Protection system

How Covid revealed the madness of our child protection system

During the first months of the Covid pandemic, some experts issued dire warnings that child abuse would increase because children were spending more time with their families. They speculated that the lockdown put children at risk because they were confined to their homes with potentially abusive parents, out of the watchful eyes of social workers, teachers and other mandated journalists. In June 2020, when reports of child abuse to New York’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) had dropped sharply, police, prosecutors and child protection officials said The New York Times that the decline “could be a sign that an invisible epidemic of abuse is spreading behind locked doors”.

But subsequent data revealed the opposite: children remained at least as safe in 2020 as they were the year before. A review of available national data, published in JAMA Pediatrics in December 2021, concluded that there was no significant increase in child abuse related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only have child welfare reports plummeted, but emergency room visits have plummeted and hospitalizations have held steady. The researchers determined that the decrease in monitoring could not explain the full decline. In New York, investigations related to child deaths – which were necessary despite the lockdown – fell 25% between February 2019 and June 2019 and the same period in 2020. When the city reopened in fall 2020 and the ACS took over investigations, there was no deluge of child abuse cases that had gone unreported during the pandemic.

These findings challenge the assumption underlying false predictions, that the child welfare system is necessary to keep children safe. It’s true that when New York closed in mid-March 2020, so did its child protection apparatus. Mandatory reporting decreased as professionals saw fewer children; social workers scaled back their house surveys; and family court judges heard fewer applications and removed fewer children from their parents. Yet the children did just as well, if not better, without these interventions in their families. Even then, ACS Commissioner David Hansell had to admit in testimony before the New York City Council in June 2021 that the children had stayed as safe at home during the shutdown as when the system he led was fully operational.

This nation has traditionally relied on a destructive child welfare system to meet the needs of children. Each year, child protection officers investigate the families of 3.5 million children suspected of child abuse. Based on vague child neglect laws, investigators interpret conditions of poverty – lack of food, precarious housing, inadequate medical care – as evidence of parental unfitness. Social workers search homes, subject family members to humiliating interrogations and inspect children for evidence, sometimes strip-searching them. The majority of black children (53%) receive a child protection investigation before they turn 18, not only because they are more likely to be poor, but also because of longstanding racist stereotypes that denigrate and devalue their family ties. If social workers detect a problem, they force families into an expensive regimen of supervision and therapeutic remedies that address the parents’ suspected pathologies, not the children’s needs.

In addition to the trauma inflicted on families under investigation, the system harms even more children who are not forced into its net by misinterpreting the problem and diverting resources and attention from this one. The vast majority of American children who are denied adequate housing, nutrition, health care and education by inequitable policies and social structures – by far the greatest harms to children – are simply ignored by the child protection agencies. Among Western nations, the United States has the highest child poverty rate, invests the least in supporting families, and spends the most on child removal and foster care. In 2019, more than 10 million children — nearly one in seven of all children nationwide — lived below the federal poverty level, measured at $26,172 for a family of four. Child poverty rates for black and Indigenous children — the very ones child welfare investigators target most — were more than double those for white children. More than half of all Black and Indigenous children are poor or near poor.

What kept children safe during the pandemic when the child protection system came to a halt? Anna Arons, acting assistant professor of law at New York University, discovered answers by studying what she calls New York City’s unwitting experiment to temporarily abolish ACS. She found that New York City children “stayed safer with less surveillance, less government intrusion, and less family separation” because the pandemic generated more caring and effective ways to support families. Community groups stepped in to provide concrete resources to residents asking for help. By the end of July 2020, more than 50 self-help networks across the city were delivering essentials like groceries and diapers and offering services like childcare and mental health therapy. They have deployed hundreds of thousands of dollars to meet people’s needs through the work of thousands of volunteers. For example, Brooklyn-based Bed Stuy Strong built a network of 2,700 volunteers in a month, and Crown Heights Mutual Aid made 1,300 grocery deliveries in the first 60 days of lockdown.

The federal government has also played a major role in ensuring the well-being of children during the pandemic. In April 2020, Congress provided innovative support for poor families by passing the CARES Act. As part of a stimulus package, the law provided a one-time payment of $1,200 to adults earning less than $75,000 a year, with an additional payment of $500 for each child under 17 and $600 per week in supplemental unemployment benefits, through the end of July 2020. This was the largest distribution of direct assistance to families in US history. The checks went straight to parents with no strings attached, waiving the investigation, oversight and disruption that child protection measures entail. A March 2022 Columbia University report found that the expiration of the expanded federal child tax credit program in January pushed 4 million children back into poverty, with black and Latino children suffering the most.

The pandemic has exposed both the folly of our current child welfare system and the promise of a radically different approach. We could start by diverting the billions of dollars spent investigating, monitoring and separating families into tangible resources provided directly to parents and other family caregivers, as well as voluntary community supports for families. The evidence is compelling that large-scale government policies that reduce child poverty by increasing family income and meeting the material needs of families would significantly reduce the harm to children that child welfare agencies claim, but fail to achieve. not to be solved. As we saw in New York, self-help groups can provide effective alternatives to child protection agencies. These networks are driven by a philosophy of child welfare diametrically opposed to the dominant philosophy: they are caring instead of punitive, voluntary instead of coercive, generous instead of greedy. The unintended abolition of the child welfare system that has temporarily occurred in New York should support an intentional shift in child welfare policy – to dismantle our destructive approach and replace it with one that supports the children and their families. The pandemic has taught us that reinventing child welfare can keep children safe.