Monday, November 28, 2022

New child welfare data from NYC confirm: The “unintended abolition” worked!

Key child safety measures show significant improvement

A Black Families Matter rally in New York City in 2020.  (Photo by Rise)

This is the first of three parts about a scathing report, commissioned by the New York City family policing agency itself, which found pervasive racial and class bias in the agency, and rampant confusion of poverty with “neglect.” 

● Today: Context for the new study: The Administration for Children’s Services’ own data show that when the agency pulled back, did fewer investigations and took fewer children – child safety improved. 

● Tomorrow: ACS commissioned a study of racism in the agency.  Then they suppressed it.  Family defenders had to use the state Freedom of Information Act to get hold of it.  Once you read it,  you’ll see why ACS wanted to hide it. 

● Wednesday: The New York Times published a front-page story about the study that was, mostly, very good.  But it still fell into some of the traps that characterize much of the journalism of child welfare – including a crucial misunderstanding of poverty and neglect and one inflammatory claim that, as originally published, was flat wrong. 

● And always: New York City has one of the least awful family policing systems in America. As you read about what the caseworkers themselves are saying there, remember: Wherever you are, it’s probably worse.


There are two principal ways to measure child safety and the performance of family policing agencies. One makes sense, the other makes everything worse. 

Using the method that makes sense, new data show that during and after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the city’s family police agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, stepped back, mutual aid groups stepped up and the federal government gave poor people what they need most – money – child safety improved.  The data confirm the findings of Prof. Anna Arons of New York University School of law who called it, “An Unintended Abolition.”  They are still more evidence that the fearmongering claims about COVID leading to a “pandemic of child abuse” were false. 

Before getting to the data, let’s explore those two methods for measuring safety: 

Method #1 The worst method is the one most beloved by journalists: A child “known to the system” has died and the case file has more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade.  Child welfare establishment groups rush to claim the system is doing too much to try to keep families together.  Reporters buy it, and their stories almost always include a reference to their beloved “swinging pendulums.”   

Even if total child abuse deaths have remained the same or declined, if there are three such cases in rapid succession, it is officially declared by journalists to be a “series” of deaths (unless they’re writing for a tabloid, in which case it’s a “spate”).  The agency is then deemed to be “beleaguered” and/or “embattled.”  When it was pointed out to one of the worst reporters ever to cover child welfare that, while she was doing exactly this, the actual number of child abuse deaths per year had not increased, she famously replied “it was a series, but not statistically.”  So the lesson to agency chiefs is: If the horrible, and extremely rare, tragedies of child abuse deaths are evenly spaced, it’s one thing; if they happen to occur in rapid succession, that’s a series/spate and you are officially embattled/beleaguered. 

What all of this usually does is set off a foster-care panic, a sharp sudden surge in removals of children.  This further overloads workers so they have less time to find the relatively few children in real danger.  Child abuse deaths don’t stop, they don’t even decline, often they increase. 

And it constrains what public officials say and what they can support.  If, for example, Dannhauser, were to come out for key legislation to give families “Miranda rights” or to give ACS the authority to screen out false reports forwarded by the state (something discussed in future posts in this series) and if, in the ensuing months, total child abuse deaths declined but three happened to occur in rapid succession, a “news analysis” in The New York Times probably would say something like this:  “After a series of deaths, Dannhauser, the embattled commissioner of the beleaguered Administration for Children’s Services, is seen by some observers as letting the pendulum swing too far toward family preservation.” 

Method #2: Because fatalities are, fortunately, as rare as they are horrifying, they tell us almost nothing about overall system performance.  There are two measures that do indicate if children are getting safer: One is re-abuse – that is, of all children caseworkers alleged were abused or neglected how many were allegedly abused or neglected again within a year? The other is foster-care recidivism – of all children reunited with their families, what percentage had to be placed again within a year? 

This measure also has flaws.  To be significant, changes should be substantial and sustained.  A tiny increase or decrease means nothing, and even a big change may mean nothing if it’s only a single year’s results. 

But we now have a fair amount of data on this in New York City.  The data are measured by fiscal year. So the baseline is the year ending June 30, 2019.  In FY 2020, which included the start of the pandemic, reports alleging child abuse or neglect dropped sharply, entries into foster care also declined.  But contrary to the fearmongering that made it into countless news stories, the absence of all those overwhelmingly middle-class disproportionately white mandated reporters having their “eyes” constantly on children who were neither did not set off a “pandemic of child abuse.”  On the contrary, both key measures improved.  

But that didn’t stop the fearmongers.  They poured their old whine into new bottles and said that as soon as schools reopened, we’d see a surge in child reports as all that hidden child abuse came to light. 

That didn’t happen either.  

After schools reopened, the number of reports declined again, entries into foster care declined again and the key child safety measures improved again.   In FY 2022, reports started to increase again, so did foster care entries, but both still were way below pre-pandemic levels.  By then, compared with before the pandemic, re-abuse had declined by 15% and recidivism had declined by 40%   It should be noted that the biggest decline in recidivism occurred in a single year, and, as I said above, single-year changes should be treated with caution.  But the multi-year trend still is clear: As ACS stepped back, and the community stepped up, child safety improved. 

One reason this is so important: Family defenders just got hold of that scathing report, mentioned at the start of this post; the one commissioned by ACS itself, finding pervasive racial and class bias in ACS.  Who said so?  Among others, frontlines caseworkers for ACS. 

The report was the subject of a front-page story in The New York Times.  Over the next two days, we’ll look first at the report itself, and then at how the Times covered it. Read all three parts of this series here.