abuse and COVID-19 that is rooted in racial and class bias contains at least one nugget of good news: We no longer need “Children’s Advocacy Centers”!  Well, at least if we can believe the head of their own trade association.

             I’ll explain how I reached this conclusion below, but first a recap.  The story, by Samantha Schmidt, was published online Wednesday in The Washington  Post.  I’m sure it never occurred to Ms. Schmidt that, at base, the assumption underlying it, and so many other such stories is racist:  Now that fewer mostly white, middle-class professionals have their “eyes” constantly on overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite children, their parents supposedly will unleash savagery upon them in pandemic proportions.


Yes, COVID-19 is putting more stress on everyone.  But why do we rush to assume that for poor people in general and poor Black people in particular the only way they’ll cope with it is to beat up their children?

             The myth has been debunked by the Associated Press, The Marshall Project  and Bloomberg CityLab  The AP story specifically calls into question a key element of Schmidt’s earlier reporting – but she repeated that reporting in her most recent story.

             Right now this racist stereotype is more dangerous than ever: It’s being used by right-wingers such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to put children in vastly more danger – by rushing them back to school in the middle of a pandemic.

 Decades of hype and hysteria

             The key problem is decades of conditioning, some of it intentional, through hype, hysteria and a barrage of horror stories, leading us to believe that there’s a child abuser under every bad, and beatings rape and torture are rampant.  They are not.  In fact, 97 percent of all calls to child abuse hotlines are false reports or “neglect” cases – which often means a family is poor. 


Results of calls to child abuse "hotlines."
(Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,"Child Maltreatment, 2018."
Detailed discussion here.)

           But journalists absorb the images and the stereotypes just like everybody else. Without ever intending to, they perpetuate a cycle of misunderstanding. Then, people such as DeSantis take advantage of it, sending the false, ugly message that parents, particularly poor nonwhite parents, are more of a danger to their own children than the coronavirus.

             Schmidt indulges these fears with the rhetoric in her story. She tells us that the lack of mostly white eyes on disproportionately nonwhite children makes it “terrifyingly difficult to keep a watchful eye on children who are being abused.”  

             So let’s stop right here: Imagine if a reporter wrote that curbs on stop-and-frisk policing make it “terrifyingly difficult to stop a crime wave.”  The claim would be denounced for what it is: racist.  So why are standards for journalism and for racial justice so easily abandoned as soon as someone whispers the words “child abuse” in our ears?

             In fact, just as stop-and-frisk does not reduce crime, research makes clear that the surveillance state approach to child abuse  – all those “watchful eyes” calling child abuse hotlines to report anything and everything – has backfired and made all children less safe.  That is what should really terrify us.            

           The rhetorical overindulgence continues when Schmidt characterizes the decline in reports to child abuse hotlines.  Yes, there have been significant declines in the number of calls, but at the current rate, several million children still will be subjected to such reports this year – and more than nine out of ten are likely to be false reports.

 No data justify concluding that calls have dropped nearly to zero. But Schmidt still writes, in two stories, as if that’s what happened. She refers to  “the few reports getting through to hotlines…” 

The advocacy center survey

             The heart of the story is a survey conducted by a trade association for “Children’s Advocacy Centers.”  They say that from January through June of 2020 they saw 40,000 fewer children than during the same period in 2019 – a decline of 21 percent.

But that’s not the real revelation in the story.

 Children sometimes are taken to such centers to be interviewed and given a medical examination by child abuse specialists.  At their best, such places have the potential to reduce the trauma of investigation for children; they need only be interviewed once, on videotape in a safe and welcoming setting.  But that assumes that the people doing the interviewing and the examining are open-minded about the central question: Was the child, in fact, abused?

             The real revelation is that the centers, or at least their trade association, have already made up their minds before they even see the children.  Says the head of the association, Teresa Huizar:   “What we really believe” says Huizar, is that 40,000 fewer children seen means “there are 40,000 fewer kids who haven’t been saved from abuse.” [Emphasis added.]

             Well then, if you already know this, why bother putting the children through the exam and interviews at all? Why have a center to  pose a question to which you already claim to know the answer?

             What this really reveals is the mindset of much of child abuse medicine when it comes to parents or other family members: You’re guilty until proven innocent and you can’t really prove yourself innocent.  As it happens,  Schmidt’s story ran on the same day as this expose in The Atlantic and The Marshall Project of “child abuse pediatricians” and the whole culture they represent – something exposed earlier by NBC News and the Houston Chronicle.

             Those stories included one about a hospital where even other doctors said they would be afraid to take their own children if they had an accidental injury because the “child abuse pediatricians” were so fanatical about seeing abuse – whether it was there or not.  And the Atlantic story noted that “Doctors overdiagnose abuse in children they perceive as being lower-income or nonwhite.”

            In fact, the story reveals, bias is baked into the training for child abuse pediatricians:

             To be certified, child-abuse pediatricians must “understand the influence of caregiver characteristics,” such as young parental age and military service, on abuse risk, along with “family poverty” and “family race and ethnicity,” according to an American Board of Pediatrics’ examination guide for the specialty obtained by The Marshall Project.

             Huizar’s remarks reveal how deep the same sorts of biases go at children’s advocacy centers themselves.  And the center Schmidt’s story discusses most, in Washington, D.C., has a particularly disturbing record. 

An earlier story reflects the same mindset

             These are the same sorts of sources Schmidt relied on for an April 30 story using anecdotes from a handful of hospitals to suggest a nationwide surge in serious cases of abuse – along with the implication that there may be vastly more such cases hidden because all those mostly white, professional “eyes” weren’t spotting them.  It was bad enough relying on so little evidence then, but in June, the AP called the claim into question.  According to the AP story:

            When the coronavirus pandemic took hold across the United States …  many child-welfare experts warned of a likely surge of child abuse.

             Fifteen weeks later, the worries persist. Yet some experts on the front lines, including pediatricians who helped sound the alarm, say they have seen no evidence of a marked increase. 

            Among them is Dr. Lori Frasier, who heads the child-protection program at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center and is president of a national society of pediatricians specializing in child abuse prevention and treatment.

            Frasier said she got input in recent days from 18 of her colleagues across the country and “no one has experienced the surge of abuse they were expecting.”

             Yet in Wednesday’s story,  Schmidt repeats the outdated claim, citing her earlier story.

             She goes on to quote with obvious approval efforts to turn people who still see children into spies:

             Some school districts have sought to train staff in how to spot potential signs of abuse virtually, in online classes or meetings. In some cases, children’s advocacy centers have tried to reach children in new ways, slipping messages into supply bags or into homework lessons.   

 In the earlier story she cited with obvious approval a school district training employees delivering meals to impoverished children at their homes to do some spying while they’re at it. 

How it hurts children 

            All of this hurts children in so many ways: 

            ● It makes children more vulnerable to enormously traumatic needless investigations and stripsearches.  One study found that this trauma will be inflicted on more than half of all Black children before they grow up. 

            ● It makes children more vulnerable to being consigned to the chaos of foster care – an inherently devastating experience emotionally,  often leading to devastating outcomes in later life, and one where the likelihood of abuse is shockingly high.

             ● The constant demands to turn helpers into spies drives people under stress away from seeking voluntary help.  Would you accept a meal delivered by someone who’s also supposed to spy on you and report the slightest suspicion that you are abusing or neglecting your kids?


              ● It increases the risk of COVID-19, not only by helping people like Ron DeSantis force schools to reopen, but also through needless investigations in which caseworkers march through homes, interview people at close quarters and poke through closets, cupboards and refrigerators – and then move on to more homes to do the same.

             ● And it does something else: It perpetuates the biggest real barrier to finding the very few children in real danger: caseworkers so overloaded with false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect that they don’t have time to investigate any case properly.

               None of this seemed to occur to Huizar when, in a similar story promoting her survey in Insider, she frantically urges us all to report our slightest suspicions – even hearing neighbors yelling at each other, Huizar says, should be enough to bring down the full weight of the child abuse police upon families who are almost always poor and disproportionately nonwhite.  Declares Huizar:               

"If you suspect that, turn it over to professionals who are absolutely able to suss out whether it's the normal pressures of COVID that's causing the yelling next door, or if it's something truly abusive and traumatic going on."

             This is wrong on so many levels.

             ● For starters when you call a child abuse hotline, the person who comes to the door to check out the yelling probably won’t be much of a professional. More likely s/he’ll be essentially an amateur. In most states child protective services investigators (the child abuse police) need have only a bachelor’s degree in fields vaguely related to the work and a short training course.

             ● These professionals’ track record for racial bias and class bias has been documented over and over.  And, as noted above, the same goes for the medical "professionals" who examine children who allegedly have been abused.


             ● Right now, in addition to all the other trauma inflicted on children by needless investigations, investigating a family just because a neighbor hears them yelling is more likely to spread COVID-19 than it is to reveal that a child is actually being beaten or tortured.

             ● And Huizar herself has said there is nothing to suss – she’s already made up her mind that every child not being seen by children’s advocacy centers due to the reduction in reporting has been abused.  (She said it again in the Insider story.)

An endless loop of confirmation bias

             A motif throughout Schmidt’s reporting boils down to “See, we told you so!”  So, child abuse physicians predict there will be more child abuse and now, see?  Sure enough!  She quotes Huizar: “What we were dreading did, in fact, happen.” While promoting the story on Twitter, Schmidt herself tweets:  “We already knew child abuse was going undetected.”

             Actually, we don’t know that.  We know that some child abuse always has gone undetected.  It’s possible more is undetected now. It’s even more likely that more real abuse is being found – because workers are not being deluged with as many false reports, trivial cases and cases in which poverty is confused with neglect, leaving them more time to find children who might be in real danger.

             There is actually a hint of this in the story itself.  In Washington D.C. from January through June, calls to the district’s child abuse hotline declined by 32 percent, but the number of children seen at the children’s advocacy center declined by only three percent.  That suggests that most of the decline in hotline calls does indeed involve calls that never should have been made in the first place. (The decline in children seen is greater in Virginia and Maryland, but the story provides no comparison figure for the decline in hotline calls in those states.)

             Schmidt’s reporting on this issue is part of an endless loop of confirmation bias: The doctors say they know what’s going to happen – so that’s what they see. The head of the trade association for children’s advocacy centers declares every child they see to be abused – before they’re even seen.  They tell the reporters. The reporters also were expecting this to be the case, so they don’t talk to anyone who will challenge that master narrative.  The doctors read the stories and it confirms what they “knew” all along.            

 Schmidt has not broken free of the bubble of sources who confirm what she already thinks.  What would she find if she went out into poor communities?  What if she spoke to leaders of the Movement for Black Lives? They have a very different take on the whole system, (Click on the link and scroll down to “Foster care and child welfare”.)  What if she consulted scholars such as Prof. Dorothy Roberts, author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (and an NCCPR Board Member)?  What if she spoke to the authors of this report from the Movement for Family Power?  What if she reached out to  the people marching in the streets of New York City who think children would be safer if the entire child welfare agency were abolished? 

             You don’t have to agree with their perspective to understand that a journalist’s job includes seeking out well-informed perspectives with which s/he is not comfortable – and sharing them with readers.

            Schmidt’s source bubble is the equivalent of covering criminal justice by talking only to police and prosecutors. That was never a good idea, but now journalists understand this when it comes to police. So why not when it comes to child welfare?

           Kendra Hurley understood this when she reported her story for CityLab.  This is some of what she found:

           Some parents living in neighborhoods with historically high rates of child welfare investigations say the dramatic dip in maltreatment reports [due to COVID-19]  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.”

             The data from D.C. are one more indication that what we really may be seeing is not some kind of silent pandemic of child abuse. We may simply be seeing the pollution lifting.