Monday, March 7, 2022

Greg Abbott’s (and Ron DeSantis') liberal enablers

Greg Abbott (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

A giant vehicle with nearly unchecked power to destroy families was built largely by the Left.  Too bad it never occurred to a lot of my fellow liberals that, someday, someone like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott [or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis] would get the keys. 

UPDATE, JUNE 12: NBC News reports that another right-wing governor, Florida’s Ron DeSantis also wants to exploit power handed to him both by liberal politicians and by liberal media, particularly the Miami Herald, which has campaigned for years to make the state’s family policing agency ever more oppressive and more powerful. 

My fellow liberals are very upset – as they should be. 

Everywhere you turn, it seems, the liberal child welfare establishment is churning out statements “blasting” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for unleashing the state’s family policing agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare agency”) against transgender children and their families. 

The Children’s Defense Fund is doing what it does best, issuing a statement. Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago did the same and included endnotes. The American Civil Liberties Union is doing what it does best – suing.  The group that calls itself Children’s Rights is doing what it does best – exploiting the whole situation to collect email addresses for endless fundraising appeals. 

And it’s not just the usual suspects. The federal government’s Administration for Children and Families, which can take six months just to clear its throat, already has an entire “information memorandum” out.  Even President Biden weighed in, condemning Texas for “weaponizing child protective services against loving families.”  (Meanwhile, some of the same news organizations who are outraged by Abbott bought into the whole racist COVID “pandemic of child abuse” myth.) 

President Biden is right.  CDF is right. The ACLU is right. Chapin Hall is right. Even Children’s Rights is right.  Greg Abbott’s cynical, callous, breathtakingly cruel attack targeting transgender children deserves all the condemnation it is getting – and more.   (And while Abbott has systematized such attacks, they are not limited to Texas.  This case is from Michigan.) 

It’s just too bad all these groups didn’t think of consequences like this when, either by action or omission, they built the very system that Abbott is abusing.  Some of them continue to prop up that system.  It’s too bad all these groups and individuals didn’t notice that the family policing system has been “weaponizing child protective services against loving families” – in particular nonwhite families -- from its inception. 

As Prof. Shanta Trivedi of the University of Baltimore School of Law wrote in The Washington Post on Feb. 28: 

Though many are rightly outraged [by what Abbott has done], those familiar with the child welfare system are not surprised.  Vague definitions of abuse and neglect open the door to state-approved discrimination. These laws have historically been used to control Black and Native families, and these parents live in constant fear that their children could be removed. … Child welfare laws invite discrimination and have been used to regulate marginalized communities. 

How bad is this system that runs roughshod over families and was largely built by my fellow liberals? 

NCCPR’s Due Process Agenda, called Civil Liberties Without Exception, begins with this hypothetical: 

Suppose, when he was attorney general, William Barr had proposed anti-terrorism legislation with the following provisions: 

Special anti-terrorism police could search any home without a warrant – and stripsearch any occupant — based solely on an anonymous telephone tip.  Any occupant of the home could be detained for 24 hours to two weeks without so much as a hearing – and they’ll probably be detained far longer because, in the special anti-terrorism court set up by this legislation, all the judges are afraid to look soft on “terrorists.” 

At that first hearing the detainees may – or may not – get a lawyer just before the hearing begins, and they almost never get effective counsel. 

At almost every stage, the standard of proof is not “beyond a reasonable doubt” or even “clear and convincing” but merely “preponderance of the evidence,” the lowest standard in American jurisprudence, the same one used to determine which insurance company pays for a fender-bender. 

And in most states, all the hearings and all the records are secret. 

Had Barr proposed such legislation, it’s reasonable to expect that civil libertarians would have responded with fury. 

Yet this hypothetical anti-terrorism law already is the law governing the system we call “child welfare.”  And sadly, many who in other circumstances are quick to defend civil liberties either stand silent or support it. 

Now Greg Abbott has driven home the consequences of liberal silence and liberal support for a child welfare surveillance state that tramples on civil liberties. 

The Right bears responsibility, too 

The Right should not be let off the hook here.  This is an issue that creates unusual divisions and unusual alliances.  It was, after all, Newt Gingrich who called for putting poor people’s children into orphanages.  It was the Right that watered down the Family First Prevention Services Act to eliminate the kinds of help families need most – concrete help to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty.  (They’re still at it, blocking President Biden’s anti-poverty agenda – which is the ultimate anti-child abuse agenda.) And much of the backlash against racial justice in child welfare comes from right-wing ideologues, including one who proudly analogizes her work to that of Charles Murray. 

There also are groups, on the Left and the Right who do understand this and have worked together to curb the family policing system. 

But when you look at the lawmakers who lead efforts to make state and local family policing systems even bigger and more powerful, they tend to come from the Left.  At the federal level, while right-wing Republican Tom DeLay was a prime mover behind the odious, racist Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, a law that passed almost unanimously, it had an even more powerful backer: Hillary Clinton. She was still bragging about it when she ran for president in 2016. 

So now, thanks to ASFA, if Greg Abbott’s family police take away transgender children and stall the process for 15 months, federal law actually requires the family police to seek termination of those children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights). Because under ASFA it doesn’t matter why a child was taken in the first place.  

Enablers in Texas 

It is much the same in Texas. 

For decades Texas media fawned over Scott McCown, first when he was a judge in Austin and then when he ran a liberal think tank, the Center for Public Policy Priorities.  For at least a decade McCown was the Godsource for Texas media – no story about Texas child welfare was complete without an obligatory Scott McCown quote.  His skill at portraying himself as the lone Voice of the Left fighting for children against the right-wing Texas political establishment enhanced his appeal. 

McCown was the personification of everything wrong with the liberal child welfare establishment.  He said there was no problem with wrongful removal, that families had all the due process they needed and he was explicit in demanding that Texas take away more children.  You can read all about him in NCCPR’s 2005 report on Texas child welfare. 

McCown’s legacy lives on.  Even as they write story after story about the hellscape that is Texas foster care, with rare exceptions, Texas media won’t even consider that the problem involves taking away too many children and the widespread confusion of poverty with neglect. 

Last year, the Texas legislature considered a bill to modestly narrow the grounds for coercive intervention into families and make it harder to confuse poverty with neglect. In a "news story" dripping with sarcasm, Dallas Morning News Austin Bureau Chief Robert T. Garrett almost brags about refusing to report himself on issues of wrongful removal and due process. He writes: 

GOP leaders want to put a tighter leash on [child protective services]; make it harder to remove children from their birth families … Some staunchly conservative Republican lawmakers have helped make individual families’ fights with CPS, covered by right-leaning news outlets, into causes célèbres.

In fact, in a legislature where Democrats are greatly outnumbered, they made up more than one-third of the bill’s sponsors and cosponsors.  The bill passed almost unanimously.  One of those apparently not too keen on it: Greg Abbott. He let it become law without his signature. 

So which is it, Dallas Morning News?  Is the vast right-wing conspiracy in Texas out to crush innocent families by misusing its vast power?  Or is the vast right-wing conspiracy in Texas tying the hands of noble caseworkers and turning a blind eye to child abuse by cutting back on that same power? 

It’s not just the Dallas Morning News.  On March 4, the Texas Tribune ran a very good story about parents of transgender children rushing to lawyer-up – as they should.  Because, as one expert said: “Once you're in the clutch of the child welfare system, you're very vulnerable.”   

But back when she was editor of the Tribune, and before that when she covered child welfare for that respected online news outlet, Emily Ramshaw (now CEO of The 19th) wrote stories much like Garrett’s – and she, too, systematically shut out all dissent. 

Even now there’s a subtle bias.  Although the story about the rush to hire lawyers briefly mentions that some are working pro bono, it says no more about all the families who can’t afford to pay and aren't likely to find such a lawyer – which is most families “in the clutch of the child welfare system.”

UPDATE, MARCH 9: One Texas-based reporter does get it. In this excellent story for Slate, Roxanna Asgarian writes:

The child welfare system—decried as “family policing” by critics—is a particularly potent tool for transphobic politicians because it was set up to surveil families that fall outside of the white, middle class norm.

Not much of a learning curve 

Maybe all this would be excusable if these various organizations really learned anything.  We’ve seen that most Texas media have not.  At the national level, the ACLU has – they’re doing excellent work countering the use of predictive analytics (computerized racial profiling) in child welfare.  

But the Children’s Defense Fund, which has been fine with ASFA and opposed real child welfare finance reform is as regressive as ever.  Have you heard what they said about legislation to curb ASFA?  Neither have I. I haven't seen a word about it from Chapin Hall either.

And the award for chutzpah goes to Children’s Rights,  They have radically changed their rhetoric, especially their Twitter feed, but not their awful litigation – which repeatedly has made family policing systems bigger and more powerful.  CR even cites its own Texas McLawsuit – which does nothing to curb the power of the family policing system as somehow putting them “in a unique position” to recognize Greg Abbott’s hypocrisy!  (CR has an even worse settlement in Michigan, but they have leveraged none of their influence to do anything about what happened in the case cited above.) 

So here’s a test for any individual or organization who claims to oppose “weaponizing child protective services against loving families.” Are you ready to acknowledge your own complicity in building the weapon?  Are you ready to sue to stop wrongful removal? Are you ready to seek to reopen old settlements that fail to address the issue?  Are you ready to demand repeal of ASFA, or at least support significant reform?  What about it ACLU?  Where do you stand CDF?  Are you willing to do more than exploit the issue to raise money, Children’s Rights? 

And what about you, Mr. President?  Are you ready to support repealing a law that doesn’t just weaponize the family police – it gives them the equivalent of a nuclear arsenal? 

A teachable moment? 

Perhaps this is another teachable moment in child welfare.  Just as what Donald Trump did to children at the Mexican border brought home to millions of Americans the trauma of needless family separation, perhaps Gregg Abbott’s behavior will help my fellow liberals understand the need for civil liberties – without exception. 

It all boils down to this: A whole lot of people and organizations whose politics are a whole lot like mine decided that everything they professed to believe in about civil liberties did not apply as soon as someone whispered the words “child abuse” in their ears.  So they built a monstrous vehicle – like a giant tank - with the power to crush almost any family. 

But they never expected that, someday, someone like Greg Abbott would get the keys.