Sunday, November 12, 2023

Pushing back on a child welfare poll full of loaded questions

A new poll reveals that even when the questions are rigged, Americans are less likely to buy the snake oil the family police establishment has been selling.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and the Adoption and Safe Families Act
 have destroyed the lives of millions of children and families. 
But the "Bipartisan Policy Center" thinks they're models of a glorious era of bipartisanship.

Two new polls, one of them with questions that appear rigged to produce answers favorable to family policing, are bringing some good news to families, and some bad news to the family police. 

The polls make clear that even after growing up on decades of “health terrorism” – the exploitation of horror stories to misinform the public about who typically gets caught up in the system and why – the reality of family policing is starting to break through in the public mind. 

In this post I’ll look at the results, and at the group behind the poll with the loaded questions. 

The poll that wasn’t rigged 

Back in the 19th Century, the white racists who stole Native American children and forced them into hideous boarding schools, and tore apart impoverished immigrant families and forced the children onto so-called “orphan trains” grandly called themselves “child savers.”  So it’s hard to imagine that in the 21st Century there could be a group that actually calls itself “Kidsave.”  But there is.  And they commissioned a poll from Gallup, which appears to have been geared toward encouraging more Black families to foster and adopt. 

But the questions appear to be unbiased.  The results are broken down by Black adults and adults of all other races.  

It found that a majority of people of all races now recognize that the system is profoundly biased and doesn’t even try to keep families together.  And of course, the recognition is greater among those who, as a group, have had far more personal experience with that system.  Have a look:

The only good news for the family police came from the fact that, apparently, only a minority of respondents agreed with the statement “Overall, the foster care system harms more than helps the children in its care.”  But while Gallup reveals how many agreed with the statement, it doesn’t say how many disagreed.  Did the majority disagree or did the majority say some equivalent of no opinion / I don’t know. 

The poll that was rigged 

In politics they’re called “push polls” – polls in which the true objective is to sway voters using loaded or manipulative questions. 

Was that the intent of this poll done by Harris for a group calling itself the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) as part of its new child welfare initiative?  I don’t know.  But some of the questions sure sound like push polling. 

The poll was conducted as part of a BPC initiative that appears intended to thwart real change.  Indeed, the initiative’s home page explicitly states that they want to recreate the same bipartisanship that prompted Congress to pass two of the most hideous anti-family “child welfare” laws now on the books: the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and the Adoption and Safe Families Act.  

These laws have destroyed millions of lives.  

These laws have formed the foundation for a child welfare surveillance state that will subject more than one-third of all children, and more than half of Black children to the trauma of a child abuse investigation before they turn 18.  And almost always, it will be in response to a false report.  These laws have channeled millions into the lifelong emotional trauma inflicted by needless foster care.  One-quarter to one-third of them, and probably many more, will be subjected to abuse in foster care itself

And these laws have so overwhelmed the system with false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect that the system has little time to find the relatively few children in real danger. 

Equally revealing: The one excellent anti-racist law passed by Congress in the past 50 years is not celebrated by BPC. There is no mention of seeking to recapture the spirit of the Indian Child Welfare Act.  Even the current Supreme Court recognized the importance of ICWA, and the vote to uphold it was bipartisan! 

The bipartisanship of CAPTA and ASFA is the bipartisanship for which the Bipartisan Policy Center is nostalgic.  So of course they wring their hands about “polarization.”  But in this case, opposition to their agenda is not polarization – it’s families fighting back.  It’s foster youth refusing to be shut out and silenced.  It’s a refusal to label repression as consensus. 

The BPC’s initiative is an attempt to hold back the tide of change.  It is led by Rob Geen, who was a longtime apparatchik at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  His arrival coincided with a significant turn for the worse at Casey as it largely abandoned any concern about needless removal of children. (In contrast there already is a real bipartisan initiative pressing for real changes in family policing that would make all children safer.  It’s called United Family Advocates.

BPC is kicking off its initiative with what sure seems like a push poll.  It’s got lots of questions that stack the deck and encourage particular answers.  In question after question, they do this by embracing the Big Lie of American child welfare – the false claim that child safety and family preservation are opposites that need to be “balanced.”  According to the Big Lie, when the system falsely accuses families, traumatizes children with needless interrogations and stripsearches and forces them needlessly into foster care somehow only adults are harmed. 

Indeed, BPC’s publication releasing the poll results explicitly characterizes support for massive overinvestigation of families as “err[ing] on the safe side.”  On the contrary, the massive child welfare surveillance state built on the very laws BPC loves has made all children less safe. 

In spite of the rigged wording, discussed in detail below, the poll produced some extraordinary numbers: 

● By a wide majority, respondents believe children’s well-being is best ensured by “heavily favor[ing] parents' authority” rather than “heavily favoring the government’s interest in ensuring children’s well-being.”  (Notice the subtle stacking of the deck: The question is not balanced. It does not repeat the line about children’s well-being in the part favoring parents, only in the part favoring government.) 

● Americans are realizing that racial and class bias permeate family policing.  Sixty percent agree that “Too often, decisions on whether the child welfare system should intervene in families are influenced by racial biases.”  (That’s the figure for all of those surveyed.  So far, BPC has not  released any results broken down by race.)  And 73% agree that “Too often, decisions on whether the child welfare system should intervene in families are influenced by socioeconomic/poverty biases.” 

● And despite the best efforts of the pollsters and the Bipartisan Policy Center, Americans understand how harmful it is for children to be consigned to the chaos of foster care. 

The poll found that 39% of respondents “Heavily favor the system removing the child from their home, even if removal might not be absolutely necessary”   But 53% “Heavily favor the system keeping the child with their family, even if the risk of future harm is unclear.” 

Now, let’s consider the more flagrant examples of loaded questions: 

● Consider this muddled mess of a question that led to seemingly contradictory responses 

In your opinion, which of the following statements most closely reflects your position on how the U.S. child welfare system should work when deciding whether to investigate reports of abuse or neglect in these scenarios?

-- Investigate every report, even if that means that some parents might be investigated unnecessarily. 

-- Only investigate reports where there is compelling evidence that abuse or neglect has occurred, or is occurring, even if some legitimate reports aren't investigated.

 The question is framed to leave the false impression that only parents might be harmed by unnecessary investigations.  So, not surprisingly, when questioned this way, a strong majority favors investigating every report.   

But what would happen if the options were phrased this way? 

-- Investigate every report even if it leaves some children emotionally traumatized for life after being interrogated about the most intimate aspects of their lives – and then being stripsearched – while also overloading workers so they have less time to find children in real danger. 

-- Only investigate reports where there is compelling evidence that abuse and neglect has occurred or is occurring in order to spare children needless trauma and increase the odds that workers will find children in real danger before it’s too late. 

And here’s where it gets weird.  In spite of the stacked deck nature of the actual poll question, the BPC publication discussing the poll also notes what apparently was a response to another question.  Before the family police begin an investigation 

60% of Americans think that authorities should need reports detailing first-hand knowledge or a strong reason to suspect a child has been or is being harmed.

So according to this poll, before the family police launch an investigation, a  majority of Americans oppose requiring “compelling evidence that abuse or neglect has occurred” but favor requiring “first-hand knowledge or a strong reason to suspect a child has been or is being harmed.”  (And by the way, either of those would be a higher standard than child abuse hotlines apply today.) 

Another question once again tries to stack the deck: 

In an ideal world, which of the following statements most closely reflects your position on what the primary purpose of the child welfare system in this country should be?

They were given two options: 

44% said: 

Primarily protecting children at risk of abuse or neglect by their families. 

But 51% said: 

Primarily strengthening families' ability to care for their children.

So despite the false framing in which “protecting children” and “strengthening families” are presented as opposites, a majority wasn’t fooled.  A majority apparently understood that the primary way to protect children is strengthening families. 

But imagine how much greater the margin would be had the options been phrased honestly, and respondents had been asked if the system’s role should be 

Primarily protecting children at risk of abuse or neglect by investigating their families and removing the children 


Primarily protecting children at risk of abuse or neglect by strengthening their families. 

Why were the results here so different from the very similar question about investigations?  Perhaps because people don’t realize how traumatic investigations, in and of themselves, are for children.  In contrast, this question speaks of the entire “child welfare system,” which might conjure up visions of the harm of child removal. 

The question that was really about ASFA 

As you read about this next question, keep in mind that BPC specifically cites the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) as the kind of glorious achievement their new initiative hopes to replicate. 

● Another example of pushback against the push polling comes in a question about timelines.  With certain exceptions, ASFA requires states to seek termination of children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights) if they have been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months – no matter what the reason.  Even if the child never should have been taken in the first place.  Even if the family police agency did nothing real to help the family reunify.  

Congress was persuaded to pass this thanks to another Big Lie: the false claim that a vast family preservation conspiracy was forcing children to languish in foster care while the same agencies that took them away in the first place lavished chance after chance on horrible parents.  Impose strict timelines, they said, and all these children would be “freed” for adoption, taken in immediately by hordes of couples desperate to receive them and all would live happily ever after. 

None of it was true.  The primary purpose of ASFA was to encourage taking away more children.  One of those who claimed responsibility for writing ASFA, the late Richard Gelles, couldn’t resist gloating about this. In 2000 he told the New York City publication Child Welfare Watch: 

"Initially, this was just supposed to be a safe families bill, not really an adoption bill at all. The adoption component was a way of sanitizing the bill, to make it more appealing to a broader group of people. Adoption is a very popular concept in the country right now." 

In fact, not only was ASFA not responsible for reducing length of stay in foster care it may have impeded it.  ASFA also led to an increase in children aging out of foster care with no home at all, many of them legal orphans with no ties to their birth families and no magical adoptive home either. 

The best way to reduce time in foster care is to reduce it to zero by not taking children needlessly in the first place.  The next best way is to finally get serious about providing families with the concrete help they need to reunite.  

But BPC’s push poll-type question offers a false choice in keeping with the ASFA false narrative.  Respondents were asked: 

In your opinion, which of the following statements most closely reflects your position on how the U.S. foster care system should work when deciding how long parents should be given to address challenges? 

Heavily favor the system giving parents more time to address challenges and reunify with their children, even if it means that children spend more time in foster care. 

Heavily favor the system minimizing the amount of time that children remain in foster care, even if it means that parents and children are less likely to be reunited. 

Despite this loaded language, respondents weren’t hoodwinked.  By a remarkably strong majority 55 to 36% they favored “giving parents more time.” 

And what might have happened had the question been framed more honestly, with the options presented as: 

Heavily favor the system giving parents more time to address challenges and reunify with their children, because research shows children do best when they maintain ties to their families. 

Heavily favor the system minimizing the amount of time until termination of parental rights, even if it means children may become legal orphans with no ties to any family. 

They’re not evil, but they sure are sick! 

A key defense used by family policing agencies boils down to: You don’t understand.  We’re not police, we’re helpers!  We don’t think parents are evil (even though we gladly use horror stories about extremely rare cases where they are evil to stampede you into supporting us). No, we don’t think they’re evil, but they’re sick! Sick! Sick!  So we must be free to bestow upon them our counseling and parent education while we hold their children in foster care. 

This ugly, patronizing narrative pervades BPC’s and Harris’ discussion of the poll results.  And it’s straight out of the health terrorists’ playbook.  Compare: 

In the 1980s Prevent Child Abuse America, the group that admits to having practiced health terrorism – they even used the phrase – said this about neglect: 

“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 …

In 2023, here’s how BPC and Harris sum up the answers to one of their poll questions: 

While child abuse is largely seen as an outcome of parents who want to harm their child, there is more room for redemption and second chances for neglectful parents. 

Given this kind of framing, it’s amazing that, in another question, “parents lack of financial resources” makes it to #5 in the top five “contributors to child neglect.”  At no point are respondents asked if poverty is confused with neglect.  

The work still to be done 

After all those years of health terrorism, it’s remarkable that we’ve come so far.  But the poll still reveals how much work there is to be done.  Respondents believe the #1 contributor to neglect is “Parents who don’t want to care for their child” – almost exactly the message the health terrorists at PCAA were selling decades ago.  Number three, which will be music to the ears of the family policing establishment, is “Parents who are uninformed or uneducated about how to parent.”  

Majorities support family police investigation of almost anything bad that might happen to a child. But I’m betting all those respondents who said the family police should investigate “evidence of a child’s parent(s) abusing substances” weren’t thinking of the “cannamoms” of Massachusetts

Would they be so quick to call for investigation of any parent with substance use issues or mental health problems if they were told first that Betty Ford suffered from both

And would they be so quick to call for investigating any instance of domestic violence in the home if they knew that the threat of just such an investigation drives domestic violence victims away from seeking help and keeps them, and their children, trapped with the abuser? 

The only good news in this part of the poll is that a majority did not think homelessness was cause for a family police investigation. 

So if we really want to keep children safe, safe from abuse, safe from neglect, safe from needless investigation and safe from the enormous harm of needless foster care, we still have our work cut out for us – including fighting the misdirection from Rob Geen’s project at BPC and supporting the real bipartisan solutions coming from United Family Advocates

But I am heartened to see how far we have come.