In her new book, “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives” (Bombardier Books), out Tuesday, Naomi Schaefer Riley looks at how bureaucracy and social-justice crusading endangers those within the child-welfare system. In this excerpt, she explains the role of race.
Five-year-old Brandajah Smith grabbed the loaded .38-caliber revolver after her mother left her alone in their New Orleans apartment. It’s still not clear why she pulled the trigger. But when her mother returned from the store, Brandajah was dead from a single gunshot to the head.
Brandajah’s death in 2013 was shocking, but few people who knew her were surprised. For almost a year, her teachers had repeatedly reported suspicions that she was being sexually abused. They also told authorities that she talked about her own death, what it would be like in heaven and the gun in her home.
Following Brandajah’s death, officials from Louisiana’s Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS) told the Times-Picayune that the agency “thoroughly investigated each of the complaints received.” But they also said that Brandajah’s mother, Laderika Smith, was not complying with the “safety plan” that the agency had set up.
In November 2012 — after months of leaving the child in a home with her mother and the mother’s boyfriend who owned the gun (both are felons) — DCFS asked the local court to either order compliance or give the agency the authority to take the child away.
By the time of the kindergartener’s death, the court had done neither.
Child-welfare case files are not public, so it is not clear why the court did not act in Brandajah’s case. But that inaction came amid a growing push by liberal advocacy groups, child-welfare agencies and some judges to leave children in troubled homes instead of placing them in foster care, particularly if they are members of a racial minority group.
A prime mover of this effort is Judge Ernestine Steward Gray, who has served in the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court since 1984. It is not publicly known whether she was directly involved in Brandajah’s case. But she is the judge primarily responsible for the vast majority of child-in-need-of-care cases.
She has long argued that the child-welfare system unfairly targets minority children for removal from their homes (because she sees minority children being removed at disparate rates) and is widely acknowledged to have almost single-handedly shifted the parish’s policies on foster care.
She also has a powerful ally in the effort: Casey Family Programs.
The organization, which has a $2.2 billion endowment, gave Judge Gray a leadership award honoring those who have “had a significant impact in improving outcomes for children and families and building Communities of Hope.”
The money for Casey Family Programs, originally an offshoot of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, came from James Casey, the founder of the shipping company UPS. Casey Family Programs, whose mission is eliminating the need for foster care, has given grants to state child-welfare programs across the country and funds much research on child welfare at universities as well.
It is impossible to write about child welfare without citing research from Casey philanthropies — they have contracts with federal and state governments to conduct surveys, analyze data and publish research on the effectiveness of various policies. Because not many foundations are interested in this area and because child welfare is often squeezed for resources, Casey has an outsized effect on child-welfare policy.
JooYeun Chang, the managing director of public policy at Casey Family Programs, argued in 2018 that the foster-care system “traumatize[s] kids by removing them from the only communities they have known” only to place them in living situations that “are no better than jails.” The reason so many kids, particularly minority kids, are removed from their homes, she said, is that “our system has been built on centuries of racism, classism and xenophobia.”
Across the country, advocates influenced and sometimes even trained by Casey Family Programs espouse the view that the child-welfare system is racially biased and structured to break up minority families rather than protect children. In response, they say, the system should try to keep kids in their homes, reunify them more quickly if they have been removed or keep them with extended family because they share the same racial background.
Almost anything, they argue, would be better than placing them with a family of another race.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the idea that the child-welfare system is racist has taken hold, and legislators are now trying to act on it.
There’s no doubt that black families make up a disproportionate number of those who end up encountering child-welfare agencies. In New York City, the numbers have remained unchanged for decades. African American children made up 31.5 percent of the population of kids in the city in 1987 but accounted for 63.1 percent of children in foster care. In 2012, they made up 25.9 percent of the population and accounted for 59.8 percent of those in foster care.
According to recent data in New York, 65 percent of ACS employees are black.
Is it really true that these workers are unfairly targeting their own communities?
In fact, in 2018, 67 percent of abuse and neglect reports were made by professionals (often legally mandated reporters), including teachers, social workers and doctors, who are also disproportionately members of minority communities. The highest percentage are from teachers, and racial minorities make up a large share of the teacher population, especially in urban areas. In Washington, DC, for instance, 56 percent of teachers are black. In other words, it’s unlikely to be nosy white women who are calling the authorities when they suspect there is abuse or neglect going on in a black child’s home.
Bill Baccaglini, the president and CEO of the New York Foundling, the oldest foster agency in New York City, suggests that the argument that child welfare is racist misses the point.
“You couldn’t even consider race a variable,” Baccaglini tells me dejectedly. “It’s a constant. All the kids who come into this system, unfortunately, are nonwhite. The racially disparate aspects of the system happened well before with our opportunity structure — the ‘tale of two cities,’ ” as Mayor de Blasio has called it.
“The fact that the mom in the South Bronx cannot get decent medical care; the fact that the mom in the South Bronx cannot get a good job; the fact that the mom was put into an [individualized educational program] and never got a degree and then had a child,” Baccaglini continued.
The fact that these phenomena happen at a higher rate in certain communities is also not necessarily a sign of racism, but it does help us understand what happens to children downstream of these problems.
When I ask Sharonda Wade, an African-American woman who works as a supervisor in the Department of Children and Family Services in Los Angeles, what she makes of the claim that racial bias is responsible for the disproportionate rate of child removal among black families in Los Angeles, she tells me, “Racism exists inside our system — in healthcare, mental health and criminal justice.” Wade says that “because black parents have had not-so-good relationships with other agencies, when our agencies come knocking, they witness us as someone they can’t trust.”
And the reaction to investigations can often exacerbate the situation.
Indeed, Wade tells me that a black person working for CPS may actually make the situation worse from the perspective of black families. “Some people — even black people — feel like a black social worker won’t do a good enough job, that they’re not as educated, not as professional.”
Even worse, “They see me as being a traitor.”
During the four years she was an emergency response worker, clients would call her supervisor to complain. “They wanted a white social worker.” Others attacked her for working for CPS at all. “Some of the moms would be screaming: ‘How dare you work for CPS? You’re going to get your ass whupped for working for the man.’ ”
But if the bias of investigators is not the reason, what is behind the disparities?
Abuse and neglect happen at higher rates in certain families.
According to the 2019 Child Maltreatment report, white children were victimized at a rate of 7.8 per 1,000 compared with 13.8 per 1,000 for black children.
And lest people assume that these findings of substantiated abuse are also simply the result of bias, it is worth keeping in mind that fatalities from child maltreatment are also more than twice as high among black children (5.1 per 100,000) than among white children (2.18 per 100,000). The fact that black children are more than twice as likely to die as a result of abuse or neglect should give pause to anyone who thinks the judgments of child-welfare officials are behind the disparities in removals.
These disparities exist for a variety of reasons. Poverty, for instance, is correlated with abuse. That is not the same as saying that we are just removing kids because their families are impoverished.
Poverty causes stress in marriages and other relationships, and sometimes that stress is taken out on kids. And impoverished families are also disproportionately minority families.
Another commonly correlated factor in child abuse is domestic violence between partners. As an article in Time pointed out in the wake of the video of football player Ray Rice beating his wife, “Black women are almost three times as likely to experience death as a result of [domestic violence/intimate-partner violence] than white women. And while black women only make up 8 percent of the population, 22 percent of homicides that result from DV/IPV [domestic violence/intimate-partner violence] happen to black women and 29 percent of all victimized women, making it one of the leading causes of death for black women ages fifteen to thirty-five.”
Why are we willing to believe that black women are disproportionately more likely to be abused but not black children?
Family structure is another major predictor of child abuse — perhaps the most important one. Single parenthood, and especially the presence in the home of a man who is not the biological father, is a common theme in a significant percentage of abuse cases.
According to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services, the incidence of physical abuse for a child living with a single parent and a “partner” who is not the child’s father is 19.5 per 1,000. That’s almost twice as high as for children living with unmarried biological parents or a parent married to a non-biological parent, and almost 10 times as high as for married biological parents.
According to data from Child Trends, in 2014 70 percent of all births to black women occurred outside of marriage compared with only 29 percent of all births to white women. For Hispanics, the rate is 54 percent, and Hispanic couples are more likely to remain together even if they don’t marry. Family structure is a deeply important factor in determining the likelihood of interaction with child-welfare officials, and it is one that disproportionately affects black children.
Child-welfare officials almost never mention these statistics, but they are vital in explaining why there are racial disparities in child maltreatment and the child-welfare system and why, unless we have a different standard for tolerating the abuse of black children, they are not going away.
Taken from “No Way to Treat a Child” © 2021 by Naomi Schaefer Riley. Published by Bombardier Books. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.