Sunday, June 16, 2024

The New York Times platforms the Tom Cotton of child welfare

Four years ago, Sen. Cotton´s appalling, extremist rant on the Times op-ed page prompted outrage inside and outside the newspaper, and ultimately led to the resignation of the editorial page editor. But apparently, as long as the topic of your fearmongering is child abuse, the Times will let you get away with anything.

Were there a hotline to which one could report "statistics abuse"
Naomi Schaefer Riley of the American Enterprise Institute 
would have her rights to her pocket calculator terminated.

On May 14, after The New York Times published an extremist rant calling for tearing apart more families, I sent a long email to the newspaper´s op-ed editor, Vanessa Mobley.  On May 17 she sent a terse reply, saying: “I will read it carefully and share with colleagues here.” On May 31, I followed up.  I have heard nothing.

Mine was not the only letter.  At least 11 other scholars and advocates sent letters to the Times and/or Mobley.  Three were published.  I am not aware of Mobley responding to them.

 So I ´m sharing it with a wider audience.  Aside from cleaning up some typos and clarifying some terms, this is the letter as sent.  The letter is followed by a specific example of how the author of the op-ed abuses statistics, and a list of some of the other titles issued by her publisher.


 May 14, 2024

 Dear Ms. Mobley: 

Nearly six years ago, the New York Times Editorial Board took a bold, courageous step on a fundamental issue of stereotyping, stigmatizing and racism: It acknowledged the enormous harm done to poor families, particularly poor families of color, by media-fueled myths concerning so-called “crack babies” and their mothers in the 1980s. In particular, the Times commendably singled out its own failures and, in effect, apologized: 

The Times amplified the “damaged generation” theory, too. This editorial page argued in 1989 that it would cost more than $700 million to prepare fewer than 20,000 children for school in the state of Florida alone — a figure that was clearly drawn from myth. The former executive editor Abe Rosenthal, in a column entitled “The Poisoned Babies,” urged the authorities to suspend the parental rights of crack-addicted women, a course of action that had already been shown to drive women away from treatment and provide substandard care for many children. 

But apparently memories are short.  On May 9, the page you edit indulged another round of stigma and stereotype about poor families of color.  This time the racism was outsourced – to someone who proudly compares her book attacking family preservation to the work of Charles Murray, to someone whose racial bias is so extreme she was kicked off a place as a regular contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education, to someone who dismisses and demeans the lived experiences of the very youth she claims to want to protect, and someone who, when writing virtually the same commentary for a far right think tank headlined it “Wokeness has come for Child Protective Services.”  (Would you have been so willing to consider it if she hadn´t been slightly more subtle when submitting it to the Times?)  In short, the author Naomi Schaefer Riley of the American Enterprise Institute, is the Tom Cotton of child welfare. 

Yes, in the column in question, in the obligatory “to-be-sure graf,” Riley says that “there was a sense” that authorities “overreacted” to crack – a sense she apparently does not share.  And then she plunges right back in. 

As is discussed below, such writing doesn´t just damage the fabric of family life in poor communities of color.  It doesn´t just encourage more use of traumatizing foster care.  Commentaries like this make all children less safe.  I hope that at some point you will reconsider and retract it. At a minimum the scholars and advocates who were shocked to see this get past the fact-checking apparatus at the Times would like to meet with you and others on your team to set the record straight. Such commentary is all the more damaging given the Times rule that any rebuttal must be confined to letters to the editor that typically don´t go over 200 words. 

Although I am going to go into great detail below about the misrepresentations in Riley´s commentary, I have to think you already know – and have known the real story of how these systems work for longer than most.  Your bio mentions that the books you have edited include one by Prof. Dorothy Roberts, a member of my organization´s Board of Directors: Shattered Bonds.  Did Prof. Roberts’ trenchant analysis not give you pause or a willingness to check further into Riley´s claims? 

The issue involves fact, not opinion 

Let us be clear at the outset. I and the advocates and scholars with whom I have worked for decades know the difference between an editorial, a news story and an oped/guest essay.  We respect the concept of giving voice to a broad range of views grounded in fact.  The problem with Riley´s column, however, is that it is rife with distortion and misrepresentation of fact.  

Child abuse fatalities

 In a remarkably imprecise sentence when it comes to time frame, Riley tells us that “In recent years, the number of children in foster care fell by nearly 16 percent while the fatality rate from abuse and neglect rose by almost 18 percent.”  But she doesn’t say what happened when the number of children torn from their families was increasing year over year.  In those years, child abuse deaths also went up.  And then there are the years when foster care went down and child abuse deaths went down. 

The federal government has been measuring both figures since at least 1999 (though doing a poor job of it). Cherry-pick the years you want and “prove” the point you want!  That long has been Riley´s approach.  I would be glad to supply other examples in which she has done the same, along with data sources and context. [I’ve added one example at the end of this post.] The New York Post and the Wall Street Journal find Riley´s kind of statistics abuse acceptable, I am surprised to see it in the Times. 

Making the figures even more suspect: The way child abuse fatalities are counted varies enormously from state to state, reliability among those states and criteria for labeling a death abuse or neglect vary – and they can be surprisingly subjective.  Was a death due to an accident or “neglect”?  That may depend on the race and income of the child and family and the biases of the child protective services agency. 

And then there is the reason to use better measures for which we all should be grateful: Though each is the worst possible tragedy, the numbers of child abuse fatalities are small enough to be strongly affected by all these variables of whim, prejudice and competence and even by random chance. 

However, if you want to insist on using this measure, you can filter out some of the bias if you can find a single state that is consistent in its approach to measuring – and large enough to, maybe, detect a pattern.  There is such a state: Texas.  By overwhelming bipartisan majorities, that state passed a series of laws curbing the power of child protective services.  Entries into foster care went down.  And so did child abuse deaths. 

Over the past 50 years or more America has built a massive child welfare surveillance state, even bigger than the one Prof. Roberts described 22 years ago in Shattered Bonds.  One-third of all children and more than half of Black children will be forced to endure a child abuse investigation before they turn 18.  Can you really be surprised that child protective services agencies don’t find every child “known to the system” in time in a system where seven million children become “known to the system” in some way every year? 

That´s why one of the most distinguished scholars in the field, an early architect of this system is having profound second thoughts. Dr Richard Krugman, former director of the C. Henry Kempe National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect wrote: 

we now have 40 years of experience with this approach and have made no progress in reducing the mortality from physical abuse of children (decades with 1500-2500 children dying annually). … Doing the same thing for 40 years that doesn't seem (or can't be shown) to be working was someone's definition of insanity. 

Still another example of the failure of Riley’s logic is revealed by the localities she singles out: Santa Clara County, California and the state of Minnesota. 

The cherry-picked national data are the thin reed Riley uses to justify extrapolating from a horrible death in Santa Clara County.  See? They reduced foster care and look what happened!  But then she turns our attention to Minnesota, and seeks to make the same claim.  But what she doesn´t say is that for decades, Minnesota has torn apart families at a rate vastly above the national average. 

So the lesson from Riley´s own examples boils down to: Take away fewer children and sometimes children die.  Take away more children and sometimes children die.  

So why in God´s name should we keep taking away more children? 

Better measures 

There are ways to measure changes in rates of child safety that, while also flawed, are better than trying to measure fatalities.  One of them is to compare over time rates of what state child protective services agencies deem to be child abuse or neglect,.  This time let´s start with the long view.  The number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year peaked in 2006.  It has, mostly, slowly and steadily declined since (though it has not declined nearly enough). Overall rates of child abuse also have, mostly, slowly and steadily declined ever since.  Did taking fewer children make children safer? We would argue yes, because it gave workers more time to find the relatively few in real danger.  But at a minimum Riley simply diverts us to the unreliable measure of fatalities because they are so gut-wrenching – and because she doesn´t want us to notice what´s really happening. 

There is special irony in Riley pulling the wool over the eyes of  readers now – just when a gigantic real world experiment is proving that curbing the coercive power of child protective services and bolstering concrete help to families really does make children safer.  The experiment goes by the name COVID-19.  

Remember all those predictions, at the start of the pandemic that it would be followed by a “pandemic of child abuse”?  On the contrary, one study after another has found that when CPS agencies were forced to step back, community-based community-run mutual aid organizations stepped up and government stepped in with no-strings-attached cash, child safety improved. 

When looking at individual systems there are two standard measures of child safety: Reabuse of children left in their own homes and the percentage of children returned to foster care after reunification.  If you’ve read this far you can probably guess what happened to those measures when Santa Clara County curbed needless foster care.  But here’s the link. (I'd be glad to walk you through the data tables.) 

Who really is in the system 

All this is not as surprising as it may seem.  It comes down to something else Dorothy Roberts explained decades ago, but Riley dismisses in another “to-be-sure graf” – the confusion of poverty with neglect.  When scholars and advocates point out that the overwhelming majority of cases involve the broad, vague category of “neglect” we often hear – “Oh but maybe it wasn’t just neglect.”  The answer to this can be found by looking at what the allegations that lead children into the nightmare of foster care placement are not.

 Of all the children forced into foster care in 2022 (the most recent year for which data are available) 83% did NOT involve even an allegation of physical abuse or sexual abuse.  Nearly two-thirds (66%) did NOT even involve an allegation of drug abuse.  

In publishing Riley´s column, do you think you left readers with an honest impression of who is in the system and why? 

Why do you publish reruns? 

The Times and other national news outlets insist that commentary submissions be original and exclusive to them.  While this commentary does not violate the letter of that rule, it seems to violate the spirit.  Riley has published the same commentary over and over and over again.  It´s always the same formula: Find horror story (check), cherry-pick a stat (check) smear family preservation (check).  Why did your readers need to see in the Times what Rupert Murdoch’s publications and other like-minded media have allowed Riley to dish out so often before? 

Who really advocates for safety? 

When Riley claims that those of us who want to finally do things differently favor family preservation “at almost any cost” she is repeating the Big Lie of American child welfare – that child safety and family preservation are opposites that need to be balanced. 

On the contrary, it is Riley´s take-the-child-and-run approach that makes all children less safe.  And that´s not just the because of the enormous emotional trauma of foster care, which she fleetingly acknowledges in another “to-be-sure graf.” It´s also because of the high rate of abuse in foster care itself.  And it´s because all that time, money and effort wasted destroying families is, in effect, stolen from finding the relatively few children in real danger. 

I am surprised and disappointed that the Times would help a disciple of Charles Murray try to steal the concept of child safety and use it as a smokescreen for a racist not-so-hidden agenda built on the idea that, after all, wouldn’t those Black kids be “better off” with affluent white people? 

The Times looked back at its crack coverage and reconsidered.  I hope you will do the same now. 

I would be pleased to discuss this further with you at any time.


Richard Wexler

Richard Wexler

Executive Director

National Coalition for Child Protection Reform


Riley's M.O.

 In this excerpt from NCCPR’s 2023 testimony before the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, we analyze Riley´s abuse of statistics.  

New York data 

            You would never know from Riley’s presentation that child abuse deaths due to homicide in New York City reached a ten-year record low in 2020.  But they did.  Here’s how Riley avoided facing facts. 

            She cites what is said to be an increase in child abuse and neglect fatalities, statewide, from 69 in 2019 to 105 in 2020  She rushes to suggest this was caused by too much concern about racism and too much desire to keep families together.  Or as we have noted above, in her words: “Wokeness has come for child protective services.” 

Riley got the data on child abuse fatalities in New York State from the federal government’s 2020 Child Maltreatment report, specifically this table on page 60:

The part of Child Maltreatment 2020, Table 4-2 that Riley wants you to see: 

                      2019                        2020


 Even if you could draw any conclusions from the data, Riley left out some context.   Take a look at the entire line for New York on that same page in that same table, which goes back all the way to 2016. 

The part of Child Maltreatment 2020, Table 4-2 that Riley does not want you to see:

                                 2016         2017         2018       2019         2020

 So the actual trend from 2016 to 2020 was mostly down.  In 2021, the New York figure increased again to 126, but that’s still lower than 2017.  (Riley didn’t know that, since the 2021 report had not yet been released.  I’ll share that here because, as I noted above, we’re not afraid of context.) 

In fact, the relatively low numbers and their volatility mean it’s impossible to draw sweeping conclusions.  Often, you can make a trend look any way you want just by picking the  start date and end date you prefer. 

As for that outlier in 2019: A lot has to happen for these data to reach the federal government. In New York, individual counties and New York City must report their data to the state Office of Children and Family Services, which reports them to a federal database.  Reporting to this federal database is voluntary; there is no penalty for failing to report data or reporting them in error. 

So it’s entirely possible that the 2019 figure means only that someone copied the number from the wrong box on a spreadsheet.  In addition: 

● These data are totals for New York State, not just New York City.  That means they represent results from scores of different systems with widely differing approaches and, probably, significantly different rates of child removal. 

● These data are for all fatalities allegedly due to abuse or neglect, not just those where the child was “known-to-the-system.” 

In contrast, the New York City Administration for Children’s Services does have such a breakdown in its own annual reports on child abuse fatalities, the most recent of which is from 2020. 

These data show that child homicides among children known to the system have fluctuated between 6 and 11 in every year since 2011 – with an increase to 15 in 2012.  But in 2020, the same year Riley cites as having a huge spike in fatalities, homicide fatalities among children “known to the system” in New York City fell to a ten-year record low of five. 

Riley's publisher

As noted above, Riley proudly analogizes her book to that of Charles Murray, whose own work attributes poverty entirely to differences in the “genetic makeup” of poor people. Riley’s publisher also has issued titles including: American Bolsheviks: The Persecution of Donald Trump, The Case To Impeach and Imprison Joe Biden, Ashli: The Untold Story of the Women of January 6, The Myth Of Voter Suppression: The Left’s Assault On Clean Elections, Crime Inc.: How Democrats Employ Mafia And Gangster Tactics To Gain And Hold Power and

Rise of the Fourth Reich: Confronting Covid Fascism with a New Nuremberg Trial, So This Never Happens Again.