There is probably no agency of the government that does more to help and harm than Child Protective Services. It is simultaneously a bureaucratic nightmare, a functional cesspool of dangerous callousness, and the savior of last resort for abused and neglected children. And on top of its untenable mission to make snap decisions about kids brought on their radar by mandatory reporters, nosy neighbors and well-intended if hyper-sensitive scolds, California CPS is now saddled with a new criticism.
“It’s racist. It’s sexist. It’s ableist. It’s classist.”
Why? Mother Jones explains.
A new study in the American Journal of Public Health quantifies the scope of this disproportionality today, tracking the rates of child protective service involvement in the lives of the half a million children born in 1999 in California. The number of Black children in the system continues to be staggering: Half of Black children, as well as half of Native American children, experienced a CPS investigation at some point during the first 18 years of their lives, compared to nearly a quarter of white children. One in eight Black children spent time in foster care—a rate three times as high as white children. Three percent of Black children experienced termination of parental rights, compared with 1 percent of white children.
Disproportionality used to be the first step in ascertaining whether there was a problem, whether as evidence to be followed up in order to answer the critical question “why,” or as a rebuttable presumption, as in disparate impact, to be proven benign. Now, disproportionality is conclusive proof. If the stats show that more black kids are proportionately affected than white kids, it must be racism because it can’t be anything else.
And when it comes to CPS, racism isn’t really a big stretch. That’s the downside to an agency that has made as many bad calls, done as much damage, been as cavalier and callous over the years, as CPS. But that also doesn’t mean that racism answers the questions.
While horror stories of child abuse dominate media coverage of child welfare, the vast majority of cases are triggered by “neglect,” a catch-all category of offenses often caused by poverty or addiction. “Most of the families that we deal with find themselves in a situation that’s been brought on by years of living in poverty and not having the basic things that they need,” Jerry Milner, former head of the US Children’s Bureau, the federal agency overseeing child welfare, told me last year.
Living in poverty covers a broad swathe of problems. Some try to bundle them up by calling it the “criminalization of poverty,” while others are more inclined to break out the details to distinguish between the hard-working parent with poor education working at low paying jobs trying desperately to feed, clothe and care for his family. But what of the children of young mothers with no father in sight, or parents addicted to drugs, or parents who abuse children out of generational anger, never having learned to love and care for their children?
There is a poverty component to all this, but there is a far larger bourgeois values component of a loving nuclear family, valuing education, working hard and sacrificing for the sake of children. While the two are not mutually exclusive, the former is the only perspective permitted from the woke view that no one on the victim hierarchy is responsible for their actions or choices.
But what happens to their kids? If kids are hungry, do excuses feed them? If kids are beaten, do rationalizations heal them? If you pray for the next generation of black children to do better than their parents, do you deny all the components of a safe and loving environment matter?
“When children are endangered, I do think child protection is the right response,” says Putnam-Hornstein. “I just don’t believe for a second that this many children and families require what is ultimately the heavy hand of the child protection system in their lives.”
Whether it’s “believable” is perhaps the least relevant thing one could offer in response to empiricism. We’ve deliberately crafted a system of child protection that overreaches, that makes pretty much every person with whom a child comes into contact a snitch for the state upon pain of job loss or prosecution. Dirty clothing? Report ’em. Skinned knee? Send in a report. And god forbid a limb gets broken, which is presumptively a result of a beating rather than falling out of a tree. Better, too many people believe, to err on the side of protecting children by removing them from a loving family than taking the chance that there is an entirely normal explanation for the complaint, because what harm does removal do to a child?
At the same time, a broken limb could be the result of a beating by an angry, maybe frustrated, maybe mentally ill, maybe drug-addled, parent. Figuring out which is what matters rather than calling CPS racist because of disproportionate numbers. It’s clearly harder to do the labor of thinking, and so very much easier to just assume that if black children are twice as likely to fall into the CPS web, only racism can explain it. But aren’t the children worth the effort? Do it for the children.