'Deluged' child welfare systems struggle to protect kids amid calls for reform
Nearly 25 years ago, Joyce McMillan's two children were taken away from her. One was eight. The other was just an infant. A neighbor had called a child welfare hotline. And the case worker sent out to investigate demanded a drug test that came back positive during a search of McMillan's home. It took two years for McMillan to get her kids back.
"A drug test is not a parenting test," McMillan told Morning Edition.
"It wasn't a cause to separate my family and cause the harm that it caused us."
That experience propelled her into activism, as she calls for Congress to do more to reduce punishment and surveillance — and emphasize family care and resources to reduce child maltreatment.
"Any system that purposefully withholds the rights of families from them is a system that is looking to take advantage of those rights," McMillan told Morning Edition, who founded and now leads the organization Just Making a Change for Families.
The numbers are startling.
More than three million children in the U.S. were involved in an investigation or other intervention for suspected abuse or neglect in 2021, the latest year with available data. Child welfare agencies say that out of those interventions, only about 600,000 cases were substantiated.
Experts and policy advocates say the harm caused by unbridled reporting is pervasive. Most professionals who interact with children — such as teachers, therapists and doctors — are required to report even suspicions of abuse and neglect. By federal law, each state is required to provide a pathway for such "mandated reporters" to relay to authorities known or suspected instances of child abuse or neglect.
Needle in a haystack
"The systems are deluged with these false reports and trivial cases so they don't have time to find the very few children in real danger. Those cases are a needle in a haystack," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "For 50 years, we've tried to find the needles by making the haystack bigger. That hasn't worked. It's time to find better ways to detect the needles instead."
The legislation that compels such reporting is the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), originally enacted in 1974 and most recently amended in 2019. The legislation established the contemporary child welfare system, which today consists of a constellation of local, state and national agencies.
In most states, abuse is defined as serious physical, sexual or emotional harm to a child, or a condition posing an imminent risk of serious harm. But more than three quarters (76%) of reports to child welfare hotlines involve neglect — allegations of insufficient food, clothing, shelter or supervision.
"With a definition like that, there's hardly an impoverished family who couldn't be deemed to have neglected a child," Wexler said.
Advocates like Wexler argue that poverty misconstrued as neglect leads to needless calls to child welfare hotlines. And researchers say investigations that begin with a screened call and a visit from an investigator disproportionately drag poor families into a net that's incredibly difficult to disentangle.
"Make no mistake, this is not some benign social work investigation. This is like a police investigation. They can come to the home in the middle of the night, demand entry. They will poke and pry into every room," Wexler explained.
"Depending on the situation, they might just walk out again, leaving everybody terribly traumatized, or they might walk out with the child," Wexler said. "If you then, as a family, have to go to court and try to fight to get the child back afterwards, [or] if the child is placed in foster care, they may be bounced from foster home to foster home and emerge years later, unable to love or trust anyone."
Disproportionate impact on minorities
Activists say the agencies tasked with protecting abused children disproportionately investigate poor families of color. The National Children's Bureau points to the potential for "systemic and structural racism, bias and discrimination."
A 2017 study found that more than a third of all children in the U.S. — and more than half of all Black children — became part of a child abuse or neglect investigation.
"They are decimating the Black community, especially if children are our future... because our children are being strip searched, taken from home, interrogated in schools, threatened, afraid," McMillan said during a policy advocacy event held at a public event on congressional grounds.
She also pointed to the impact an investigation can have on the relationship between a parent who might be wrongfully accused and their child.
"Parents are afraid. They are not their child's superhero anymore after CPS [child protective services] investigations because the child sees their weakness and how they were unable to protect them," McMillan said.
Regional data also shows a tremendous impact on minority families. A study examining data from 2015 to 2019 found that Indiana investigates 79% of Black families and Arkansas investigates 73% of Black families. In the state of Maine, the researchers concluded that 15% of Hispanic families have their children taken from them forever.
A spokesperson for Indiana's Department of Child Services says their work to reduce disparities led to a 46% decline in the entries of Black children into the child welfare system between 2018 and 2022. "Black children are overrepresented in child welfare systems nationwide. Indiana is no exception, but we are committed to reversing that trend and making promising strides," a statement read.
McMillan's group is also calling for guaranteed legal representation and a Miranda-style warning so caregivers can hear their options if a case worker knocks on the door.
"What I'm working to do right now is to narrow the front door, to make it more difficult for children to be separated from their parents, especially for reasons that are related to poverty or not related to abuse," McMillan said in the interview. "Sometimes parents just don't have some of the necessities, and that should not be a reason to take a child out of their home, traumatize them, shuffle them about and set them up for failure."
A 2018 law tried to enact some of those changes, and some state agencies contacted for this story point to reforms already underway.
A central component of the child welfare system impacted by evolving standards and legislation rests with child advocacy centers. Nearly a thousand of them are accredited by the National Children's Alliance, where executive director Teresa Huizar says more education is needed to help mandated reporters assess harm, especially in states where all adults are required to report their suspicions.
"If you don't educate people and they're uncertain about what they're seeing and how a child might need help, then they're going to err on the side of caution and make that report," Huizar said.
She proposes an information campaign to minimize errors, likening such a move to the scope and scale of anti-smoking campaigns of the past.
Huizar also says the core issues rest more in social justice than public health, pointing to the implicit bias that she calls the "giant elephant in the room."
"Poverty in this country is racialized," she said. "We know that children of color are much more likely to live below the poverty line than white children. So is it therefore that surprising that we have systems in place, including CPS, who also are tragically replicating essentially the sort of inequality that is driven by income inequality and poverty?"
Huizar notes that some states address bias by masking names, race or ethnicity of people targeted by an investigation, and remove references to irrelevant interventions from the past.
The city of New York credits reform efforts for reducing the number of kids in foster care by nearly half over the past decade, dropping to a low of 7,000. The city's Administration for Children's Services says it invests in communities and educates and supports mandated reporters.
And this year, Texas passed a lawto curb anonymous reporting and establish a pilot for family defense, while becoming the first state to require caseworkers to notify families of their rights.
"It took the worst of left and right to create the system we have now. It will take the best of both to fix it," Wexler said.
The radio version of this story was edited by Jan Johnson and produced by Mansee Khurana. The digital version was edited by Jan Johnson and Treye Green.
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