Black History Month, observed every February, can be celebrated in numerous ways—but comparing the employees of the nation’s child-welfare agencies to “overseers on plantations” is one of the odder ones, particularly if you’re the head of the federal agency overseeing child welfare. But Aysha Schomburg, associate commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, did just that recently.
In an essay on the Children’s Bureau website, she explained that, in the field of child welfare, “oversurveillance leads to mass family separation.” It is worth quoting the piece at length to understand the outrageousness of the accusations she is levelling against the child-welfare workforce:
Black families in the United States have always been surveilled. Overseers on plantations come to mind. . . . Overseers were responsible for watching the enslaved Africans and exacting swift punishment for any behavior deemed punishable. We can think back to the “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, which gave carte blanche to White folks to have the legal right to keep vigil over Black choices of where to sit, eat, and drink. . . . More recently, in the 1950s and 1960s, we can consider the government’s counterintelligence program, often referred to as COINTELPRO, which was the intentional and purposeful surveillance of Black freedom fighters and other political organizations to disempower Black people and maintain the racial hierarchy.
Now, in 2022, what does surveillance look like? . . . For our children—and for Black families impacted by child welfare—it’s calling child protection when a family is struggling instead of leaning in and pledging support to them.
Schomburg claimed that those who contact child protective services do so “because they are implicitly or explicitly biased against Black families and children. . . . The data back this up; by some accounts, more than half of all Black children in this country are investigated by child welfare, and Black children are disproportionately investigated and separated from their families.”
Black children are indeed reported to child welfare, investigated in relation to charges of abuse and neglect, and taken into foster care at a rate higher than they are represented in the population. But black children are also twice as likely to be abused or neglected—a rate of 13.2 for every 100,000 kids, vs. 7.4 for every 100,000 white kids. (Native Americans suffer at the highest rate: 15.5 victims for every 100,000 children.) Black children are three times as likely to die from maltreatment as their white peers. Federal data released earlier this year showed 504 black children died from maltreatment in 2020—73 more than in 2019. A disproportionate number of black children were enrolled in school systems that were closed during Covid, meaning that these kids were not seen—or “surveilled,” as Schomburg might put it—by teachers, social workers, neighbors, and doctors, making it more likely that their abuse and neglect would continue.
Schomburg seems undeterred in her accusation of racism by the fact that a disproportionate number of social workers in many of large U.S. cities are minorities themselves. In New York, about 85 percent of the child-welfare workforce is black or Hispanic. So are many of the people reporting abuse and neglect.
If Schomburg thinks so little of the people who work in this field—viewing them as handmaidens of a system of racist oppression—then she should resign. If she is advising people to refrain from reporting abuse because they might be unconsciously guilty of racism, then she is contributing to the very problem she is professionally engaged in fighting against.
The truth is likely almost the opposite of what Schomburg suggests. Study after study has found that child-maltreatment fatalities are mostly kids who have already been reported to the system. The problem isn’t oversurveillance—it’s undersurveillance.
A study by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found that over two-thirds of child fatalities and near-fatalities in Kentucky in the past five years were from cases known to child-welfare agencies. In Pennsylvania, of the 220 substantiated fatalities and near-fatalities between 2014 and 2016, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the children or families were involved with the county’s children and youth agency prior to or at the time of the incident. In New York, the child victims of high-profile fatalities last year—including Julissia Batties, Legacy Beauford, and Jaycee Eubanks—were all the subject of multiple reports to the authorities but were left to the mercy of their abusers.
The child-welfare system is going out of its way to give these parents chance after chance—and given the constant accusations of racial bias, it’s likely that we are giving black parents even more chances. But what chances are we giving black children left in abusive homes?
Schomburg advises the public: “Save Black children from that knock on the door and that tunnel of child welfare, out of which they may never see their way.” The truth is, many black children want to hear that knock on the door before it’s too late.