Thursday, July 22, 2021

“Pervasive,” “ubiquitous,” “extremely high”: New data reveal the extent of the invasion of Black homes by family policing agencies.

It’s even worse than previous research suggested (and it’s not great for white kids either). 


Graphic from Frank Edwards, et. al., "Contact with Child Protective Services is pervasive but unequally distributed by race
 and ethnicity in large U.S. Counties" (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 27, 2021).


By now, people working in “child welfare” know, or at least should know, of the national study published in 2017 which revealed that about one-third of all children and more than half of Black children will be forced to endure a child abuse investigation at some point during their childhoods.  Earlier this year, a California study produced similar results. 

But, at least when it comes to most of America’s largest counties, these data underestimate the problem.  A new study of data from America’s 20 largest counties (with the five counties of New York City counted as one) reveals a system that is arbitrary, capricious, cruel and very, very racist. 

The study reveals an infrastructure of surveillance of families – especially nonwhite families -- that is, in the words of the study authors “pervasive” “ubiquitous” and "extremely high."  

The data tell us that, step by step, brick by brick over more than half a century America has built a monstrous machine inflicting state-sanctioned emotional child abuse on a huge proportion of nonwhite children. 

For example: The study estimates that in Los Angeles County, 72% of all Black children – seventy-two percent – will be forced to endure a child abuse investigation during the course of their childhoods.  Neither this, nor the previous studies, provides data specific to income, but of course, we know that the widespread confusion of poverty with neglect means we’re talking almost exclusively about impoverished families.  So if 72% of all Black children in L.A. must endure this, imagine how rare it is to avoid this trauma if you’re poor and Black. 


Riverside County and San Bernardino Counties, next door to L.A., are nearly as bad.  So are Wayne County, Michigan (metropolitan Detroit), San Diego County, California, Clark County, Nevada (metropolitan Las Vegas) Middlesex County, Massachusetts (suburban Boston) and Maricopa County, Arizona (metropolitan Phoenix).  In none of America’s 20 largest counties does the percentage of Black children enduring a child abuse investigation fall below 40 percent. 

Phoenix and Los Angeles are also #1 and #2 respectively among America’s largest cities in NCCPR’s calculation on overall rates of tearing apart families and consigning children to the chaos of foster care over the course of a year. 

In none of these giant metropolitan areas does the proportion of Black children forced to endure a child abuse investigation fall below 41 percent.  Even for white children, in all but three of these counties, more than 20% will have to endure a child abuse investigation. 

Yes, an investigation is a big deal 

Before going further into the data, I want to pause here to respond to anyone thinking: Well, an investigation is no big deal, they’re just social workers knocking on the door to offer help Indeed, some weird comments made by one of the researchers, discussed below, suggests he may believe that.  But just to set the record straight, this story from The New Yorker gives some idea of what it’s really like: 

You will hear a knock on the door, often late at night. You don’t have to open it, but if you don’t the caseworker outside may come back with the police. The caseworker will tell you you’re being investigated for abusing or neglecting your children. She will tell you to wake them up and tell them to take clothes off so she can check their bodies for bruises and marks.   

You must be as calm and deferential as possible. However disrespectful and invasive she is, whatever awful things she accuses you of, you must remember that child protection has the power to remove your kids at any time if it believes them to be in danger. … If you get angry, your anger may be taken as a sign of mental instability, especially if the caseworker herself feels threatened. 

You may never find out who reported you. If your child has been hurt, his teacher or doctor may have called the state child-abuse hotline, not wanting to assume, as she might in a richer neighborhood, that it was an accident. But it could also have been a neighbor who heard yelling, or an ex-boyfriend who wants to get back at you, or someone who thinks you drink too much or simply doesn’t like you. People know that a call to the hotline is an easy way to blow up your life. [Emphasis added.] 

On one of the incredibly rare occasions when this actually happened to a white, middle-class foster parent, it sparked days of outraged news stories and demands for action from a state legislator.  The fact that this will happen to almost every impoverished Black child in the City of Los Angeles, almost every impoverished Black child in the City of Phoenix, and more than half of Black children nationwide somehow doesn’t provoke the same response. 

Almost every allegation is false 

All that is required for a caseworker to “substantiate” an allegation is for her to check a box on a form stating her personal conclusion that it is slightly more likely than not that the “abuse” or “neglect” occurred.  There is no trial beforehand, no neutral arbiter hears all sides.  Unsurprisingly, the only study we know of to second guess these decisions, and it’s a very old study, found workers two to fix times more likely to wrongly “substantiate” an allegation than to wrongly declare one “unfounded.” 

And yet, even with this incredibly low standard of proof and propensity to over-substantiate, this study found that, on average, in more than 90% of cases, the workers found that the allegation was false.  Even among Black children, where racial bias and the confusion of poverty with neglect make it more likely workers will check the “substantiated” box, on average workers decided at least 80 percent of reports were false.*  (And, of course, among those that are “substantiated” the vast majority are “neglect” – which often means the family is poor.) 

So even by the workers’ own assessment, nine times out of ten, children are forced to endure this trauma for nothing.  That also means that roughly 90% of the time, workers are spinning their wheels, chasing down false allegations, making it less likely they’ll find the very few children in real danger. 

1 in 5 Black kids in L.A. endures foster care 


Graphic from Frank Edwards, et. al., "Contact with Child Protective Services is pervasive but unequally distributed by race and ethnicity
in large U.S. Counties" (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 27, 2021).

But, of course, the harm doesn’t necessarily stop with an investigation.  The new study has stunning data on the cumulative effect of all that investigation: More than 20% of Black children in Los Angeles will be forced into foster care at some point during their childhoods – the figure is nearly as high in Phoenix.  Phoenix also is where it’s proportionately most likely that a Native American child will be forced into foster care, and second most likely for Hispanic children. 

Though family police almost always mean well, that means all these children endure the same trauma endured by children taken from their parents at the Mexican border.  Again, from the New Yorker story: 

If the caseworker believes your kids are in imminent danger, she may take them. You may not be allowed to say goodbye. It is terrifying for them to be taken from their home by a stranger, but this experience has repercussions far beyond the terror of that night. Your children may hear accusations against you—you’re using drugs, your apartment is filthy, you fail to get them to school, you hit them—and even if they don’t believe these things they will remember. And, after your children see that you are powerless to protect them, this will permanently change things between you. Whatever happens later—whether the kids come back the next week, or in six months, or don’t come back at all—that moment can never be undone. 

Just ask someone who went through all this, such as, say, this 14-year-old what “just an investigation” really means: 

I’m scared when I hear a hard knock at the door. I think they are coming. I was scared to go to school because they will come to the school and remove me and put me in a foster home. All because if my Mom and Dad don’t do what they want, never mind they are not abusing us.

I will be so glad when I am 18 and my brother is 18. Then I know [no one] will ever be able to put us in a foster home again. 

That’s best case – it doesn’t even begin to account for the high rate of abuse in foster care itself. 

When it comes to child welfare’s death penalty – terminating children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights) Phoenix is again #1 – by a wide margin.  Nearly three percent of all children and nearly six percent of Black children in metropolitan Phoenix will have their parents taken from them forever. 

The family policing bias Olympics 

If one thinks of this study as scoring a family policing bias Olympics, different counties may “win” individual events.  But who does “best” all around?  Probably Middlesex County, Mass.   

In a state known for discrimination against Hispanic families in child welfare, Middlesex had the worst rate among the counties studies for inflicting child abuse investigations on such families.  It also had the worst rate for Native American families.  

Percentage of Middlesex County, Mass. Children likely to be subjected to family police investigation by race:* 

Asian                          19%

White                          28%

Native American       59%

Hispanic                     60%

Black                          68%

Middlesex also is the county in the study in which Hispanic children are proportionately most likely to have to endure foster care. 

Of course, this is the state where the head of the family policing agency and the state’s “child advocate” are doing everything possible to deny that racial bias is a problem

The other disparity – geographic disparity 

Communities are consistent about overinvestigating and overremoving Black children, but there is no consistency in how often they do it.  That, in itself, shows how arbitrary and subjective the whole process is. 

The rate at which caseworkers check a box on a form saying they think it’s slightly more likely than not that “abuse” or “neglect” occurred, (what the study wrongly describes as “confirmed maltreatment”) is ten times higher in metropolitan Detroit than in metropolitan Seattle.  A child is five times more likely to be placed in foster care -- and 17 times more likely to lose rights to her or his parents forever – in Phoenix than in New York City. 

Of course, it’s theoretically possible that Phoenix is such a cesspool of depravity compared to New York City that there really is 17 times the amount of child abuse severe enough to merit termination of parental rights.  But it’s more likely the result of the culture in a state family policing agency in which caseworkers thought it would be a great idea to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Professional kidnapper.” 

These data track with NCCPR’s comparisons of rates of child removal for states and, as noted above, for big cities, which find enormous differences, even when factoring in rates of child poverty. 

It’s probably worse in rural America 

Bad as these data are, odds are the omnipresence of the child welfare surveillance state is even worse in much of rural America.  That’s suggested by the fact that, even when adjusting for rates of child poverty, the states that tear apart the most families tend to be states that don’t have any big cities – states like Montana, Wyoming and Vermont.  Of the 20 states most prone to tear apart families, only two, Massachusetts and Arizona, have counties big enough to be included in the new study. 

Substituting surveillance for foster care is not “success”

In a weird press release announcing the study – but not, it should be emphasized, in the study itself - one of the researchers, Christopher Wildeman, suggests that New York City is somehow a success story because, even though the proportion of children investigated is a little above average (though not, it should be noted, above average for the places in this study), and even though New York City caseworkers “substantiate” allegations at a relatively high rate, they take away proportionately fewer children and terminate parental rights at one of the lowest rates among the counties studies. 

Somehow Wildeman leaps from this to the conclusion that family policing is “working” because ultimately the families aren’t destroyed forever.  UPDATE: Asked for comment about this view, the lead researcher for the study, Frank Edwards, told NCCPR: "I think that the massive surveillance and separation of Black, Brown and Native kids is at crisis levels and needs to be dramatically reduced rapidly.” 

In fact, the New York data tell a very different story from Wildeman's spin.  They show only that, thanks largely to pressure from grassroots family advocates and a network of high-quality family defense providers, the city family policing agency has been stopped from doing the very worst things it can do to families. 

But, as the Movement for Family Power documents in this report, the decline in foster care numbers has been replaced by an almost precisely equal increase in oppressive, needless surveillance of families.  (One outcome the study does not measure is the proportion of families forced into such surveillance in each county). 

So no, success is not substituting needless family surveillance for needless foster care; success is substituting community-based community-designed concrete help for families for both forms of family oppression. 

*-These are estimates based on the graphics in the study. The authors did not supply accompanying tables so each may be off by a percentage point or two.