Black children are removed from their families at much greater rates than any other race or ethnicity in this country. At the same time the sheer number of all child abuse investigations in the US is staggering: experts estimate that by age 18 one out of three children has been the subject of a child protective services investigation.
Yet, many of these investigations and removals are unjustified and stem from a misguided policy shift that began in the late 1960s, says University of Rochester health policy historian and physician Mical Raz.
“These numbers are astounding, particularly as the rates of serious physical injury to children are on the decline,” writes Raz in her latest book Abusive Policies: How the American Child Welfare System Lost Its Way (University of North Carolina Press, 2020), which traces the history of child abuse policy in the US over the last half century.
Part of the problem is an overly broad definition of what constitutes child abuse that has become politicized and “weaponized” against vulnerable populations, says Raz, who is an associate professor of history at the University of Rochester, and a physician at the University’s Strong Memorial Hospital.
Biased viewpoints regarding race, class, and gender played a powerful role shaping perceptions of child abuse.”
Mical Raz, Health Policy Historian and Physician, University of Rochester
Coupled with overzealous policies and a belief among the public that serious child abuse was widespread and frequent, “these perceptions are often directly at odds with the available data and disproportionately target poor African American families above others.”
This overreporting of alleged child abuse, Raz argues, has caused the child welfare system to get bogged down in unnecessary investigations, seriously undermining its ability to focus on its other roles. Poverty is too often equated with abuse, she says, while at the same time “we’re just having investigations at the expense of providing services.”
Raz says that most reports of neglect are really about manifestations of poverty. Often children are removed and placed in foster homes where foster parents receive funding from the government.
“Had that funding instead been given to the original family, they would have been able to provide what their child needs at home,” says Raz.
Why is removing a child who seems at risk a bad thing?
We should think about parenting as an affirmative right–that parents have the right to parent their children, that families have a right to be together, and that children have a right to be with their parents. Children should be removed from their families only as a last resort for severe harm. And yet, we know that in the US, about a quarter of all children who are removed from their homes are returned within 30 days. The problem is not that they are returned too quickly. Rather, what’s the point of taking them in the first place if they can be returned so quickly?…