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
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
Decades of hype
The key problem is decades of
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
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.”
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 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
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
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.”
fact, the story reveals, bias is baked into the training for child abuse
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.
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:
coronavirus pandemic took hold across the United States … many child-welfare experts warned of a likely
surge of child abuse.
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
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.
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:
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
All of this hurts children in so
● It makes children more vulnerable
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
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
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
● 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
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 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?
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.
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:
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. …
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.