Monday, April 12, 2021

Mutual aid vs. the family police: Guess which approach keeps kids safer

A new study debunks not only the “pandemic of child abuse” myth but myths about abolition as well. 

When COVID-19 forced New York City's family policing agency to step back, mutual aid organizations,
such as Bed-Stuy Srong in Brooklyn, stepped up - and child safety improved. 

It should have been obvious from the beginning: The pandemic of child abuse claims were bull--it.  It also should have been obvious that such claims are, uh, racist. 

So I’m pessimistic about how much good it will do to point out the findings of a new study by Prof. Anna Arons of New York University School of Law, looking at actual data from before, during and the transition-to-after COVID-19 in New York City.  And I’m pessimistic about how much good it will do to point out that NCCPR’s own check of similar data in Florida produced similar results.  But let’s give it a try. 

The data show that none of the dire predictions of the fearmongers came to pass.  And the new study shows more: In New York City, when the family police agency – the city’s Administration for Children’s Services – was forced to step back, community-based, community-run mutual aid organizations stepped up.  That, plus direct cash payments to individuals included in federal stimulus bills, made children safer. 

The study has lessons not only when it comes to fearmongering about COVID-19 and child abuse, but also about the word that strikes terror in the heart of the “child welfare” establishment: abolition. 

The study is only the latest challenge to the “master narrative” about child abuse and COVID-19 that emerged as soon as the pandemic began.  You remember the claims (hard to forget, since they still haven’t stopped): As soon as mostly white middle-class mandated reporters – especially teachers and other school personnel – no longer had their “eyes” constantly on overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite children due to COVID-19 school closings, the children’s parents would unleash upon them a pandemic of child abuse. 

So of course, the fearmongers claimed, there would be a huge surge in child abuse reports once the kids were back in school and their teachers could see what their parents had done to them. There even were calls to recruit more foster parents because, inevitably, so many more children would need to be taken away. 

But even after several national news organizations challenged the fearmongering, local reporters across the country accepted the myth as fact.  Even after that bastion of child welfare establishment scholarship, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, challenged the claims, the stories continued.  

That’s partly because of the racism that permeates all aspects of society – even if many in child welfare claim immunity.  But it’s also the result of 50 years of “health terrorism,” decade after decade of suggesting that extremely rare horror stories were common and there’s a child abuser under every bed. 

But the COVID-related claims are especially dangerous. In addition to the dangers of needlessly destroying families and overloading the system with false reports, giving workers less time to find children in real danger, the mythology risks increasing the spread of COVID-19 among families and caseworkers alike. 

These claims also fuel calls for premature full reopening of schools – in order to get those white middle-class eyes back on the kids - based on the idea that Black and Brown parents are a greater danger to their children than a deadly disease.  That was always dangerously wrong – all the more so as we are learning how the more dangerous “UK variant” of COVID-19 is spread. 

Measuring safety 

In the paper, Prof. Arons offers several measures of safety, three of which stand out to me: 

Fewer alleged child abuse fatalities.  Like everything else in the family policing system, child welfare’s pandemic of fear has been driven by lurid stories of child abuse deaths.  The message has been: If you don’t peek inside the door when you’re supposedly helping a neighbor by dropping off food and report anything that your “gut feeling” or “intuition” says is wrong today, that child might be dead tomorrow. At least two recent stories have speculated that a child who died of abuse might have been saved had the schools been open.  They went on to draw sweeping conclusions about how such a case supposedly shows the need for what amounts to a massive child welfare surveillance state.  

But deaths also are the hardest form of child abuse to hide.  And when Prof. Arons compared reports alleging child abuse fatalities between February and June 2019 – before COVID -- to the same period in 2020, during the pandemic, Prof. Arons found that reports to New York’s child abuse hotline alleging fatal child abuse in New York City declined by 25 percent, from 63 such reports to 47.  

One always should be cautious in citing fatality data to as evidence for anything – for a reason for which we all should be grateful: Though each is the worst form a tragedy, they also are extremely rare, so rare that they might rise or fall year-to-year due to random chance. 

But remember – the fearmongers told us to expect a big increase in such fatalities, and the fearmongers will use any one case they can find to “prove” that we desperately need that massive child welfare surveillance state. 

So, at a minimum, since the predicted surge in fatalities hasn’t happened it is at least as likely, and probably more likely, that forcing the family police to step back saved children’s lives, rather than contributing to children’s deaths.  I’ll discuss possible reasons for this below. 

No “rebound” in numbers or severity. Perhaps even more significant is what has happened as schools have reopened in New York City.  If the fearmongers were right, thousands of battered and bruised children would be limping back into their classrooms and shocked teachers, seeing the welts and scars would be rushing to call the hotline – a “rebound” in calls that supposedly was going to swamp child protective services and foster homes.  If the fearmongers were right, there would be far more such calls than in a typical fall (when reports always go up as children return to school) and the proportion alleging physical and sexual abuse would be higher. 

Instead, from September through November 2020, the rate of increase in hotline calls from New York City was about the same as the previous (pre-COVID) year.  And the proportion of such reports alleging anything like the stuff of horror stories remained unchanged. Both years, the proportion of reports alleging only neglect – which usually means poverty – was the same, about 75 percent. 

This is all-the-more remarkable given the power of suggestion: From March 2020, when schools shut down, until their reopening in September, New York City teachers, administrators and other school personnel heard the same messages as the rest of us: Just wait until the kids come back!  You’ll see how horrible those parents were!  But even though they were primed to see a surge in physical and sexual abuse that supposedly had gone undetected, they didn’t.  Because it wasn’t there. 

Different state, similar results 

Of course, desperate apologists for the family police might try to claim that the New York results are because not enough children are learning in person yet.  But data also are available for one of the states that has been most fanatical about trying to force children back to in-person education – a state where the governor has been among the most demagogic about pressuring schools to reopen by exploiting the false narrative of a pandemic of child abuse: Florida (of course). 

From September through November 2019, before COVID, Florida’s child abuse hotline received 84,985 calls.  During the same period in 2020, after Gov. Ron DeSantis was pushing all schools to reopen, the number was 81,688, a difference of 3,297 in a state with more than 4.2 million children.  Each year, the proportion of calls “screened in” for investigation was nearly identical. 

When Florida breaks down reports by type of abuse alleged, it reports the data for the month an investigation was closed, not when it was opened, so that makes comparisons more difficult, but it’s clear that even with all those kids pushed back into in-person instruction there was no surge in reports alleging abuse as opposed to neglect – even though, again, the governor himself was issuing dire warnings. 

Back in November, Prof. Robert Latham, associate director of the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami (and probably child welfare’s foremost data nerd) wrote this: 

I wrote last month that if there wasn’t a big jump in the number of kids being removed by October (the typical high-point in Fall removals) then I was going to call the COVID prophecies bunk. And here we are with the October data and…nothing. The October removal numbers came in lower than expected. 

What went right? 

Prof. Arons cites two factors: The first was the emergence of a network of more than 60 mutual aid organizations throughout New York City. 

Mutual aid projects mobilized to provide an extraordinary array of services to community members who requested aid. Nearly every group organized grocery deliveries and provision of essential items like diapers, but others focused on more specialized services, like childcare for workers or mental health care and support groups. Rather than the exacting intake procedures required by charities and government social services, groups kept their barriers for entry low, requiring only that community members complete online request forms or call intake lines, and removing eligibility requirements that judged moral worthiness. 

Families stayed safely together not because of the family regulation system but because of its absence. Even in the midst of the nonstop trauma of 2020, community members worked for and with each other, providing their neighbors food, diapers, childcare, mental health services, and redistributing government wealth. [Emphasis in original]. 

Mutual aid projects had one other crucial feature: The people running them are not “mandatory reporters” of alleged child abuse or neglect – so no one had to be afraid to go to them for help. 

Families had a safe way to ameliorate the poverty that is so often confused with neglect. They had a community-based support system to ease the stress that, in rare cases, might have prompted a parent to lash out and abuse their child.  At the same time, as Prof. Jane Spinak of Columbia University Law School predicted at the start of the pandemic, the reduction in calls may have given workers more opportunity to find the very few children in real danger in time – which might have contributed to the decline in reports alleging fatal child abuse. 

So even as family policing apologists run around yelling about how the sky will fall if we abolish the child welfare surveillance state, something very much like it happened in New York City – and children wound up better off.  Prof. Arons calls her study, “An Unintended Abolition.” 

But what about Florida? I know of only one mutual aid group in that state, though of course there may be many more.  But if, in fact, mutual aid wasn’t as much of a factor in Florida, what was? 

For starters, there is the simple fact that the kind of child abuse we think of when we hear those words – the beatings, torture and murder that the fearmongers revel in – is, in fact, extremely rare, but we’ve been conditioned by health terrorism to think otherwise.  Overwhelmingly, families love their children and cope with whatever stress the world dishes out.  

But there also was a second factor in Prof. Arons’ analysis, one which applies nationwide: 


As Prof. Arons writes: 

Together with the increase in mutual aid came a rare influx of government aid with few strings attached. The CARES Act, passed in early April 2020, provided a one-time stimulus payment of $1,200 per adult for individuals earning less than $75,000 annually, with an additional $500 payment for each child under the age of 17, and an extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits, through the end of July 2020. Together, these measures represented a transfer of funds from the government to the people larger than all other non-retirement programs combined. 

This real-world experience adds to the wealth of studies showing that even small additional amounts of cash dramatically reduce what family policing agencies call “child neglect.” This additional cash, and the help of mutual aid organizations to which families can turn without fear also prevent problems from escalating, reducing the already low probability that families will lash out at their children. 

The new danger in believing the fearmongers 

All of this takes on even greater significance as our knowledge of COVID-19 and its variants grows.  At least as early as March 19, one of the nation’s leading infectious disease experts, a member of the Biden Transition Team’s COVID task force was explaining why he’d changed his mind about the safety of a full reopening of schools.  Here’s what Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told a Boston television station

“I, for one, was a strong supporter of opening schools, particularly K through 8, saying the epidemiology here is compelling, that there’s just very little transmission -- to kids, from kids, by kids and that we could open schools,” Osterholm said. “Well, B.1.1.7 [The U.K. variant] has totally turned that on its head.” 

“I think school openings today are going to greatly enhance transmission of B.1.1.7 in our communities,” Osterholm said. “And I predict that within weeks we will be revisiting this issue -- unfortunately, after we’ve had substantial transmission.” 

Yet the fearmongering stories remain a staple of local news. 

Three days after Dr. Osterholm spoke, a newspaper published a story (no, I won’t link to it) in which Dr. Rachel Berger, one of the foremost proponents of a massive child welfare surveillance state, someone who's gone out of her way to minimize the harm of tearing apart families said this: 

“I can’t emphasize enough the need to get back in school. …  At least, get them into a classroom. Get a teacher seeing these kids. … At this point, we know you can open schools as long as you do it well.” 

The same story includes a similarly panicky quote from a local district attorney – and, again, all of this was published three days after Dr. Osterholm’s warning.

The fearmongers’ false, dangerous message, is unmistakable: Poor parents, especially poor parents of color are a greater danger to their children than a deadly disease. 

Time for an intended abolition? 

What really endangers children, of course, is the extent to which America’s family policing establishment has dehumanized the Black and Brown families it professes to want to help.  The family policing establishment finds it inconceivable that families who always have had to cope with far more than their white middle-class counterparts also can cope with the stress of a pandemic without taking it out on their kids.  They find it unimaginable that these parents love their children – just like white people do! They find it incomprehensible that the children and families will do better without the “counseling,” “parent education” and, worst of all, foster care, they seek to inflict. 

But now we’ve seen it happen.  We don’t have to ask what abolition would do – we’ve seen an unintended abolition make families safer. 

So imagine how well an intended abolition could work.  Imagine how much the safety and well-being of America’s impoverished children would improve were there a phased transition from agency-inflicted “preventive services” and foster care to a system that emphasized concrete help provided by community-based agencies.  Imagine if we phased out mandatory reporting laws, so no one ever need fear asking for such help.  Imagine if we drastically scaled back the family police. 

COVID-19 didn’t teach us exactly what that would look like.  But it taught us it would look a hell of a lot better than what we have now.