In the fast-gentrifying neighborhood of Harlem, you could sort most families into two categories, according to Joyce McMillan. There are those who have never given a thought to the idea that a government agency might threaten to remove their child. And then there are those who live with the fear that one wrong move could mean a child protective investigator will come knocking. If you’re wealthy and white, you likely fall in the first category. And if you’re poor and of color, chances are that you or someone close to you has experienced the terror of a child welfare investigation launched on dubious grounds.
Over her years as a family advocate in the New York City neighborhood, McMillan, who founded the Parent Legislative Action Network, has heard many of these stories: teachers reporting families when kids are showing up late to school; emergency room doctors who don’t give poor parents the benefit of the doubt; vengeful ex-boyfriends making false allegations. That’s why when Covid-19 hit, McMillan posted a flier on every floor of a Harlem family shelter with the message to call her if child protective services knocked. She figured that with the city shut down, parents being investigated for child maltreatment would feel more scared and alone than ever.
But what McMillan has instead found is closer to a collective sigh of relief when it comes to child protective services. Parents who were already being investigated were pleased when much of the scrutiny moved out of their homes and online. One parent told her, “They’re not opening my refrigerator. They’re not opening my dresser drawers. They’re not strip-searching my children and they’re not asking me to take their clothes off for the camera, because that would be child pornography.” Other parents who have lived with the fear of future investigation say less contact with teachers means less worry that they’re going to be accused of mistreatment for “frivolous” reasons, says McMillan.
Data suggests parents are not imagining the change. Ever since schools around the country closed and children have sheltered at home, there has been a steep drop in calls to child maltreatment hotlines. One analysis estimates a drop of more than 200,000 allegations of child maltreatment in the U.S. reported in March and April over previous years. In New York City, child abuse reports dipped by 51% compared to the same eight-week period last year, according to the New York Times.
For kids experiencing real abuse, the closures and home confinement during coronavirus can mean danger if their cases aren’t investigated. Some ER doctors have said they are seeing fewer children, but more severe pediatric injuries linked to child abuse. And research has linked child mistreatment to heightened stress and economic hardship — two things rampant during this time of pandemic and protest. With families sheltering out of sight of teachers and other professionals who are legally mandated to report their suspicions, child advocates fear that mistreatment is going undetected and unreported.
“The risk to children increases when contact with mandated reporters, such as teachers and health care providers decreases,” Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark told the BronxTimes.
But there’s another side to this story: Some parents living in neighborhoods with historically high rates of child welfare investigations say the dramatic dip in maltreatment reports feels more like the pollution lifting — a much-needed respite from the intense and relentless surveillance of low-income moms, and especially those who are black and Latinx.
“I’ve been speaking to families and they’re saying they aren’t under the scrutiny of teachers,” says McMillan. “It’s feeling like a relief. We’ve been celebrating and ramping up the campaign around why mandated reporting is not necessary.”
McMillan likens the pre-lockdown tactics to the aggressive policing of young black and Latinx men, only for women, and in the most private of spaces: their own homes. “We’re casting a really wide net and shaking down families, and if we’re lucky, we find something,” she says.
Tips or “reports” to child maltreatment hotlines are how cities identify which children may not be safe at home. Anyone can make a report, but most come from teachers and other professionals who work with children and are required by law to report suspicions of abuse or neglect. For parents who are the subjects of these tips, the ensuing 60-day child welfare investigation can be a blunt, invasive instrument, one that involves unannounced home visits, body checks of kids, and interviews with a family’s teachers and neighbors. But the majority of tips and reports are never substantiated: Fewer than one in five of children investigated are found to be victims of abuse and neglect.
These allegations are not distributed equally by race and class. One study estimates that only 10% of Asian children and 23% of white children will experience a child welfare investigation before age 18. For African-American children, that percentage blows up to more than half, or 53%. In New York City, even among community districts with similar poverty rates, neighborhoods with higher concentrations of black and Latinx residents had, overall, higher rates of investigation, one analysis found. Nor does casting such a wide net come cheap. Philadelphia spends upward of $81 million in investigations alone.
Sam Chafee, a spokesman for New York City’s Administration of Child Services, said his agency is “very aware of and concerned about” racial bias in his own agency, and in other child services agencies across the U.S. He said his own staff members participate in implicit bias training, but that other individuals who are mandated to report suspicions of abuse should also be required to undergo training “so that reports to the SCR [Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse] are objective and result in help for children when truly needed.”
Like McMillan, Chris Gottlieb, co-director of NYU School of Law Family Defense Clinic, suspects that mandated reporting may do more harm than good. With so few reports substantiated, says Gottlieb, cities are “misdirecting resources away from the small percentage of cases where there is serious abuse, and away from what they should be used for, which is much-needed services like housing and health care.”
She’d like to see research comparing whether harm to children actually increased while children sheltered with their parents. “I think this could be a test where the numbers end up showing that we don’t need the mandated reporter system at all.”
Proponents of mandated reporting point to the cases of abuse that go undetected, and say it is preferable to err on the side of caution rather than allow children to suffer. Without mandated reporting, they fear, no one person will feel the responsibility to alert authorities to a child’s potential abuse or neglect. The question for advocates like Gottlieb is: How many of those unreported cases are actually solved by the current system, relative to the harm done by investigations.
“In neighborhoods that are inundated with Children’s Services, you get to the tipping point where it’s generally understood that this is a government authority that comes into a neighborhood and abuses its authority,” says Gottlieb. In these neighborhoods, the acronym of the child welfare organization, ACS, can be so well-known that it is batted around in schoolyard chatter as a threatening force akin to the police, Gottlieb adds. “People see Children’s Services as dangerous threats to their family.”
Before the pandemic, some parents worried constantly about their children getting hurt in the schoolyard only to have a teacher or doctor point the finger at them, says Nancy Fortunato, senior parent leader at Rise, an organization for parents with child welfare involvement. Fortunato knows one mother who, after enduring multiple investigations, began photographing her children each morning before they left for school so she had proof that they left her care unharmed. Another mother she knows lost her job for chronic lateness while trying to comply with the many service referrals by a child welfare investigator.
These parents, like parents everywhere, are now facing a cocktail of pandemic-related struggles: job loss, homeschooling children with disabilities, anxiety, depression, isolation, and loneliness. Many are also struggling with issues related to poverty, such as homelessness. But the stakes of showing their stress are different.
These last few months, as the smartphones of middle- and upper-class parents have flooded with reassuring articles about how it’s important to take it easy when it comes to remote schooling and to be gentle on yourself and your kids, Jessica Marcus has been charting a very different message sent to the low-income parents she works with. In what she fears may be the beginnings of a disturbing trend, Marcus, a supervising attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, says her office has seen a handful of new clients who say when they called their children’s schools asking for help accessing the internet or securing devices for remote learning, the schools reported them to child protective services on suspicions of educational neglect. “Our clients find that when they ask for help, instead of help they get a report,” says Marcus.
The threat of child removal prevents many families from going to child care workers who might help them connect to crucial resources. While many child welfare systems have allocated more of their budgets to providing supports to stabilize vulnerable families, what is known as “foster care prevention,” advocates say the threat of monitoring and family break-up motivates parents to keep their distance.
Like Marcus, New York City parent advocates interviewed for this story all know parents who say teachers have directly or indirectly threatened to notify child welfare services for issues related to remote learning, like if a parent doesn’t turn the camera on during a class meeting. Nonetheless, they say that with school moved online, the monitoring of their parenting now is a whisper of what it once was.
Fortunato, who has herself been investigated, cautions parents not to get too comfortable with the quiet. “You always have to dot your I’s and cross your T’s, because tomorrow, when kids go back to school, child welfare will start knocking on people’s doors. …Those kids that didn’t do remote learning as they should, that’s educational neglect. Those kids that didn’t go see their doctors, that’s medical neglect.”
In an alternate future envisioned by Gottlieb, community members may be more empathetic after months of living through a pandemic — and then national racial justice protests.
The litmus test, Gottlieb says: “When things reopen, will a teacher who sees a child coming to school in dirty clothes be as quick to pick up the phone, or will they reach out to the parent and say: Are you having trouble with quarters for the laundry machine? Can we help you?”
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