Monday, May 8, 2023

The horrifying ubiquity of the family police


There are so many things Black parents must teach their children that white parents like me never had to deal with: There’s “the talk,” – when every Black parent has to tell their children how to behave when stopped by the police. There are the reminders to never forget a driver’s license, so the cops don’t think the nice car they’re driving was stolen. There’s how to deal with being followed around by store security.  

In much of America, especially states like Indiana, Black parents need to add one more: How to prepare themselves and their children for a middle-of-the-night pounding on the door when caseworkers for the state’s family police agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agency) demand to enter the home to investigate an allegation of child abuse or neglect. 

I said when, not if, because at some point, it will happen to nearly four out of five Black families in Indiana – the highest rate in the nation, vastly higher even than the national average for Black families of 53%. 

That’s just one of the findings in the new study we highlighted in yesterday's post to this Blog (a study I first read about on the excellent blog written by Robert Latham, Associate Director of the University of Miami Children and Youth Law Clinic). That study features state-by-state estimates of the likelihood that children will have to face the family police at some point before they turn 18. The study looks at every step of the process, from investigations to how often a caseworker claims a case is “substantiated” to entries into foster care to termination of children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights).  

A child abuse investigation is not a benign act. Having a stranger come to the door, awaken children in the middle of the night, pull them aside and question them about the most intimate aspects of their lives can be an enormously traumatic experience for a child. The caseworker will demand to see every room and look into every closet and cupboard. Often, it’s all accompanied by a stripsearch looking for bruises. 

Of course, the trauma is compounded if the caseworker decides to take the children on the spot and consign them to the chaos of foster care; something the same study reveals will happen to 18% of Black children in Indiana – and that’s only the second highest rate in America. 

Yes, second highest. In West Virginia every Black child is born with a target on her or his back: in a state where only three percent of the child population is Black, nearly one-third of those children will be forced into foster care, and 14% will have their parents taken away from them forever.  (As is discussed below, Minnesota's treatment of native American children is as bad or worse.)

In Maine, the target is on the backs of Hispanic children. Maine’s child population is only four percent Hispanic, but more than one-quarter of them will be forced into foster care and 15% of them will lose their parents forever. That state’s child welfare “ombudsman” issues reports indicating she’s never seen a problem with wrongful removal in Maine. How, then, does she account for how the Maine family police treat Hispanic families?  

But apparently, Maine isn’t as much of a cesspool of depravity as Indiana. After all, what else could explain the fact that, in addition to investigating 79% of Black families, Indiana family police also investigate 54% of Hispanic families – and even 54% of white families? Arkansas families apparently must be  similarly depraved; in that state, they investigate 73% of Black families, nearly two-thirds of white families and half of all Hispanic families.  

A few other examples from the study: 

● Indiana and Arkansas are among ten states where two-thirds or more of Black children will have to endure a child abuse investigation. The others are Arizona, Washington, D.C., Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Montana, Oregon, and Tennessee – where, as a recent case illustrates, even Driving While Black can be enough to get your children taken away. 

● In addition to West Virginia, states that force Black children into foster care at extreme rates include Arizona, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada and Wyoming. 

● West Virginia, long a contender for child removal capital of America, can’t get that distinction just by
tearing apart Black families – because there aren’t all that many Black families in West Virginia. But in addition to taking away nearly one-third of Black children, West Virginia will force 17% of its white children into foster care at some point during their childhoods.  

● In Alaska, Native families are the primary targets. Nearly three-quarters of Native Alaskan children will be subjected to an investigation. In Minnesota, long known for its extreme overpolicing of Native families, it’s nearly two-thirds. And it doesn’t stop there. Nearly half of Native American children in Minnesota will be forced into foster care and 13% will have their parents taken from them forever. 

In one sense all of these numbers are underestimates. They break down interventions by race but not by income. Affluent white families are almost immune from family police intrusion – and on those rare cases when that immunity is breached, boy are they surprised! Even nonwhite families are less likely to be targeted if they aren’t poor. So if a state is investigating, say, three-quarters of all Black or Native American families regardless of income,  it is likely that in that state family police investigations of impoverished Black or Native families approaches 100%. 

The results 

And what have we gotten by creating a system that almost certainly has traumatized tens of millions of children? 

Not a system that makes children safer. On the contrary, rates of what family police agencies call abuse have changed so little that some advocates had to literally make numbers up to suggest a sharp drop that doesn’t really exist. Indeed, during the giant expansion of the child welfare surveillance state from 2000 to 2019, rates of “substantiated” child abuse barely changed. But in 2021, after COVID forced the family police to step back, community-run community-based mutual aid organizations stepped up, and the federal government stepped in with cash – cases labeled  child abuse or neglect by family police  agencies reached a record low. 

But what about the horror stories that have driven the exponential growth of family policing, child abuse fatalities?  Relying on an estimate from Prevent Child Abuse America, the federal government reported that in 1992 there were 1,261 such fatalities. In 2021, there were 1,753. 

Of course, some of the difference may be due to better detection – but at a minimum there is no evidence that a system built on horror stories did a damn thing to stop the horror stories. 

More than two decades of inflicting ever more misery upon ever more impoverished families, especially impoverished families of color, did nothing to make children safer. 

For decades the family policing establishment and its acolytes in academia and advocacy falsely claimed child safety was at odds with family preservation. Politicians bought it – and children wound up with neither. 

It’s not hard to figure out why. The cases we think of when we hear the words “child abuse” are as rare as they are horrific – they are needles in a haystack. Decade after decade we’ve made the haystack bigger – deluging caseworkers with false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. That’s only made it harder to find the relatively few cases in which, without intervention, children will suffer horrific abuse. 

How, then, can anyone seriously make a case for more of the same?  

The burden of proof 

No, the current system doesn’t fail every child. Some families genuinely need to be investigated and some children really do need to be taken from their parents. But we’ve built a monstrous system that eats up $33 billion a year, in some states surveils nearly all Black or Native families, and still overlooks children in real danger.  

Yet somehow, the burden of proof constantly is shifted to opponents of the status quo of child welfare to prove that anything they propose — from reform, to non-reformist reform (changes that reduce the power of the system but don’t eliminate it), to  abolition — is better.  Even the extremely modest changes in federal funding brought by the Family First Prevention Services Act require that, ultimately, any new “prevention” program dot every i and cross every t on randomized controlled trials to “prove” they work. No such standard has ever been applied to mandatory reporting laws, foster care, or residential treatment. If it were, the results would be the ultimate case for abolition. 

And yet  any suggestion to, say, take most of that $33 billion and do what was proven to work during the pandemic — give it to community-run organizations to provide concrete help to families, is greeted with a regurgitation of the usual horror stories — even though the horror stories are a product of the system we have now. 

Or worse, the horror stories are invoked to give this failed system a high-tech sheen by letting algorithms “advise” caseworkers concerning whom to investigate. And sure enough, the algorithms are proving to at best replicate, at worst, magnify all those human biases.  That has not stopped their proponents from suggesting that the current, failed, surveillance system metastasize to the point of stamping a risk score on every child at birth, with race used as an explicit risk factor.  (Don’t worry, proponents say, we promise we’ll only use those algorithms for “prevention.)

Before another generation of Black children and Native children has to endure the almost-guaranteed trauma of an almost-guaranteed investigation by the family police, shouldn’t we shift the burden of proof from the reformers and the abolitionists to the defenders of the status quo? Shouldn’t we demand that the opponents of real change have to prove that what they have given us for decades is better than the alternative?