Monday, April 18, 2022

Is even a moment of self-reflection too much to ask? In child welfare – and journalism – apparently, yes.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Contrary to one caseworker’s claim, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s war against transgender children isn’t revealing what one family policing agency has become. It reveals what all family policing agencies have been all along. 

Last week, The Imprint published a column I wrote called “Affluent America Gets a Wake-up Call on CPS Intrusion.”  It’s about how Greg Abbott’s war against transgender children is catching in the “child protective services” net people who never thought they’d be there – white, affluent families.  

The column focused on an excellent Washington Post story about one such family – and how wrenching the trauma was, even though they were so well off they could hire two lawyers and a private social worker to fight off CPS; even though they had advance warning of the inspection of their home and even though they were able to limit that inspection. 

Poor families have none of these options. 

I ended the column with the hope that 

readers finding out for the first time what a child abuse investigation is really like, and those who are writing stories about it for the first time, will remember something. While it is new to them, poor parents, especially poor parents of color, have known it all along, just as they know they will have to give their children “the talk” and fear that their children will be stopped and frisked. For more than half of all Black children, a child abuse investigation will be part of their childhoods. 

I also expressed the hope that we would see more stories about such families and more self-reflection within the system and in journalism. 

So far, it’s not looking good.  In fact, another story, even as it shows enormous sensitivity to these affluent white families, includes a sentence reinforcing the false “health terrorism” master narrative about the overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite families who dominate worker caseloads. 

This time the story, in the Texas Tribune, focused on workers who, finding themselves intruding needlessly on families with whom they could identify, are quitting. 

The story focuses on a transgender caseworker, Morgan Davis, who said he was glad that if anyone was going to have to investigate a family persecuted by Gov. Abbott at least he might be able to cushion the blow. 

But, according to the story: “The family’s lawyer didn’t see it that way.”  Yes, once again the family had a lawyer ready and waiting.  In fact, in an interview with Vice News about the same case, Davis said: “I was very grateful that they had attorneys.” 

In the 46 years I have been following these issues this is the first time I ever heard or read those words coming from a CPS worker. 

In fact, he goes further.  On the one hand, higher-ups at the Texas family policing agency have made it much harder to close these cases than others, leaving families in limbo.  On the other hand, this caseworker acknowledges that these families’ treatment during the investigations amounts to CPS lite, in part because he works out of an office in Austin. As he told Vice: 

But what if there's a county or a supervisor that [Agrees with Abbott]? And sends their caseworker in [and says] I want you to go to the school, I want you to record the child, show up unannounced to the home, all things that are normally done during the course of action of any investigation? [Emphasis added.]

In other words: OMG! What if we have to treat these white, affluent families the way we routinely treat poor families and nonwhite families? 

And speaking of things I’ve never read or heard before, consider this from the Texas Tribune story: 

Even the person who made the child abuse report didn’t seem to agree with the directive: Davis said they were sobbing on the phone, distraught that they were reporting the family, but the person was mandated by law to report child abuse and feared the consequences of not making a report. 

“[They] said to me, ‘Just promise me you’ll be kind,’” Davis remembered. 

Now consider how the caseworker made his judgment about the family he was forced to investigate.  According to the story: 

When he visited the family, the house was clean, the pantry was well stocked and the kids were healthy, happy and well loved. 

Now, let’s break that down: 

When he visited the family, the house was clean … 

To which the only reasonable response is: SO WHAT???? 

Why are caseworkers obsessed with equating cleanliness with love? Do only neat-freaks love their children? 

In no field I know of is the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness” taken more literally than family policing – and none where the consequences are worse. 

A dirty home means you’re neglecting your children – so they wind up in foster care. 

Conversely, after reading thousands of news stories about family policing over the past 46 years I’ve seen it over and over again: fatal neatness - caseworkers declaring they never suspected anything was wrong in the home where a child died “because it was always so neat and clean.”  

I know of no study of how often caseworkers are blinded by what might be called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Home syndrome, but it happens often enough that one former state “Child Advocate,” Kevin Ryan, made this recommendation to the New Jersey child welfare agency in 2005: 

Until someone demonstrates a correlation between cleanliness and child safety, [the state child welfare agency] should instruct employees that this factor is, at best, hardly relevant unless the filth is severe enough to cause a real and immediate risk to the child. This both will reduce needless removals from dirty homes, and encourage workers not to write off the potential for risk in homes that happen to be spotless. 

Another observation from the caseworker: 

…the pantry was well stocked … 

Well of course it was! It’s not as if this family had to worry about the SNAP benefits running out at the end of the month. Again, what does that have to do with love? 

Not only does the Texas Tribune story show no understanding of the irony in all this, there are dark hints throughout that with all the resignations at the Texas family policing agency there won’t be enough people to go after the real abusers – and we all know who they are, right?  After all, as the story says, caseworkers are dealing with a crisis of children pouring into the system with no placement for them.  And, the story says: 

that’s in addition to their existing, often overwhelming job duties investigating some of the most heartbreaking, challenging cases of abuse and neglect.

Such cases are serious, real – and very rare.  Mostly family police are dealing with the confusion of poverty with neglect.  The reporter here has simply bought into the whole narrative of “health terrorism” that family policing agencies have sold for decades – that the extreme horror stories are the norm and family policing agencies are a “thin blue line” protecting helpless children from their (overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite) parents who are sadists at worst and sick, sick sick! at best. 

At the very moment that this reporter is eyewitness to the abuse of power of family policing, she rushes to draw a distinction between people like us and people like them. 

The workers interviewed seem anxious to do the same; the story is filled with their proclamations of moral superiority. 

None of this is meant to diminish the trauma endured by transgender children and their families in Texas – and elsewhere, or the trauma for caseworkers.  But as soon as the crisis hit, those who already know what family policing is like responded with empathy.  Within days, NCCPR Board Member Prof, Dorothy Roberts, America’s leading scholar of racism in family policing, had a column in The Washington Post condemning Abbott and emphasizing that, bad as foster care is for other children, it’s even worse for LGBTQ children. 

I have not yet seen evidence that such empathy is a two-way street, either within family policing or within journalism. 

At the top of the Texas Tribune story, the reporter notes that she and a colleague are working on several more stories and they’d like caseworkers to please reach out to them.  There is no similar request to poor, nonwhite families.  

As for those within the system, at one point David, the caseworker profiled in the story, says: 

“It was just heartbreaking to me, to everyone, to see what we were doing, to see what we had become.”
I’m sure Davis went into this work for all the right reasons.  He wanted to help children.  Now he sees how much harm a family policing agency with vast, unchecked power and no accountability can do.  But it’s not a matter of what one family policing agency has become.  In poor communities, especially poor communities of color they know: This crisis simply reveals what all family policing agencies have been all along.