This morning, I gave a presentation with the above title
At the Kempe Center International Virtual Conference:
A Call to Action to Change Child Welfare
Here is the text of that presentation
Have you heard? Poverty is confused with neglect!
At long last, almost 50 years after scholars like David Gil and Leroy Pelton pointed it out people are getting the message. People are starting to realize that the two biggest problems in what the child welfare establishment likes to call “child welfare” but should be called family policing are the confusion of poverty with neglect and the racism that permeates the system.
Fortunately, having finally realized this, the child welfare establishment has apologized for the enormous harm they have inflicted on generations of impoverished children through hyper surveillance of their families, needlessly consigning millions to the chaos of foster care, and so overloading the system it’s that much harder to find the few children in real danger.
Nah, just kidding. The family policing establishment has spent huge amounts of time and energy that could have been devoted to say, easing poverty, and devoted it to churning out excuses for their failure and claims that amount to: well, o.k., maybe it’s poverty, but it’s not just poverty.
In this presentation, I will examine the claims that it’s not just poverty, and discuss why usually those claims are wrong and, even when they’re right, they’re irrelevant.
I’ll begin with a preamble, courtesy of Prof. Deadric Williams of the University of Tennessee. The same people who are deepest in denial about poverty being confused with neglect, also are deep in denial about the role of racism in family policing.
I think this, from Prof. Williams’ Twitter feed, applies to both:
As he explains: “This is a slide I use to describe scholars looking for variables to account for the ‘racial gap’ in a given outcome.”
Poverty and child “maltreatment” interact in two ways. First, poverty increases stress on a family and, of course, some families will be more resilient than others, so some adults may lash out at their children. But the even greater issue is the fact that poor people are defined-in to our “neglect” laws.
Consider some state definitions of neglect:
In Ohio, it's when a child's "condition or environment is such as to warrant the state, in the interests of the child, in assuming his guardianship." In Illinois, it's failure to provide "the proper or necessary support ... for a child's well being." In Mississippi, it's when a child is "without proper care, custody, supervision, or support." In South Dakota, it's when a child's "environment is injurious to his welfare."
So yeah, poverty itself is, confused with neglect.
Fortunately, in both cases, poverty triggering neglect or poverty itself confused with neglect, the solution is the same, as I’ll discuss at the end of this talk.
Now, a bit of history: The desperate effort to deny the confusion of poverty with neglect, or even any relationship between poverty and what systems call abuse goes back to the foundation of the modern child welfare surveillance state, the passage of the so-called Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.
As documented in two superb histories, Making an Issue of Child Abuse by Barbara Nelson and Abusive Policies by Dr. Mical Raz, CAPTA was born out of the rubble of what would have been a great law – federal support for comprehensive developmental childcare. Congress passed it, but President Richard Nixon vetoed it.
And so was born CAPTA because, as its primary Senate sponsor, Walter Mondale put it, “Not even Richard Nixon is in favor of child abuse.”
But to get the bill passed there was a deliberate, systematic effort to not just ignore but deny any connection between child abuse and poverty.
CAPTA creates the modern framework for the current child welfare surveillance state. States actually could ignore CAPTA if they wanted, the penalty is a loss of funds so tiny that lobbyists call such amounts “budget dust.” What makes CAPTA so pernicious is the message it sends. The Child Welfare League of America, a trade association for public and private family policing agencies, many of which are paid for each day they hold a child in foster care, called CAPTA “foundational to the country’s ability to prevent child abuse and neglect.”
Except it doesn’t actually prevent abuse and neglect. That is exactly why CAPTA should be repealed.
But this medical model – the idea that abuse and neglect always were some kind of psychological failing in the parent, became the organizing principle around efforts to fight child abuse.
And that brings us to the first of the false claims about poverty and neglect, a claim that dates back to the golden age of what has been aptly called “health terrorism.”
Health terrorism is misrepresenting the true nature and scope of a problem in the name of “raising awareness.” I didn’t make that term up. I actually heard it at this very conference from a group that admits to having practiced health terrorism for decades: Prevent Child Abuse America. For the record, they say they’ve stopped – though they refuse to apologize for what they did. And I don’t think they’ve stopped.
But during that golden age of health terrorism, PCAA would put out publications saying things like this:
“Whatever the causes of physical child neglect – and they are multiple – the heart of the problem is always an emotional lacking in the parents … The community and the caseworkers see parental behavior as the problem and they are, of course, right … [A] process of re-education must begin. … This … re-education process …may take years.
And they weren’t just aimed at adults.
In a special Spider-Man comic about “emotional neglect,” PCAA tells children about poor Susan who’s neglected because her mother is “too busy working with movie stars.”
Aren’t we all?
So it should come as no surprise that the first of the excuses for confusing poverty with neglect comes from PCAA’s first director, Ann Cohn Donnelly who said this in 1985:
“There are a tremendously large number of people in this country who have little or no money and who do not neglect their children. When parents neglect their children and are of low income, it is not sufficient to say they are excused because they have no money.”
I’d thought that particular excuse was dead, but it actually turned up earlier this year in a commentary by one of the foremost current proponents of a take-the-child-and-run approach.
But, in fairness to Ms. Cohn-Donnelly: She’s right. There are indeed a tremendous number of people in this country who have little or no money and do not neglect their children.
The problem is: They get accused of neglect anyway.
Thanks in no small measure to the pioneering work of Ann Cohn Donnelly and her band of health terrorists at PCAA, more than one-third of all childrenand more than half of Black children live in families that will, at some point be accused of abuse or, far more often, neglect.
And in some communities, it’s way worse. In Indiana for example, four out of five Black families will face such an investigation.
Even these figures are underestimates since they don’t factor in income. So it’s more than half of all Black families – if we knew the percentage of poor Black families it would be mind-boggling.
So if, indeed, “a tremendous number of people in this country have little or no money and do not neglect their children” what the hell are the family police doing banging on their doors in the middle of the night, poking through every closet and cupboard – and stripsearching their children?
The difference between the poor family that is deemed neglectful and the poor family that isn’t often boils down to the culture of the agency, whether there’s been a high-profile child abuse fatality setting off a foster-care panic, which caseworkers come to the door and what mood they’re in.
No, no, say some members of what should be called the Scooby-Doo School of Child Welfare Scholarship: The neglectful parents are different.
And that brings us to the second great excuse, a line you hear all the time: Neglect is actually more dangerous than abuse because more children die of neglect.
Please bear with me, getting to the reason this is so misleading requires a trip deep into the weeds.
First of all, for reasons I’ll discuss later, we don’t know if this is true. But let’s assume for now that it is. By taking that figure out of context, it might leave the false impression that every time workers go out on a case in which the allegation is neglect, the child is in more danger than when the allegation is abuse.
In fact, the opposite is true. The data show that any given neglect allegation actually is far less likely to involve a fatality than an abuse allegation. To explain what seems like a paradox, let’s look at the data.
According to the 2021 Child Maltreatment report, 630 fatalities involved physical abuse, while 1,217 are said to have involved either physical or medical neglect. But those raw numbers alone tell us nothing about the odds of any given case leading to a fatality. For that, we have to look at what caseworkers actually are investigating.
Now, divide the fatality numbers into the hotline call numbers. Here’s what you get: At most, 0.056 percent of calls alleging abuse involve a fatality. While, at most, 0.022 percent of calls alleging neglect involve a fatality.
(In fact, both these estimates are high – since the fatality figures are the total, not just those where there was a report.)
Thus, when a hotline operator is deciding whether to screen in a given call and when a family police investigator knocks on a door to begin an investigation, the odds that the case will involve a family where a parent will kill a child are extremely low if the allegation involves abuse — and far lower still if the allegation is neglect.
How can both be true? How can there be more fatalities attributed to neglect but proportionately fewer fatalities in cases alleging neglect? Simple. Most of the time the caseworkers are not investigating neglect at all — they’re investigating poverty.
You might be able to make a case that when there is actual honest-to-God neglect — children locked in closets, or starved, or where there’s a meth lab in the basement — such cases are more dangerous than typical cases of physical abuse, which can involve a spanking that leaves a bruise. And no, such cases really are not just poverty. We have never said every neglect case is a poverty case – just most of them.
Because the overwhelming majority of the time, horrific cases of starvation and the like are not what caseworkers are investigating.
Further complicating matters: Even in a fatality case, deciding if the cause is neglect can be subjective. Consider a hypothetical:
A three-year-old wakes up before his parents one Sunday morning. The parents don’t know he’s figured out how to unlatch the back door. He wanders out of the house, falls into a body of water and drowns.
Accident or neglect? I suspect it’s far more likely to be labeled neglect if the body of water is a pond behind a trailer park than if it’s a pool behind a McMansion.
Let’s move on to the next argument from the Scooby Gang.
Remember the great reefer madness scares in the late 20th Century? Maybe marijuana itself wasn’t so bad, it was said, but it’s a gateway drug!
Now the Scooby Gang tells us that neglect is a gateway allegation. And that’s even worse. Because while a gateway drug, it was said, might lead people to worse in the future, a gateway allegation is a claim that something far worse has already happened to innocent children.
So for starters, we get the claim that a lot of those neglect allegations weren’t just neglect – other things were alleged as well.
The way to find out is to look not at what is alleged, but what is not alleged.
We find that in 2021, the federal government reports, 84 percent of children torn from their homes and consigned to the chaos of foster care were put there in cases that involved not even an allegation of sexual abuse or any form of physical abuse.
And, by the way, 58 percent of entries into foster care did not involve even an allegation of parental drug or alcohol abuse – and that’s without even getting into the fact that not all parental drug use endangers children –the “cannamoms” in Massachusetts whose middle-class status lets them brag about their marijuana use and led Boston Magazine to celebrate it.
So yeah, it’s poverty alright.
And often, yes, it is poverty alone.
If children weren’t taken because of poverty there would be no need for a charity called “One Can Help.” What does it do? It provides astoundingly small amounts of cash or basic goods so children can stay home or return home because, guess what, they were taken, or are now trapped in foster care, because of poverty alone.
Here are some examples, as described in a story from Fast Company:
“When a grandmother needed a twin bed by Tuesday morning so her grandson could enter kinship care at her home rather than being put in foster care with strangers, One Can Help bought the bed. (The state won’t place a child in any home without a designated bed for the child.) When two kids were about to be removed from a home because it didn’t have heat, One Can Help paid to fix the furnace. When a mom needed her car repaired so she could visit her kids in foster care and get to her job… One Can Help paid for the repairs.”
The story continues:
“One Can Help paid the gas bill for a mom whose teenagers had been cited for truancy. (The kids were too embarrassed to go to school because they couldn’t shower or wash their clothes; once the gas was back on, they returned to school). It has paid for classes, glasses, work uniforms, driver’s ed, the retrieval of an impounded car—whatever the child, parent, or family needed in that moment to keep the family together, reunite them faster, or provide a basic need.”
In another case, a mother couldn’t get her children out of foster care for lack of $100. That’s right, one hundred dollars.
Let me just pause here for a moment. The chat is open and uncensored, you can say anything you want there and during the discussion period after this talk. But please have the common decency to spare us that bullshit excuse about “Oh, yes, you’re right, and we’d like to do these things but we don’t have a funding stream.”
Do you have a wallet? In a 20-person office, all you need to do is chip in five dollars each.
So no, the reason family police don’t do it is not because there’s no funding stream – the reason is deep down, family police have even more contempt for families than they’re willing to admit. So there is no uprising from the rank and file demanding that their systems fund these things.
And systems can be made to do it, by the way. The landmark class-action lawsuit settlement in Alabama, R.C. v. Hornsby, included “flex funds” – small amounts of cash that workers can spend on a one-time infusion for whatever a family needs.
The other reason this doesn’t happen is because these systems are designed not to help the families, but to help the helpers. As Malcolm Bush explained decades ago in his book Families in Distress:
“The recognition that the troubled family inhabits a context that is relevant to its problems suggests the possibility that the solution involves some humble tasks … This possibility is at odds with professional status. Professional status is not necessary for humble tasks … Changing the psyche was a grand task, and while the elaboration of theories past their practical benefit would not help families in trouble, it would allow social workers to hold up their heads in the professional meeting or the academic seminar.”
But even when there is something else in addition to poverty, that’s actually irrelevant for reasons I’ll get to at the conclusion of this talk.
Another attempt to portray neglect as a gateway allegation came from a former family police agency administrator who cited a study and told us this:
“Of particular note was the strong relationship between physical neglect and sexual abuse, with any physical neglect associated with 9 point zero seven times the risk of sexual abuse,” compared to children without reported neglect.”
Oh my God! Sounds like every parent investigated for neglect is also probably a rapist, doesn’t it?But take a closer look. Just as the fatality example gave us numbers without ratios, this time we’re getting ratios without numbers, and that’s equally misleading.
The study in question used data from the National Surveys of Children’s Exposure to Violence. The total sample size was 7,872 children from ages 2 to 17.
Of that number, 530 experienced what the study defined as physical neglect and 826 experienced what the study defined as “supervisory neglect.”
The number who experienced sexual abuse that would come under the jurisdiction of a family policing agency: 41. (In contrast, the study found a much higher rate of sexual abuse by peers — which may help explain the high rates of abuse in foster care, group homes, and institutions.)
So I emailed the lead researcher, whom I will not name here, and asked this question:
“[O]f the 530 victims of physical neglect how many also were victims of sexual abuse? Of the 826 victims of supervisory neglect, how many also were victims of sexual abuse?”
The professor replied that this question “would require additional analyses that I am not able to provide at this time, as my coauthor/analyst for this paper is currently unavailable.”
In other words, she published the paper – and a bunch of peers reviewed it – apparently without ever knowing.
But this much seems clear: Overwhelmingly, the 1,356 young people in this study deemed victims of physical or supervisory neglect were not, in fact, also victims of sexual abuse by a parent or guardian.
Fearmongering by using giant ratios involving very small numbers is nothing new. Take, for example, a study claiming that “Children residing in households with adults unrelated to them were 8 times more likely to die of maltreatment than children in households with 2 biological parents.”
What the study doesn’t say is that even if you double official estimates of child abuse and neglect fatalities, in any given year 99.995 percent of American children won’t die of child abuse or neglect. So this study means only that if there’s a boyfriend in the house the odds of a child being killed by an adult in the home go from infinitesimal to slightly less infinitesimal. But the headline on a story citing this study is: “Why Are ‘Mothers’ Boyfriends So Likely to Kill?”
So now we come to what is almost the last stand of those insisting it’s not just poverty: What about other countries that have a lot less poverty and still take a lot of children?
And if you don’t think there was any racism involved, consider what the person who ran the family police agency that took the children in the real case – and who still thinks they were right -- said:
“I spoke to Indian journalists [at the time] and I asked them: ‘I don’t understand something. Why is there so much interest in [these] children when children are dying every day on the streets of Calcutta? [sic]”
But it’s not just one case.
Let’s take a closer look at some international data.
One scholar – someone who is not part of the Scooby gang and for whom I have great respect, said this:
“[In] New Zealand, which has much more of a social welfare system and strengths system than we do in all kinds of ways, 25 percent of all children born in New Zealand are referred to CPS there.”
That’s true, but the study that found those numbers was, in fact, an effort to compare New Zealand to the United States –
Where, as we’ve seen, the figure is 37.4 percent.
So what this study really suggests is that if the United States had a social safety net like the one in New Zealand, the number of children subjected to a child abuse investigation could be cut by more than 35%. That would be roughly 1.2 million fewer investigations every year.
The gap was even wider for foster care placements. The study estimated that 3.1% of New Zealand children will have to endure foster care placement at some point, compared with 5.9% of American children.
So if anything, New Zealand’s experience reinforces the idea that poverty is routinely confused with neglect and a stronger social safety net reduces involvement with family policing.
But why isn’t New Zealand doing better? Perhaps because a stronger social safety net doesn’t cure racism.
In New Zealand 16.5 percent of the total population is indiginous. But in 2019, 56 percent of all children taken from their homes were indiginous.
There also are relatively homogeneous countries, such as Sweden, which appear to have high rates of children in foster care. There are a number of possible reasons:
By American standards, Sweden doesn’t have a lot of poverty.
But what about by Swedish standards? By their own standards, 16.4% of Swedes live in “relative poverty.” So why wouldn’t Swedish caseworkers confuse poverty with neglect just as their American counterparts do?
A relatively low child poverty rate may paint a target on the backs of those who remain poor.
British researchers found what they call an “inverse intervention law.” Children living in a poor neighborhood that is part of a more affluent region are more likely to come under child protective services surveillance than children in an equally poor neighborhood that’s part of a poor region.
Perhaps caseworkers who see less poverty are more likely to confuse the poverty they do see with neglect. If so, then if America finally gets a grip on child poverty, the reduction in neglect reports and investigations won’t be as great as it should be.
I said the discussion of other countries was almost the last stand of the Scooby Gang. But sadly, at least two of those who pose as scholars have sunk lower. And I’m going to name names. Emily Putnam Hornstein and Richard Barth have sunk to finding the most lurid horror stories and offering them up as somehow proving that poverty is not confused with neglect. Here’s an example:
Such behavior, as bad or worse than Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” stories, belies any claim they make to objective scholarship and should lead to their banishment from any serious debate over family policing.
By now some of you may well be thinking, this entire presentation is irrelevant. You’re right. But not for the reasons you may think.
While the Scooby gang spends great swaths of time and energy building their C.V.s and making their cases for tenure with endless research on the fine points of whether this or that case is “just poverty” that whole question actually is irrelevant.
You can determine if any case is “a poverty case” simply by applying one simple test. Do the same thing that college students have asked of their parents for generations:
If the solution is money, the problem is poverty.
It seems as though hardly a week goes by without another study coming out showing that ‘lo and behold, we gave poor people a little money and “neglect” decreased – or we took money away and “neglect” increased. Prof. Alan Dettlaff aptly characterizes these as the equivalent of studies documenting that water is wet.
And again, it’s not a lot of money, so spare me that other cop-out that goes: Oh, yes, we’d like to eradicate poverty, but until we do that we have to keep taking away all those kids! Tiny amounts of money often are enough.
Yes, says the Scooby Gang, but what about all those other factors?
It’s not just a poverty case, there are also mental health problems.
Well, how do middle-class people deal with mental health problems? They get therapy. Because they can afford to pay the therapist – or they have health insurance.
So the solution is money – and that makes it a poverty case.
It’s also worth noting that the “it’s a mental health problem” argument is used whenever we don’t want to face up to what we do to poor people. When Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts caused massive increases in homelessness, his administration said: No, no, they’re all mentally ill. In fact, as Ann Braden Johnson pointed out in her landmark book at the time Out of Bedlam most were not. And, as she also pointed out – being homeless can cause mental illness.
So send money.
Oh, says the Scooby gang, but there’s also domestic violence.
Sometimes there is. But surely even the Scooby gang knows that the most dangerous time for survivors of domestic violence is when they try to escape. And how can they escape if the abuser is also the breadwinner, the homeowner, the one who owns the car?
It’s also worth noting that all the trauma inflicted on children by being torn from their parents is compounded if the parents from whom they are taken are themselves survivors of domestic violence.
To which the family police agency response is: Please pass the salt.
There are two things family police could do in these cases if they really were more interested in helping children than punishing “bad parents” One is to remove the abuser from the home. There is a method for this, it’s called arrest. There is a placement available: It’s called jail.
But if you can’t manage to do that, then provide domestic violence survivors what they need to escape, and that means:
And then there’s the all-purpose excuse for ignoring poverty: Drug use.
The first thing to understand is that not all drug use impairs childrearing – just ask those “cannamoms” in Massachusetts.
But in cases where it might impair being a parent, we should learn from the case of a notorious drug addict who raised her children decades ago in my neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia.
You may be sure that were she poor, and especially were she poor and nonwhite, the tabloids would call her a "druggie mom."
It happened to her as it does to so many others. It started with prescription opioid painkillers. She got hooked. She got hooked on booze, too.
"I liked alcohol, it made me feel warm,” she would later say. “And I loved pills. They took away my tension and my pain." On top of that, this addict had serious mental health issues.
Yet during all this time, no one took away her children. She was never even investigated. And in 1974, when her husband suddenly got a new job and they had to move to D.C., no one from a family police agency ever knocked at the door of the family’s new address: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
On the contrary, Betty Ford was hailed as a hero when she publicly disclosed her addictions and got treatment. She even established a celebrity rehab center.
This, of course, was not a poverty case.
But that’s the point.
Once again, the solution was money. Nobody had to send it to the Fords because they already had it.
So when it comes to drug use, let’s apply the Betty Ford standard to poor people and – send money.
The answer, of course, will be that, unlike the Fords, they can’t handle money, they’ll be irresponsible. Study after study shows that’s not true – not to mention the biggest real-life experiment, when the federal government sent no-strings-attached cash during the COVID pandemic – and child safety improved.
But my favorite study on this point concerns a study of housing vouchers.
The group that got housing vouchers alone did enormously well, cutting foster care placement in half. Another group got housing vouchers and also “help” from social workers. They didn’t do any better than a control group that got nothing but whatever a homeless shelter normally would offer.
So not only can poor people do just fine with cash or cash equivalents – they may well do better when social workers butt out.
Will sending money fix all the problems? Of course not. But please, spare me the “what about this case I had” horror stories. We’re talking about the rule, not the exception. And when we become laser-focused on the rule and stop confusing poverty with neglect, everyone will have more time to deal with the exceptions.
The best way to figure out if a given case is a poverty case than to try money first. If sending money doesn’t work, then you know it isn’t “just poverty” and you can move on to providing real help for the other problems, too.
In one sense, yes, high rates of child removal are not due to just poverty alone. There’s also racism. And arrogance. And unfettered power with no accountability or due process. All of which adds up to UNjust poverty.
So dealing with the poverty seems like a good place to start.