This is the text of the second of two NCCPR presentations at the 2021 Kempe Center International Virtual Conference: A Call to Action to Change Child Welfare
I’m going to spend a lot of time criticizing things people said and did in the past. Call that whatever else you’d like, but please don’t call it hindsight. All of what I am criticizing now was criticized then by a wealth of experts. But they were drowned out. They need to be heard now.
So, where were we?
I begin that way because this talk was inspired by a presentation at last year’s conference. At that conference, I first learned that a phenomenon I’d been writing about, and deploring, for decades actually had a name – and the name came from someone who had admitted his organization used to practice this particular dark art.
It’s called health terrorism – deliberately misrepresenting the true nature and scope of a problem in the name of “raising awareness.”
Millions of children in the United States have been victims of health terrorism – and it’s happening even as we speak. Over the past year-and-a-half we’ve seen both a classic example of health terrorism and vivid proof of how effective it’s been at poisoning the public discourse about child abuse and neglect.
It was March and early April of 2020. The lockdowns had begun and news media and social media were flooded with claims such as these:
The premise was always the same. As that sheriff put it in his tweet:
The number one reporters of child abuse are teachers, but kids aren’t seeing them right now. Neighbors and other family members, PLEASE pay close attention.
Or as a Washington Post story put it, because of COVID, it’s become “terrifyingly difficult to keep a watchful eye on children who are being abused.”
By “close attention” that sheriff meant – become a good little spy.
The Post story cites with approval school districts that “trained” teachers in how to spot abuse while tracking 20 kids in zoom boxes. Other districts train employees delivering meals to do a little spying while they’re at it. In other cases, the Post reported, “children’s advocacy centers have tried to reach children in new ways, slipping messages into supply bags or into homework lessons.”
Later in 2020 came phase two of the messaging. The horrors we’d all supposedly see once school reopened.
“This is all coming due to us at some point,” said the head of a trade association for “Children’s Advocacy Centers. “It’s not as though those who were abusing children before are suddenly going to stop. We should expect and plan for a tsunami of sorrow …”
And through it all, almost no one stopped to consider some basic facts.
● Yes, school personnel are the largest category of mandated reporter. They also tend to be among the worst about calling in false reports. In Pennsylvania in 2017 more than 95% of calls by educators were false.
● Nationwide, of the reports said to be true, most are nothing like those that struck terror in the heart of that Washington Post reporter. Overwhelmingly, they are neglect. Yes, neglect can be extremely serious – more often it's poverty.
Overall, in the United States, of every 100 calls to child abuse hotlines from all sources, not just school personnel: 91 are screened out as not even worthy of investigation, or they’re investigated and found to be false. Six more are neglect. Three in a hundred might be the kinds of things we think of when we hear child abuse.
Turning every potential helper into a spy forces people who may indeed be on the edge to think twice before seeking or accepting help. Is my neighbor really out to help me or will she jump to conclusions and call the hotline?
Politicians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis used these pandemic of child abuse claims to pressure school districts to reopen prematurely for in-person learning – and we’re all seeing how that’s working out.
And, in addition to all the other harm done to children by the trauma of a needless child abuse investigation, such investigations intrude not only on people, but on bedrooms, cupboards and closets as workers look them over. So this messaging increased the risk of spreading COVID among families and caseworkers alike.
Most striking of all: Even in the midst of a racial justice reckoning, almost nobody spreading this mythology stopped to consider: Who are the spies and who are the spied upon?
What this master narrative of COVID and child abuse really is saying is that the moment overwhelmingly white disproportionately middle-class professionals don’t have their eyes constantly on overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite children, those children’s parents will unleash upon them child abuse in pandemic proportions – a tsunami of sorrow.
Not everyone bought into it – and that, in itself is progress. Several national news organizations questioned the master narrative.
By late June, 2020, The Associated Press was challenging it.
So was The Marshall Project
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.”
Then, about a year ago, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago – a place that long has been the epitome of child welfare establishment conventional wisdom -- weighed in. Even they found no evidence for a tsunami of sorrow. Rather they suggested the pattern was similar to summer, when reports always drop off. But most important, the reports that typically are lost during the summer are, to an even greater extent than the rest of the year, false reports. Thus, Chapin Hall concluded:
[I]t is unlikely that the dramatic reduction in hotline reports due to school closures will produce a rebound of substantiated maltreatment.
Hall said, focus on ameliorating poverty.
Something else was happening in September 2020 – children were, in fact, returning to school. Not all of them, of course, but enough to give a pretty good idea if a tsunami of sorrow was about to be revealed.
But Prof. Anna Arons of NYU School of Law found that in New York City, as children returned the increase in reports was about the same as any other year after summer vacation. NCCPR found the same was true in Florida – which had been particularly aggressive about forcing schools to reopen.
Prof. Arons also found that alleged child abuse fatalities -- the type of tragedy least likely to avoid public review -- dropped by 25 percent when comparing the COVID months of February through June 2020 to the same period the year before.
Prof. Arons’ overall assessment was confirmed by the head of New York City’s family policing agency. As the trade journal The Imprint reported:
“I’m happy to say we really haven’t seen any indicators” of an increase in undetected child abuse, Commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services David Hansell told the City Council. … Thus, it was just as likely that the pandemic was “a very positive thing” for children, who were able to spend more time at home with their parents, Hansell concluded.
Why did it happen? Or rather, why did the catastrophe not happen?
In addition to the pollution lifting, there probably were two other factors. The federal government decided to wage what, were it a movie might be called “War On Poverty II – This Time We’ll Just Send Cash.” And we know from study after study that since the main problem that America labels child neglect is, in fact, poverty, providing even a little bit of cash significantly reduces that problem.
In addition, Prof. Arons points to the growth of mutual aid networks, community-based and community-run – providing everything from food and diapers to child care and counseling. And since they are not run by mandated reporters, people don’t need to fear going to them for help.
Says Prof. Arons: “Families stayed safely together not because of the family regulation system but because of its absence.”
So, with all this evidence that the fearmongering was wrong, the myth is dead, right? Of course not. The pandemic of child abuse stories have continued through all of this. The facts are no match for a tsunami of stereotypes. And for that, we have the health terrorists to thank.
Health terrorism is as old as family policing. In Heroes of Their Own Lives, her excellent book tracing the history of child welfare through the records of the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Linda Gordon shows how the MSPCC’s real motivation was hatred and fear of the immigrant poor, and their work consisted of labeling their poverty as neglect.
But that’s not how they sold their aggressive, often illegal activities. They put extremely rare horror stories front and center – complete with before and after pictures of the children they’d “rescued.”
In the modern era, since the “rediscovery” of child abuse in 1962, many organizations followed in the MSPCC’s footsteps. In my experience as a reporter covering these issues during the 1970s and 1980s and later as an advocate, one group kept turning up, as grandmasters of health terrorism – in fact, it was the very group that introduced me to the term at this conference last year: Prevent Child Abuse America – or as it is was known then, the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse.
Here’s what PCAA’s Bart Klika said at last year’s conference:
How is it that we help the general public understand something about our issue of child abuse and neglect? In the very early days it was sort of the strategy … of health terrorism, we tried to scare the health into people by showing them very graphic images of child abuse and neglect, the scared child in the corner.
This isn’t the first time PCAA has owned up to this – sort of. In 2003, they put out a Request for Proposals seeking a public relations firm to fix their messaging. It included this:
“While the establishment of a certain degree of public horror relative to the issue of child abuse and neglect was probably necessary in the early years to create public awareness of the issue, the resulting conceptual model adopted by the public has almost certainly become one of the largest barriers to advancing the issue further in terms of individual behavior change, societal solutions and policy priorities.”
In other words: Our cause is so noble, so righteous, that it was just fine to mislead the public. And if today that’s become “one of the largest barriers” to getting the issue right, that’s no big deal, we’ll just change tactics.
They underestimate both what they did and their success. That’s why we need to dredge up the past; we need to understand how much damage was done by a bunch of well-meaning people who thought the ends justified the means.
The pandemic of child abuse myth is one example of that damage. At the end of this presentation, I will discuss others. Because the damage is so severe and so lasting, just moving on isn’t enough (and, by the way, they haven’t completely moved on). Undoing the damage, getting the poison out of the system requires PCAA to own what it did, acknowledge the consequences and apologize – over and over again.
One of the main reasons I’m here now is because when I asked Bart Klika to apologize even for what they admitted to having done, he refused.
So I want to spend some time on PCAA’s record, as a case study in health terrorism.
Let’s start with numbers.
In the United States, we’re all familiar with the annual “Child Maltreatment” reports from the federal government, which add up the number of calls to hotlines, how many are investigated, in how many cases workers check a box deeming the allegation “substantiated,” and so on. Those reports are the basis for the data at the beginning of this presentation on the vast numbers of false reports. It’s also notable that the percentage of false reports has been increasing. In 1986 about 47% were false according to caseworkers’ own conclusions, now it’s more than 80%. So what we see is how health terrorism led to exponential growth – in false reports.
But before the federal government started counting up child abuse reports themselves, other groups did it, including PCAA. Starting in 1982, they surveyed child abuse hotlines and released reports with their own spin.
An annual press release would reveal the vast number of “reports” of child abuse – and not even mention that there was a distinction between a true report and a false report. So journalists had no reason to know that not every “report” was true.
Reporters would be told they could get PCAA’s full report on request – with no clue that the full report would mention that a distinction between true and false reports even existed. And remember, such a request meant waiting for snail mail or a very long fax.
If you asked for the full report, like this one, you still wouldn’t get an actual figure for false reports, but you’d get two pages of excuses suggesting there’s almost no such thing. In these reports and elsewhere PCAA would tell us, as their director at the time Anne Cohn Donnelly put it quote:
Most child abuse reports are ‘unfounded’ or ‘unsubstantiated’ because workers do not have enough evidence to present a case in court … or they do not have services to offer the family, or their caseload sizes are too high to take on another investigation.” [Emphasis in original.]
But of course, the substantiation process doesn’t involve courts at all. The worker simply checks a box on a form, and that’s it. Sometimes a supervisor reviews it. But court standards are irrelevant. And, of course, substantiating a case doesn’t require workers to take on anything – many such cases are closed with the family police doing nothing – aside from traumatizing the family.
But the most striking part of PCAA’s approach to statistics involves how, over and over again, PCAA interpreted findings from this other study,
In their own reports, and in a letter to The Wall Street Journal, a co-author of the PCAA survey, Deborah Daro, would write that NIS-2 found that “Nine percent of the cases determined to be unfounded by Child Protective Services workers did indeed involve mistreatment that had resulted in significant harm to the child.”
The first thing to note about this is it means that, even by this reckoning, 91% of the time, NIS-2 found that when the worker said the report was false, it was false – so that alone means workers were and are faced with a deluge of false reports, and it contradicts Anne Cohn Donnelly’s claim.
But also, the comment is almost literally a half-truth.
Because NIS2 also second-guessed worker decisions to check the substantiated box. The study found that while nine percent of unfounded reports should have been substantiated, based on NIS definitions; 61% of substantiated cases should have been unfounded.
Not only are both figures in the same study, they’re on the same page.
So what that all means is that not only are 80% of reports false, that’s an underestimate because workers are six times more likely to wrongly substantiate an allegation than to wrongly label it unfounded.
Is it any wonder that as early as 1993, Time Magazine included PCAA’s survey in a story called “Damn Lies and Statistics.” The story referred to the PCAA findings as an example of “flagrantly flimsy figures.”
But again, most reporters saw only the press release. So of course the news stories typically would begin with the worst local horror story, followed by something like: “Nationwide, there are more than two million reports of child abuse annually, according to the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse. While not all cases are as bad …
And so on.
And PCAA wasn’t done spinning:
We all know now that during the ‘80s and ‘90s systems were panicked into tearing apart families due to racial stereotypes about crack cocaine. The New York Times even apologized for its coverage of that issue.
But here’s how PCAA interpreted its survey results in a story from 1989, citing Daro’s co-author. That co-author claimed that the state officials who provided the survey data:
"wished they could go back to the days of heroin and marijuana," rather than having to cope with cocaine and its powerful derivative, crack. Addictions to cocaine are more expensive to maintain, "so the parents' attention is focused on getting the drug, and the dependency itself consumes their time," [the study co-author] said. Abusers tend to be "off in another world," and more likely to neglect their children, she said.
And it wasn’t just crack where the spin was problematic:
How many people here remember Pizzagate?
For those who don’t, it involved wild right-wing conspiracy theories in 2016 about
how prominent Democrats were running a child sex ring in tunnels beneath this Washington DC pizzeria.
Now imagine if the Pizzagate claims were not confined to right-wing crazies. Imagine if the most prestigious names in mainstream media bought into it. Imagine a made for television movie thinly disguising people and places but portraying the claims as true, complete with the hero bursting into the secret underground lair to rescue a child even as a satanic ritual was in progress. Imagine if a slew of mainstream scholars and advocacy organizations filled with well-credentialed experts spread it.
Well, it happened. Not just once but all over the country.
I’m speaking of the hysteria about mass molestation of children in daycare centers during the 1980s – complete with secret underground tunnels and satanic cult rituals.
The most notorious such case was the McMartin preschool. But there were so many others.
PCAA didn’t start this. But in a 1986 “fact sheet” PCAA wrote about the McMartin defendants as if they’d been convicted. The fact sheet went on to say that “one ongoing federally-funded study is investigating over 30 cases of sexual abuse with multiple perpetrators and multiple victims in daycare settings.”
The fact sheet goes on to cite an authority who had dealt with over 200 cases of adults allegedly abused as children. “Their descriptions of abuse run from fondling to extreme sexual abuse which included ritualistic murder.” The authority cited is Dr. Bennett Braun, spelled B-R-A-U-N. I have only two words to say about Dr. Braun: Google him.
Among the allegations made by young children in these cases, after repeated interrogations: Cannibalism, being flown all over the country to be abused but returned in time to be picked up by their parents, having their eyes removed – and put back.
But at the time PCAA’s New York affiliate said that should not encourage skepticism. They quoted an expert who explained that: “the more bizarre the story, the more reality there may be to it.” Imagine what Q-Anon would make of a statement like that today.
But perhaps the area where health terrorism has done the most damage concerns denying that poverty is confused with neglect – or has anything to do with neglect.
This is from a 1986 pamphlet called “Physical Child Neglect”
“Whatever the causes of physical child neglect – and they are multiple – the heart of the problem is always an emotional lacking in the parents … The community and the caseworkers see parental behavior as the problem and they are, of course, right … [A] process of re-education must begin. … This … re-education process …may take years.
If a single mother who spends her days trying to find a job – or maybe holding down two jobs – her weekends going to foodbanks to get enough for her children to eat and her nights awake with the lights on to keep the rats away from her children concludes from this that the world is not an altogether happy place, it’s all in her head:
“Neglecting parents and, in time, their children, see themselves as victims. They cannot see that their very failure to act precipitates the problems that afflict them …Instead they feel that misfortunes are directed to them from a hostile and alien world.
Or as PCAA’s executive director at the time, Anne Cohn Donnelly said in 1985:
“There are a tremendously large number of people in this country who have little or no money and who do not neglect their children. When parents neglect their children and are of low income, it is not sufficient to say they are excused because they have no money.”
Now, let’s look at that same messaging through a racial justice lens.
Nationwide in the United States, it is estimated that more than half of all Black children will be forced to endure a child abuse investigation before they are 18. In Los Angeles and Phoenix it’s over 70 percent. And that’s all income levels – so for poor Black families, in some US cities, the trauma is almost guaranteed.
And though most of the reports will be marked as false, PCAA also was telling us at this same time there’s almost no such thing as a false report. So what PCAA was telling us, in effect, is that virtually every impoverished Black parent in America was some kind of stunted, inferior, emotional cripple.
They poured this poison into the public discourse around child abuse for decades.
And yet they refuse to apologize.
We can’t conclude this survey of health terrorism without mentioning – Spider-Man.
PCAA didn’t limit itself to talking to adults. They put out a series of special Spider-Man comics. In the comic about physical abuse, they send a message that doesn’t quite say it literally but boils down to: Turn in your parents if you get a spanking.
In a comic about emotional abuse and neglect, Susan’s mother has no time for her. Is it because she’s trying to hold down two jobs to make ends meet? Is it because she was cut off from her SNAP benefits due to a computer error? No way.
Susan’s mother is one of those high-powered career women who doesn’t know her place. She’s seen at the dinner table poring over papers in her briefcase while poor Susan is trying to talk to her – because Susan’s mother is too busy “work[ing] with movie stars.”
Flash forward to 2021 and a PCAA messaging memo which laments that when it comes to neglect the public “assumes the problem boils down to selfish and distracted parents.”
There are three reasons I’ve spent so much time in the past:
--One: they haven’t completely stopped, as I will show.
--Two: other groups have picked up where PCAA left off
That “tsunami of sorrow” line comes from the head of a trade association for so-called “Children’s Advocacy Centers.” Local centers often were the sources for local stories echoing the fearmongering.
But the most important reason to examine the past is that, once you’ve put so much poison into a system, the consequences are so severe, so lasting, you can’t just say oops and walk away and expect it to stop.
understand the consequences, let me read you some excerpts from a story in The New Yorker which does an excellent job of describing what it means when the
family police knock on the door:
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.
That is the least amount of trauma the system can inflict. In Phoenix Arizona, 20% of all Black children will be torn from everyone they know and love and consigned to the chaos of foster care.
Again, from the New Yorker story:
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. … 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:
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.
Even if you believe that traumatizing every poor Black family in Phoenix and Los Angeles is somehow justified if it saves children’s lives – there’s another problem. It doesn’t.
Back in 1987, PCAA estimated the number of known child abuse deaths in America to be 1,237. Thirty-two years later, in 2019, it was 1,840.
And that’s also probably a consequence of health terrorism.
Health terrorism encouraged the building of a system in which almost everyone who works with children is a mandated reporter. That deluges systems with false reports so workers have less time to find the very few children in real danger.
And it does something else – it drives families away from seeking help. There is abundant recent research on the terror of mandated reporting and how families have to think twice about whether to reach out for help and what to say if they do – hesitancy that was only reinforced by the whole pandemic of child abuse mythology.
One of the groups hurt most: Survivors of domestic violence. They know that if they report what’s being done to them, they can be turned into the family police and charged with neglect for “allowing” their child to see them being beaten.
As one mother who had exactly that happen to her children put it: “I should have just let my ex-husband beat my ass.”
But if you so much as raise the idea that we should abolish mandatory reporting – not even abolish reporting, just let professionals use their own professional judgment – people are horrified. They have visions of that pandemic of child abuse; visions of brutal beatings and torture, visions of, as Bart Klika put it: “the scared child in the corner.”
That’s what decades of health terrorism has done to us.
Step by step, brick by brick over more than half a century, health terrorism led America to build a monstrous machine inflicting state-sanctioned emotional child abuse – and often worse - on a huge proportion of children – especially nonwhite children.
But PCAA won’t even say they're sorry.
And, in fact, though the messaging is far more subtle, in some ways, PCAA is still at it.
This is PCAA’s current definition of physical neglect:
A child’s need for adequate food, clothing, supervision, housing, or protection from the environment is not adequately met.
That is actually worse than some state statutes – some state laws explicitly state that if the lack of these things is due to poverty it’s not neglect. But PCAA is still equating poverty with neglect.
Indeed, in a story published less than two months ago, Klika conceded that poverty may cause stress that prompts parents to neglect their children, but says nothing about poverty being confused with neglect.
And PCAA still has a numbers problem.
This is a slide Klika used in his presentation at this conference last year. It leaves the stunning visual impression that physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect all were once rampant, but thanks to the noble efforts of groups like PCAA the first two have plummeted.
There’s just one problem: The numbers for physical and sexual abuse are – literally – fake numbers. The rate of neglect is real, but the rate of physical abuse is double the real rate, and the rate of sexual abuse is triple the real rate.
And you have to look really, really closely at the fine print to even see that.
Can you spot it?
Here’s what the same timeline looks like if you use only real numbers.
PCAA didn’t create the slide with the fake numbers, but they actually cut out a section of the original that explained a little more clearly that some of the numbers are fake. There’s a detailed discussion of this graphic in a column I wrote for The Imprint.
In its Federal Policy Agenda, PCAA includes a graphic declaring that “At least 1 in 7 children experience child abuse and/or neglect annually.”
That figure comes from a survey of adults and children which included breathtakingly broad definitions.
Here’s the definition of “neglect”
When someone is neglected, it means that the grown-ups in their life didn’t take care of them the way they should. They might not get them enough food, take them to the doctor when they are sick, or make sure they have a safe place to stay. At any time in (your child’s/your) life, (was your child/were you) neglected?
Even the definition for abuse is so broad it can include a mother slapping a young child on the hand when he’s about to touch a hot stove.
And even with this extremely broad definition, the rate of abuse – not neglect – found in this survey was not one in seven, it was one in 20. PCAA combined the abuse and neglect figures.
At least one PCAA chapter, in North Carolina, was part of the COVID pandemic of fearmongering, printing up flyers to help essential workers and volunteers spy on families. Among the warning signs these workers should look out for in deciding whether to call the family police during the COVID pandemic: “unusual wariness of physical contact.” Notice also how the policing function is downplayed: “By making a report,” the flyer says, you are asking for a professional to help a child and their family so they all can thrive.”
Funny how in poor communities of color, it’s generally not seen that way.
So no. We can appreciate the fact that all this was done with good intentions. We can appreciate the fact that PCAA re-evaluated its messaging and changed a lot of it. We can appreciate the fact that it now includes in its platform calls to reduce poverty. But the pandemic of child abuse myth perfectly illustrates why that simply isn’t enough. It hasn’t wrung the poison out of the system. Millions of children must endure the legacy of health terrorism.
What is needed from groups like PCAA is some equivalent of emotional reparations. That means full-page ads, and a giant social media campaign stating flat-out that, though they meant well, they did a whole lot of harm – that it was never necessary – and now they are truly sorry.
To really move forward we need truth and reconciliation. Those actually harmed by health terrorism should be the ones to decide what is sufficient for reconciliation. But before there can be reconciliation, there needs to be a lot more truth.
Or, to paraphrase Anne Cohn Donnelly: “it is not sufficient to say they are excused because they had good intentions.”
Thank you very much.