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Burying the Lede on Child Welfare

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eye on the news

Burying the Lede on Child Welfare

Media aren’t asking the right questions about our troubled system. October 28, 2022
The Social Order
Politics and law

One of the positive benefits of the media’s relentless focus on race is that reporters have begun to cover the child-welfare system more extensively. The past few weeks alone have seen several big stories on ways that policymakers are considering, or enacting, changes to improve this broken system. Unfortunately, because these reporters seem single-mindedly focused on race, they fail to ask some key questions about how best to protect vulnerable kids.

Take the piece by ProPublica, “Mandatory Reporting Was Supposed to Stop Severe Child Abuse. It Punishes Poor Families Instead.” The issue of mandated reporting is a thorny one, and good arguments exist on both sides. Every state classifies people in certain professions as mandatory reporters; they get trained to recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect and face legal punishment (large fines and even jail time) if they fail to report suspected child maltreatment to authorities. In recent years, states such as Pennsylvania have expanded the scope of these laws. Following the Catholic Church’s child sexual-abuse scandals, for instance, many were outraged to learn that some adults knew what was going on but did nothing.

The ProPublica piece, however, mostly zeroes in on the reporting done by teachers, and notes that such laws have led to a rise in the number of children’s cases being reported. In many of these instances, the accusations are not substantiated. The reporters never seem to ask: What does it mean for a report to be unsubstantiated? Does it mean that the abuse or neglect didn’t happen, or merely that the investigators found no hard evidence of the problem? Those are two different answers. And we know that many kids with substantiated reports of maltreatment have also previously had unsubstantiated reports. Just having a report of maltreatment, regardless of whether it has been substantiated, is correlated with worse educational outcomes and higher rates of incarceration as adults. This doesn’t tell us whether mandated reporting has been expanded too far, but it does add more nuance to the debate.

The other area in which the article fails is the reporter’s neglecting to ask why it is that black children are more likely than white children to be the subjects of such reports. “In Philadelphia,” the authors note, “Black children were the focus of about 66% of reports to the city’s Department of Human Services, . . . even though they make up about 42% of the child population.” In the same way that media often report racial disparities in arrests and incarceration without any reference to racial disparities in crime, they often report racial disparities in child welfare investigations without any reference to racial disparities in child maltreatment. Black children are three times as likely to die from maltreatment as their white peers.

A few weeks ago, NBC published an article noting the racial disparities in Connecticut’s child-welfare system. The author failed to ask these questions. The article touts how the state’s foster-care population dropped by a third since 2019. Because the state’s new child-welfare commissioner is black and a “leader in equity,” according to one expert interviewed, she was able to accomplish this tremendous success.

But the author does not ask several questions that would help determine whether the policy is truly a success. For instance, how many of the kids who would otherwise be in foster care are actually safe in their homes? What is the rate of repeat maltreatment of children in Connecticut? How many child fatalities and near fatalities have occurred in the past few years? How often are kids going in and out of foster care? If, as the commissioner tells NBC, “safety is our mandate, and it will always be,” then wouldn’t it be useful if a journalist asked how well the new policies accomplish this?

It’s easy to raise and lower the number of kids in foster care. A governor or a commissioner could simply determine that the state should be removing fewer kids from their families. Whether that is the best plan for the children is another matter.

Finally, earlier this month, the New York Times ran an article about how the White House wants to do more to subsidize kinship care for foster children. The author tells a story about grandparents who have to give up their retirement plans and endure financial hardship to care for grandchildren placed in foster care. So the federal government is offering to rescue these relatives with increased payments.

The article seems to suggest that support for kin care is a new policy and that, were it not for this funding gap, more children would get to stay with extended family. But the reporter never asks whether this is already being tried. In fact, every state has placed a greater emphasis on kin care—always giving relatives preference when making placements and also paying them to take in foster youth. One problem with this approach is that the kind of relatives who need to be paid to take in these kids are not always the people you want doing so; they often suffer from the same kinds of dysfunction that the parents do. Second, many of these kin want to be paid without having to go through the background checks and training that foster parents must complete. If we’re giving them money, shouldn’t we ensure that these safety checks are in place?

One of the advocates quoted in the story says, “If the federal government is willing to pay a stranger to take care of a child, why wouldn’t the federal government be willing to pay for an uncle, aunt, grandmother to take care of a child?” It’s a good question, but it’s not really the one the reporter is asking. Instead, the story proceeds from the assumption that all good ideas in child welfare were thought of yesterday, and we just need a little push from the media to implement them.

Let’s have fewer kids in foster care! Let’s investigate fewer black families! Let’s give more kids to their relatives! Don’t report so many cases of suspected abuse! What could go wrong?

All too often, that’s a question the media don’t ask.

Photo: Kenishirotie/iStock

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