“Child Welfare” heads to the reputation laundry

The child welfare establishment co-opts the rhetoric of reform to promote the same old family policing agenda

The hearings about the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection have prompted a lot of talk about “reputation laundering” as former Trump Administration officials try to distance themselves from the president they served so faithfully – the most notable example: former Attorney General William Barr.

As America’s racial justice reckoning finally catches up with “child welfare” – or, as it should be called, family policing – the “child welfare establishment is engaged in its own campaign of reputation laundering.  Indeed, watching the child welfare establishment respond to the racial justice reckoning is almost like rereading George Orwell’s 1984 – in particular, the scenes in which party propagandists change their party line without skipping a beat: “We are at war with Eurasia.  We have always been at war with Eurasia.”

The child welfare equivalent is: “We are anti-racist.  We have always been anti-racist.” Or: “Yes, poverty is confused with neglect. We’ve always known poverty was confused with neglect.  But we don’t confuse poverty with neglect.”

But there is one key “tell” in all this – one element that makes clear that the rhetoric is, well, Orwellian.

The key to the harm that family policing – a more accurate term than “child welfare” — does to children is the enormous power of the family police.  Even the minimal due process protections in criminal justice are effectively null and void in “child welfare.”  A police officer in a blue uniform can stop a Black youth, throw him against a wall and frisk him.  The family police can march right into a Black child’s home, stripsearch him, and walk out with him.  (In both cases, they can do it to white people, too, but in both cases, of course, it’s far more likely if you’re Black.) 

None of the recent trips to the reputation laundry from child welfare establishment groups includes support for any proposal that would reduce their power.  That’s how we know the real goal is to co-opt the rhetoric of change and put it to use maintaining the oppressive status quo

Yet none of the recent trips to the reputation laundry from child welfare establishment groups includes support for any proposal that would reduce their power.  That’s how we know the real goal is to co-opt the rhetoric of change and put it to use maintaining the oppressive status quo.  Consider three recent examples.

The Child Welfare League of America

Faced with demands to stop confusing poverty with neglect, end the misuse and overuse of foster care and purge the system of racial bias, longtime CWLA President Christine James-Brown declares: “The field is ready, hungry for this type of change.

But CWLA is “the field.”  CWLA could have had the system it claims to hunger for at any time because CWLA and its members have all the power.  CWLA’sagencies not only built the system we have now, they – and CWLA itself – spent decades fighting against the change for which Ms. James-Brown claims to hunger. 

● CWLA opposed real child welfare finance reform – not the tokenism of the Family First Act but the kind in which states would be free to take their vast foster-care entitlement funding as a flexible flat grant and use the money for better alternatives.  Even when the proposal was strictly voluntary — an option for states that wanted it — CWLA opposed it.

● In fact CWLA went further, calling for a change in a complex funding formula that would have the effect of more than doubling federal foster care spending. 

● CWLA even opposed legislation that would stop member agencies from swiping foster youth’s social security benefits!

But now they want us to believe that all along they’ve been hungry for change?

In a 2006 publication, CWLA declared:

It is often said that the nation’s foster care and child welfare system is ‘broken.’ In reality, it isn’t broken so much as it has never been fully supported and empowered to function effectively.

Sixteen years later, they’ve tweaked the rhetoric, but it’s just old whine in new bottles.  In

an echo of that claim from 2006, the chair of CWLA’s board of directors laments that “When something goes wrong, the system is described as ‘broken.’”

How can you claim to be hungry for change in a system if you can’t even admit it’s broken?   CWLA is hungry only for what it’s always been hungry for: Power.

Social Current

Similarly, consider the record of a group that now calls itself “Social Current.” The group seems to change its name more often than most people change their Facebook profile pictures; most recently it was the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and before that the Alliance for Children and Families. But no matter how much they try to hide it, it’s another trade association full of private foster care and “residential treatment” agencies.

Their “Director of Practice Excellence,” Amy Templeman, co-authored an op-ed column for The Hill with the authors of an important study debunking the racist myth that, in the absence of overwhelmingly middle-class, disproportionately white  “mandated reporters” in the lives of children who are neither, COVID-19 would lead their parents to unleash upon them a pandemic of child abuse.  On the contrary, the increase in direct cash assistance and community-based mutual aid organizations prevented any such pandemic. 

On the surface, the op-ed is a plea to continue such assistance in order to reach families “upstream” (which, by the way, is the latest buzzword in child welfare). But look more closely: Templeman contends that one way to do that is to reauthorize the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.

How can you claim to be hungry for change in a system if you can’t even admit it’s broken? 

CAPTA is the federal law that did so much to get us into this mess in the first place.  It is CAPTA that encourages states to create the massive child welfare surveillance state that includes mandatory reporting laws that inflict needless trauma on millions of children each year – to the point that more than half of all Black children will have to endure a child abuse investigation before they turn 18.  The very research highlighted in the op-ed shows these laws are not needed to keep children safe, and other research shows they backfire, overloading workers so they have less time to find the few children in real danger and driving families away from seeking help – in other words away from the “upstream” prevention Templeman claims to support.

CAPTA also encourages massive state databases of rumor and innuendo – so-called central registries that ensnare millions who are falsely accused or whose poverty is confused with neglect.  These blacklists – in every sense of that term – shut impoverished parents out of exactly the kinds of jobs most accessible to poor families, driving them deeper into poverty.

And CAPTA drives women away from seeking prenatal care and away from giving birth in hospitals, through provisions demanding that states turn them in to the family police if their newborns are “affected” by drugs.

The actual amount of money states get through CAPTA is tiny – they would save more by defying its odious provisions, thereby reducing needless investigations and foster care.

Scholars from Barbara Nelson to Mical Raz have documented that in order to get CAPTA passed, its sponsors had to misrepresent “child abuse” as having nothing to do with poverty and everything to do with personal failings of parents.  Yet now, Social Current seeks to co-opt the rhetoric of reform to support this awful law.

Perhaps that’s because the only people who do benefit from CAPTA are agencies that investigate families, and agencies that provide often useless “preventive services” like “counseling” and “parent education” and/or warehouse children in foster care: In other words, members in good standing of “Social Current.” 

CAPTA isn’t the only part of Social Current’s agenda that belies Templeman’s rhetoric.  Social Current wants to blast a huge loophole into federal law to make it easier for states to use federal Medicaid funds on the worst option of all: institutionalizing children.  That’s about as far from “upstream” as you can get.

This also is unsurprising given Templeman’s other hat: running a division of Social Current designed to implement recommendations from a federal advisory commission – a commission whose entire thrust was to vastly increase family policing.

And that role brings us to Templeman’s other exercise in reputation laundering.  In a recent journal article she co-authored, she engages in a nearly Trumpian mischaracterization of the commission report reminiscent of how the aforementioned Bill Barr mischaracterized the Mueller report.  But unlike the situation with Barr, Templeman actually was executive director of the commission whose report she now misrepresents.  Compare for yourself:

The actual report

How Templeman spins the report

NCCPR’s full analysis of the report

But the mischaracterization of the commission report is just the beginning.  The thrust of the journal article is supposedly a critique of mandatory reporting laws – the same laws mandated by CAPTA.  The article admits that “mandatory reporting, as it stands, is not an evidence-based policy.”  It goes on to review the harm of these laws – though it understates that harm.

When you have a regime of mandatory reporting for which there is no evidence of benefit and abundant evidence of harm the logical thing to do is simple: Abolish it.

When you have a system for which there is no evidence of benefit and abundant evidence of harm the logical thing to do is simple: Abolish it.

But Templeman and her coauthor do not propose abolishing mandatory reporting; they propose only “improving” it.  They don’t propose curbing current mandatory reporting laws in any way.  Instead, they appropriate the rhetoric of family policing abolitionist Joyce McMillan.  Over and over, without attribution, they use a version of McMillan’s phrase “turn mandatory reporters into mandatory supporters.” But they strip it of all meaning, co-opting it in service of an agenda that suggests little more than adding other phone numbers mandated reporters could call instead of “child protective services” – and, of course, that classic panacea – more training!

There is not one recommendation in their paper that would in any way curb the power of the system.  And though they’ve stolen Joyce McMillan’s line, there is nothing in their proposal to make mandatory reporters mandatory supporters.

Prevent Child Abuse America

And then there are those masters of health terrorism at Prevent Child Abuse America (PCAA).  Health terrorism means highlighting horror stories that are in no way representative of a problem in the name of “raising awareness.”   Decades of health terrorism conditioned much of America to believe that horror stories about beatings and torture of children are the norm, there’s a child abuser under every bed, and only an ever-bigger child welfare surveillance state can stop it. 

Health terrorism is not my term – I heard it at a presentation by Bart Klika, chief research officer for PCAA, who admitted that it was their m.o. for decades. PCAA denigrated any notion that poverty is confused with neglect. They even put out a special Spider-Man comic book in which a working mother is emotionally neglecting her child because she’s too busy “work[ing] with movie stars.”

Yet after decades of health terrorism that inflicted very real terror on millions of children victimized by needless investigations and needless, abusive foster care, Klika refused to apologize.

That alone should be reason enough to exclude PCAA from any serious discussion of how to deal with child abuse and neglect and to call out their current rhetoric for what it is: reputation laundering.

But it’s actually worse. They’re still engaging in health terrorism.

Thus, an op-ed column from Kylie Spies of one of Prevent Child Abuse America’s most influential chapters, the one in Iowa, tries to graft the language of reform onto the same old health terrorism.  It offers a token mention of the success of COVID stimulus funds in curbing “abuse” by curbing poverty.  But that comes only after suggesting that the most wonderful thing any Iowan could possibly do is to turn in a neighbor as a child abuser!

More reporting of alleged child abuse is wonderful, Prevent Child Abuse Iowa says, because, while it reveals stress in a community

it also measures the connectedness of a community.  The number of reports each year is a measure of time spent with caring helpers like teachers and pediatricians who are trained to spot signs of abuse. It’s the number of concerned coaches, neighbors, and relatives who noticed a problem. It’s the number of courageous children and youth who told a trusted adult the heavy secret they’ve been carrying. And the most common abuse type, “denial of critical care” (also known as neglect), contains an additional measure of a community — families’ ability to meet their basic needs.

Yes, nothing says “connectedness” like turning in your neighbor to the family police – and explicitly declaring that poverty is the most common form of “abuse”!  No wonder, year after year, Iowa tears apart families at a rate far above the national average, even when rates of family poverty are factored in.

Spies goes on to caution that

The relationship between neglect and poverty is complex, and it’s important to understand that poverty is not child abuse.

But apparently, Ms. Spies, Prevent Child Abuse Iowa thinks poverty is child neglect – because it sure sounds like you just said it was!

And it’s not just local chapters. PCAA was among the sponsors of a video, complete with lurid horror stories and a celebrity narrator, promoting the whole discredited, racist myth about child abuse and COVID-19 discussed in the section about Social Current.  Though the “pandemic of child abuse” never happened, the video PCAA co-sponsored was released in March 2022, long after research had debunked the myth.

Yes, nothing says “connectedness” like turning in your neighbor to the family police!

Meanwhile, Klika himself sets up a straw man in a reputation-laundering article he and his PCAA colleagues co-authored.  On the surface, it’s a call for change. Klika and his coauthors bemoan the false “dominant narrative” blaming parents – without taking the slightest responsibility for the fact that their organization did more than almost anyone to build and maintain that narrative.  They acknowledge the ugly history of CAPTA – but endorse it anyway.  Then they minimize the need for the only change they mention that would reduce the system’s power –narrowing definitions of “neglect.”  They even imply that it would be harmful to narrow the scope of family policing until a giant alternative “child and family well-being system” is fully up and running.

This is, again, just a laundering of the argument the child welfare establishment has made for decades: “Sure we’d like to eradicate poverty but until that happens we need to take away all those kids!”  In the new version, Klika & Co. write about their “child and family well-being system,” knowing full well that massive amounts of new funding are not forthcoming.

While it would be wonderful if Americans could be persuaded to spend huge amounts to create such a system – provided it was voluntary, community-run and entirely separate from the family police — one does not need to eliminate poverty, or create a giant parallel bureaucracy, or even spend huge amounts of additional funds wisely in order to safely reign in the family police.  Impoverished families and families of color have shown amazing resilience.  It takes only a small amount of additional cash assistance to lift families to the point where there is no need for the family police to even consider investigate them or tearing them apart.  The funds for that are readily available: All we have to do is transfer some of the billions now wasted on foster care. 

But not one of these huge organizations is willing to support changes in federal funding that would require that – or even allow states to do it voluntarily.  Not one has embraced any change that would actually diminish the police power of “child welfare.”  Not one has truly embraced reforms that would bolster due process for families. 

What real change looks like

If these organizations were serious about racial justice, if they were serious about ending the rampant confusion of poverty with neglect, if they were serious about ending a child welfare surveillance state that makes all vulnerable children less safe, they would endorse a due-process and finance reform agenda that includes at a minimum:

● High-quality defense counsel for all families at risk of being caught in the family police net.

● Real child welfare finance reform – not the tokenism of Family First.

Repeal of ASFA – or at least strong backing for legislation proposed by Rep. Karen Bass that would curb its worst excesses.

● Repeal of CAPTA.

● Repeal of mandatory reporting laws.

But groups like PCAA, CWLA and Social Current – or whatever that group decides to call itself next – will never go near an agenda like that.

Because their real message is the same as it’s been for decades: Sure, fund “preventive services” as an add-on – that we get to run of course — but we must continue to be judge, jury and sometimes family executioner for millions of children, overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite.  We’ll just co-opt your rhetoric and hope you won’t notice.

Published June 27, 2021, Updated, November 2, 2022