Why does child maltreatment happen, and what should the government do about it? Many researchers and advocates believe that they have answers to these questions. But a groundbreaking survey from the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) offers insights into how all Americans understand child abuse and neglect, and how they expect public servants to address these problems. Americans, it turns out, are tough on parents who mistreat their kids, though they believe that rehabilitation is possible. They are clear-eyed about the dangers that parental drug abuse poses for children, and they believe that parents should get a limited amount of time to prove that they can overcome these challenges.

The survey, which included a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 people as well as smaller polls conducted in Georgia and Ohio, contained several noteworthy findings. When asked about contributors to child abuse, most Americans identified the “ill intent” of parents as the top factor. When asked a similar question about child neglect, their top answer was “parents who don’t want to care for their child.” Though child welfare advocates and policymakers often claim that maltreatment stems from factors beyond parents’ control, most Americans disagree.

Survey respondents listed parental drug or alcohol abuse as the next most common contributors to abuse and neglect. They’re not wrong. Substance abuse is ubiquitous in child welfare cases, and most Americans understand that it is all but impossible to parent a small child while regularly using drugs. Relatedly, 69 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that “most acts of child neglect or abuse usually aren’t the parent’s fault, but rather a product of unfortunate circumstances.”

Yet three-quarters of respondents also agreed that “parents who have been neglectful can provide safe and nurturing care for their children when they receive needed supports.” Half said the same of abusive parents. The question of what “needed supports” are, though, is a big one. Many advocates argue that giving parents more material resources can significantly reduce involvement in the child welfare system. But the survey makes clear that respondents don’t think that poverty causes child maltreatment. When asked about the primary cause of child abuse, only 2 percent picked lack of financial resources, and another 1 percent identified lack of access to affordable housing. When asked about neglect, 10 percent pointed to lack of financial resources, and 3 percent cited lack of access to affordable housing.

If Americans don’t believe that more material supports will improve things, what do they want their government to do? Investigate. Eighty-one percent of Americans say that they want authorities to investigate when “a newborn shows signs of exposure to substance use during pregnancy.” Almost the same percentage want an investigation when evidence exists of domestic violence in the home or that a parent is abusing drugs.

This viewpoint is commonsensical, but across the country, ever more child welfare agencies are abandoning it. In New Mexico and Connecticut, for instance, parents with children born exposed to illegal drugs are simply handed a voluntary plan for kicking harmful habits. Colorado’s state legislature debated a bill that would have banned the testing of infants for substance exposure without parental consent, except in an emergency. Of course, drug-abusing parents are the least likely to give consent.

Americans take a commonsense approach to foster care, too. The BPC survey told respondents: “Typically, parents are given approximately 15 months to show that they are addressing the issues that interfered with their ability to provide adequate parenting while their children are kept in temporary foster care.” Then respondents were asked: “In your opinion, do you feel that this is too much, too little, or enough time?” Fifty-seven percent felt that this was the right amount of time, with another 25 percent saying that it was too much time.

In 1997, a bipartisan majority in Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), which sets out the 15-month guideline, to ensure that kids don’t stay in foster care indefinitely. This consensus guideline has endured, though lawmakers and child welfare advocates have pushed to repeal ASFA and end all time limits. Ordinary Americans, by contrast, seem to grasp that kids need a permanent home sooner rather than later. Indeed, if the BPC survey had told respondents that the average amount of time that kids spent in foster care is almost 22 months, an even greater percentage of Americans might have agreed that authorities already give abusive or neglectful parents too much time to address their difficulties.

But aren’t experts, not public opinion, better equipped to supply us with the right answers on child welfare? No. First, it’s important to note that 25 percent of respondents reported having “personal experience” with the child welfare system. We don’t know the nature of that experience—whether those respondents were foster kids or caseworkers or parents who were investigated—but evidently, many Americans have seen how the system works up close. Second, remember that child welfare is a public service. Like law enforcement, child welfare agencies are supposed to enforce a community’s standards. And just as “defund the police” activists undervalue public safety, so, too, do advocates for abolishing the child welfare system disregard its importance for child health and safety. Fortunately, Americans are not so easily fooled.

Photo: Motortion/iStock


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