Great news, everyone! It’s now official: Unlike every other aspect of American life, the child welfare system has eradicated racism! Like the parrot in the famous Monty Python sketch when it comes to child welfare, racism is gone! It is no more! It has ceased to be!
How do we know? Because the dean of an actual school of social work says so. Toward the conclusion of a power-point presentation aimed at social work students planning to work in child welfare, Richard Barth, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland, sums things up this way:
We can celebrate our success in developing a CWS [child welfare system]* that does not result in evidence of biased outcomes. This has long been an aspiration of CWS and it appears that it is, largely, realized.
Let us now pause, sip some celebratory champagne and contemplate the sheer magnitude of this achievement.
After all, no one denies there is racism in the police. In fact, the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police has admitted it and apologized. I’ll bet child welfare practitioners are really proud that they don’t have to admit any such thing! And it’s not just police.
● We know there is racism in medicine.
● We know there is racism in science.
● We know there is racism in academic publishing.
● We know there is racism in everything else in academia.
● We know there is racism in housing.
● We know there is racism in hiring.
● We know there is racism in who gets followed around by store security.
● We know there is racism in who can hail a cab.
● UPDATE: And sometimes, the racism is - literally - at our fingertips.
The caucus of denial
Of course, there has long been a de facto “caucus of denial” in child welfare, a group that says the enormous disparities in who gets reported for child abuse, who gets substantiated, who gets taken away from their families and who does or does not get reunified are solely due to Black people supposedly being worse parents who are more prone to endangering their children to the point where systems dominated by a white power structure must rush in and save them.
Not that that’s racist, you understand. No, no. They claim it’s just that all that historic racism and oppression made Black people more likely to be bad parents. (In the world of the caucus of denial, the word “racism” almost always is preceded by the modifier historic – because, remember, it’s all in the past.)
Those who hold such views have good intentions; they really want to help children and families. But it’s no wonder the system they have helped to build and now defend in order to do that has backfired. The existence of this caucus of denial does, indeed, distinguish child welfare from other professional fields, but not in a good way.
How, then, does Barth get around the study after studyafter study that control for all other variables and still find that, even when all else is equal, children are more likely to be declared abused or neglected, and more likely to be torn from their families, if they are not white? Simple, he ignores them. As another slide explains:
We did not address the usual questions of (1) the reasons for disproportionality in foster care or (2) whether [child protective services] delivers equitable decision-making regarding substantiation and placement—we believe that those have been well addressed in prior research.
So how do you conclude that racism has been eradicated in child welfare and ignore all those studies about biased decision-making? By looking at much narrower questions, and extrapolating way beyond the evidence. Thus, in the presentation and in a paper on which it is based, Barth and his co-authors claim:
● “Current research with adequate comparisons provides no robust evidence to support the idea that children have worse outcomes from CWS involvement.” [Emphasis added.]
● The outcomes for Black children are no worse than the outcomes for white children, although “few studies focused on Black children.”
Could they possibly have set the bar any lower?
The first thing to understand here is that Barth & Co. are talking about “child welfare services,” a category that includes both foster care and services to families in their own homes. Although child welfare services often exist largely to make the helpers feel good, some such services are genuinely helpful, such as the Homebuilders Intensive Family Preservation Services program and, where genuinely needed, the right kinds of drug treatment. And a few, innovative systems actually provide concrete help to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty.
Far fewer studies compare the outcomes for children placed in foster care to comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes. But the findings from many of them are alarming. Barth and his co-authors get around this by minimizing or ignoring studies that don’t come out the way they want them to.
Even with all that, the best they can claim is: Well, after disrupting all these families lives, tearing the children from their loved ones, forcing them into foster care, and wasting billions of dollars that could have been used to help alleviate family poverty, you critics can’t prove that we actually made things worse!
So let’s consider what that means. Consider a study of what is widely considered one of the finest, most elite foster care programs in America, run by Casey Family Programs. That study found that among alumni of the program:
● They had twice the level of PTSD of veterans of the first Gulf War.
● Only one in five was doing well in later life.
● The former foster children were three times more likely to be living in poverty –
and fifteen times less likely to have finished college.
● At least one-third were abused by a foster parent or another adult in a foster home.
All of which raises one more question: If, in fact, the system really doesn’t do any harm anyway, are Barth and his coauthors equally sanguine about the children torn from their parents at the Mexican border by the Trump Administration?
The leap of logic about race
Barth’s next great leap concerns race. As noted above, Barth and his coauthors found few studies that directly compared outcomes for children placed in foster care to comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes – and, also as noted above, they sidestepped the massive studies showing that in typical cases the outcomes for the foster children were worse. But among those few studies of outcomes for all children, even fewer actually tried to disaggregate the results based on race. Yet based on these few studies, Barth and Co. conclude that the outcomes are no different for Black children.
There are plenty of studies (not discussed by Barth) that show that Black children are
likely to stay in the system longer and are less likely to be reunited with their parents. So what Barth really seems to be saying is that in spite of the fact that the system inflicts more foster care and longer foster care on Black children, they are so resilient that their outcomes are no worse than those for white kids.
I am willing to stipulate that the outcomes for youth in foster care tend to be rotten for all races. So the fact that Black children are:
● more likely to be placed in a system
● more likely to spend more time in a system
● and less likely to be reunified from a system that, best case, may not make things worse means we need to put the champagne away; there really is racial bias in child welfare after all.
Equally revealing are the reasons Barth offers in his slide presentation for child welfare’s supposed amazing success.
For starters, he appears to be in denial about the idea that the system is anything but helpful. Consider this slide outlining an argument he seeks to challenge - in which, by the way, he dismisses the arguments of those who think there is a racism problem in child welfare as mere "assumptions":
First, of course, the slide refers to “abused” children when, in fact, most of the time the accusation is neglect and that often means poverty. But also notice how “coercive” is in quotation marks.
That’s because the self-image of the child welfare field, cultivated by social work schools, is of friendly helpers who are merely bringing “services” to those in need. In fact, child protective services is about as coercive as a system can get. It is a police force that has more power than the police. Police can stop a Black child on the street, throw him against a wall and frisk him. Child protective services can march right into the home, stripsearch a Black child and walk out with him, consigning the child to the chaos of foster care.
No, CPS workers don’t always do that; but neither do the cops.
Perhaps we should pause for a moment to consider the implications of giving this vast, unchecked power to the same profession that includes so many who believe that profession has eradicated racism.
Barth makes a similar error in another slide when he seeks to imply that Black children are taken away more often because they are more often victims of “confirmed” child “maltreatment.” This claim is built on two weasel-words.
“Confirmed” is not a legal term; it’s a term coined originally by those who have spent decades fomenting hype and hysteria about child abuse to make subjective guesses by caseworkers sound more definitive. “Confirmed” does not mean a court found anyone guilty. It doesn’t mean a neutral factfinder heard both sides. “Confirmed” means only that a caseworker checked a box on a form stating s/he thinks it is at least slightly more likely than not that “maltreatment” occurred.
The second weasel word is “maltreatment.” Overwhelmingly “maltreatment” means neglect, which, as noted above, often means poverty. Since Black people are more likely to be poor, if you confuse poverty with neglect and then call the neglect “maltreatment,” of course you’ll get the result cited by Barth.
Of course, having performed the miracle of eradicating racism from child welfare, Barth knows we mere mortals will want to know how they did it. He offers two explanations. The first is the equivalent of the old “some of my best friends are …” line. Says Barth:
“CWS has a diverse workforce.”
That’s certainly true at the lowest levels – frontline caseworkers – in big cities. But that’s also true of the police. In Philadelphia 43% of police officers are nonwhite. In New York City 49% of police are nonwhite. In Chicago it’s 52% and in Los Angeles it’s 55% So by Barth’s logic, there’s no racism on big-city police forces either.
Academic social work is notably less diverse. In 2016, fewer than one-third of full-time social work professors were from “historically underrepresented groups” according to the Council on Social Work education. And those who seem most prominent in child welfare’s caucus of denial have long been almost exclusively white. So either Black professionals and academicians in the field don’t understand the research, or they know something Prof. Barth does not.
Talk, talk talk
Barth’s other explanation for child welfare’s astounding success is that “CWS has been in conversation about race equity for 50 years.” There are several problems with this:
● Talking about a problem doesn’t solve it – particularly when racism is the reason the system in question was created in the first place.
● Though the first effort to start the conversation dates back to 1972, little attention was paid until 30 years later, with the publication of Prof. Dorothy Roberts’ landmark book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. Even then, as another social work school dean, Alan Detlaff, and his co-authors explain in the very article that got Barth so upset, talking about racism in child welfare made the field so uncomfortable that the caucus of denial managed to sidetrack the issue until demands for racial justice became impossible to ignore in 2020.
If Barth really does believe that 50 years of endless social work conferences have solved the racism problem, presumably he can pinpoint exactly when that happened. Presumably, it wasn’t 49 years ago – even child welfare couldn’t have wiped out racism in a single year! But the “caucus of denial” has been around for awhile, so apparently it didn’t just happen yesterday, either.
So, Prof. Barth: When did it happen? When was the last vestige of racism eradicated from child welfare? December 20, 1987? March 11, 1992? November 10, 2004? February 25, 2014? Tell us the date so we can make it a national holiday and use it as an example for all those other, less enlightened professions!
While he doesn’t say exactly when it happened, Barth does go on to say that child welfare has been so successful that “Additional diversity training of the CWS workforce may not be needed.”
Though there is debate over the effectiveness of such training, the evidence of the need is overwhelming. But don’t wait until the caseworkers are on the job.
Clearly, it needs to begin in the social work schools.
*-In the presentation CWS seems to be used interchangeably to stand for Child Welfare System and Child Welfare Services