Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The New York Times rediscovers wrongful removal, class bias and racial bias in child welfare – and gets a lot right. But the story is marred by some glaring errors.

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

● Monday: 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. 

● Yesterday: 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. 

● Today: 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.

 When it comes to covering family policing, a more accurate term than “child welfare,” the recent record of The New York Times has been, at best, undistinguished.  

In the late 1990s and the first years of the new millennium, the Times Metro desk produced outstanding journalism about family policing.  But for most of the past two decades, with one exception, the Times has ignored wrongful removal and, sometimes, scapegoated family preservation in ways that were worse than stories in the city’s tabloids.  (The exception was the Times’ superb 2017 story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow.”) 

One indicator of how bad recent Times coverage has been: When, in his story about a new ACS-commissioned study, the reporter sought to remind everyone of the supposed horrors that could ensue if ACS didn’t hyper-surveil impoverished communities of color, he linked to one of his own stories.  When he sought to illustrate the harm of such hyper-surveillance, he had to link to a story from another news organization. 

But perhaps things are changing. 

The first thing to note about how The New York Times handled the scathing report, in which some of ACS’ own employees exposed widespread racial and class bias in the agency, is that the Times did, in fact, cover it.  And the coverage was prominent: on the home page online and the front page of the print edition. 

The second thing to note is that the story got a lot of things right. 

There was the headline: “Is N.Y.’s Child Welfare System Racist? Some of Its Own Workers Say Yes.” 

There was the powerful lead: 

For decades, Black families have complained that the city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, is biased against them. 

It turns out that many of the agency’s own employees agree, according to a racial equity audit the agency commissioned but never publicly released. 

There were some important excerpts from the report.  The story notes how the report 

described a “predatory system that specifically targets Black and brown parents” and subjects them to “a different level of scrutiny.” … 

Caseworkers said they felt pressured to push their way into people’s homes and not tell parents their rights. They “feel complicit in the harm that A.C.S. can cause Black and brown families” and powerless to change the system, the report stated. … One A.C.S. worker in the survey compared the experience to being stopped and frisked for 60 days. 

The report quotes Joyce McMillan founder of JMAC For Families, who says 

“The report also tells us that their own workers are not comfortable doing this stuff and that they feel choked into submission.” 

The report is fleshed out with two case examples, including one family victimized by a vile policy instituted by former Commissioner John Mattingly that’s been modified, but clearly not abolished since: sibling confiscation at birth. 

The story also notes how workers themselves favor something their top leadership opposes: 

a “Miranda warning” law requiring that parents be immediately informed of their rights not to speak to caseworkers and not to let them in without a court order, and to consult a lawyer. 

Key flaws in the story 

But the story also has some notable flaws – including one inflammatory claim that, as originally published, was simply wrong.  

For starters, the story was quick to accept the Big Lie of American child welfare, that child safety and family preservation are opposites that need to be balanced.  In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that family preservation is almost always the safer option and the hyper-surveillance / take-the-child-and-run approach makes all children less safe. 

The subhead declares, in part: “New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services must protect children without overpolicing families.”  In other words, the more you overpolice families the safer children will become!  High up in the story is the statement that ACS “must balance protecting the safety of children and respecting the autonomy of families.”  

On the contrary, as is documented in Monday’s post, when ACS curbed its overpolicing during COVID and did more to respect the autonomy of families, child safety improved.  And, much farther down. The story itself explains a major reason for this in a summary of a key part of the ACS-commissioned study:

Mandated reporters, the workers complained, often “file reports that describe conditions indicating poverty but not neglect.” Teachers make reports “based on the cleanliness of a child’s clothing or whether they bring food to school.” 

Caseworkers said they spent so much time chasing unfounded neglect claims that it became harder for them to protect children from abuse. [Emphasis added.] 

The other egregious problem concerns an inflammatory claim that’s flat wrong, a claim the Times corrected – without ever acknowledging they had been wrong in the first place.  It was in a sentence, seemingly thrown into the story at random, claiming that "a Times analysis" found that Black family members were more likely to murder their children than white family members.  At least nine comment trolls seized on this claim – ten if you count Naomi Schaefer Reilly on Twitter.  (Riley’s the one who proudly compares her book condemning family preservation to the work of Charles Murray.  Murray’s the one who has written that Black people are genetically inferior.)  The implication, of course, is that we have to keep those people under constant hyper-surveillance because, well, you know how they are. 

There are two key problems with this statistic: 

First of all, fortunately, child murder is so rare that it is impossible to draw any conclusions, let alone extrapolate to the general parenting behavior of an entire racial group.  In New York City, there may have been an average of 14 such homicides per year in recent years.  There are more than 1.6 million children in New York City.  In other words, in any given year, 99.999% of New York City children will not be murdered by a family member. 

The reason I say “may have been” is because of the bigger problem with the claim: It’s just plain wrong.  What the data actually show is that Black family members are more likely to be charged with murder by police.  Fortunately, police decisions on who to charge and what to charge them with are never, ever racially biased, right?   If you think there’s no way to bias such decisions, consider how many of the studies showing racial bias in child welfare involve doctors’ determinations of the cause of injuries.  And don’t forget the scandals over false allegations by “child abuse pediatricians” and false diagnoses of “shaken baby syndrome.” 

The Times changed the wording to acknowledge that the data refer to “cases where family members were charged” [emphasis added].  But there is no acknowledgment of the change. No statement at the top, or even the bottom of the story, stating there’s been a correction. The old version was just sent down the memory hole.  And in print, the false claim will live on forever. 

Misunderstanding poverty and “neglect” 

Then come a series of problems, all related to a fundamental misunderstanding of poverty and neglect mentioned earlier.  

There are two ways that poverty has an effect on neglect. 

The first, and biggest, is that poverty itself is confused with neglect.  State laws typically define neglect as lack of adequate food, clothing, shelter or supervision.  Some laws, including New York’s, have some caveats – but as the ACS-commissioned report itself notes, those caveats are regularly ignored.  There is no impoverished child in America who couldn’t be deemed neglected if a caseworker so chose.  (And remember, it is simply the caseworker’s choice.  Statistics on “neglect” are simply statistics on how often caseworkers check a box on a form.) 

This is the problem that the ACS-commissioned report identifies over and over – and quotes to that effect are in the Times story.  I’ve already quoted one example.  The story also notes that: 

For poor families pulled into ACS.’s orbit, who are overwhelmingly Black and Latino, symptoms of poverty are frequently punished as signs of neglect, the survey found. 

Nevertheless, the Times prefers to obsess over the other way poverty may affect neglect, something not discussed in the report at all: Poverty puts a lot of stress on parents and some of those parents may lash out – something that, when it happens at all, is far more likely to be associated with abuse, not neglect. 

But, to the extent that family police agencies and their acolytes are finally owning up to the role of poverty in neglect, this is the version they own up to – because it lets them off the hook.  The argument boils down to: Well, after all, the kids are neglected, so it’s a good thing we investigated, right?  And if, in the process, we traumatized them with our questions and our demands that they take off their clothes – and if we compounded the trauma for those we took away on the spot, well, that’s just the price they have to pay for having “stressed” parents who “neglected” them, isn’t it? 

Enter the “health terrorists” 

This is, by far, the predominant version of the nexus between poverty and neglect found in the Times story – but again, not in the study the story is reporting on.  To back up the claim, the Times relies on one of the least reliable sources in the field – those masters of what they themselves call “health terrorism” at Prevent Child Abuse America. So the story tells us that 

Stress is at the root of the relationship between poverty and child neglect and abuse, said Melissa Merrick, president of Prevent Child Abuse America, an advocacy group. 

But PCAA has one of the ugliest track records in the field. For decades they denied poverty had
anything to do with neglect.  They were masters of fearmongering – and recently used that term, “health terrorism” to describe their own past behavior.  But it’s not just past behavior.  They’re still at it.  So of course now they want us to believe the only relationship between poverty and neglect is that poverty turns parents into abusive or neglectful parents.  That way, the problem is more amenable to the kind of massive state intrusion they’ve favored for years.  And it encourages the use of “counseling” and “parent education” to deal with the “stress.” 

You know what’s really at the root of the relationship between poverty and child neglect? 


You know what the “service” is that parents accused of neglect almost always need most? 


The error is compounded elsewhere in the Times story. 

The story says: “Maltreatment rates are five times higher for lower-income children, according to federal statistics.” But those statistics measure only what workers “substantiate” as “maltreatment.”  Since poverty itself is often confused with neglect, what the workers are “substantiating” as “maltreatment” often is poverty – so of course “maltreatment rates” will be higher among poor families. 

The error is further compounded when the story buys into another canard from system apologists: 

Because poverty is correlated with higher rates of neglect and abuse, it is difficult to say how much the disparities in the system can be directly linked to income or to race. 

Difficult, perhaps, but not impossible.  There have been multiple studies documenting racial bias over and above class bias – including the ones mentioned above involving doctors. 

Helping ACS pass the buck 

At another point, the Times takes it upon itself to say what ACS usually has to say for itself.  In New York, the state runs the child abuse hotline, and any report they screen in – which is pretty much everything -- is passed on to ACS and its counterparts across the state.  They are required either to investigate or send out a worker to do an “assessment,” which is, theoretically, less intrusive.  So ACS loves to say: Hey, it’s not our fault we needlessly intrude on all those families, we have to investigate anything the state sends us!  

This time the Times itself did it for ACS, declaring: 

Much of the racial disparity in who gets pulled into the child-welfare system is outside A.C.S.’s control. It must investigate every allegation that meets definitions of abuse or neglect, and such reports can be made by anyone; two-thirds are eventually deemed unfounded. 

But that only tells part of the story.  Has ACS ever gone to the legislature and asked lawmakers to change the law to empower it to screen out reports that don’t deserve any “intervention” at all?  In Pennsylvania, for example, which also has a state hotline but county-run systems, those systems can’t screen out abuse reports, but they can screen out most neglect reports if they so choose. 

If ACS has asked for this power, they’ve been mighty quiet about it.  And it does not appear that the Times asked.  In fact, leaving things as they are is in ACS’ interest – precisely because it allows this kind of buck-passing. 

So what happens next?  Will we get at least two more good stories in rapid succession – a spate of good journalism?  Or will we get another five years of “a series, but not statistically” and “watch out for that swinging pendulum!”-type stories? 

Read all three parts of this series here.