Stop Spreading Myths about Child Welfare

POLITICS & POLICY
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If we’re committed to protecting the most vulnerable members of our society, it’s time to stop trotting out these myths and face the facts. 

In the wake of last year’s racial protests, calls continue to reform or even abolish the child-welfare system (CWS). In his state of the state address last month, New York governor Andrew Cuomo said he planned to create a “more just and safe” child-welfare system. And David Hansell, the New York City commissioner for the Administration of Children’s Services, wrote in a January op-ed that he planned to reduce racial inequities in the system and decrease the number of kids in foster care. In an article for The Hill, Lenette Azzi-Lessing, a professor at Boston University School of Social Work, explained the rationale behind these new plans. She argued that too many kids are being taken from their parents and that they’re being taken for reasons that are either unserious or can be fixed in other ways. Moreover, she claims that we are unfairly targeting certain families and that foster care simply “traumatizes already vulnerable children.”

Embedded in these complaints are deep misunderstandings about the purpose of foster care, how it works, and the actual outcomes for children whom we remove. Here are four of the biggest myths about our child-welfare system:

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Myth #1: Most reports of child maltreatment lead to children being placed in foster care.

The Administration for Children and Families recently called child welfare a system that “separates families” rather than strengthening them, echoing similar allegations from activists and academics. In fact, ACF’s own data show that about 7.9 million children were reported to child-protection agencies in 2019 (and thousands more to alternative systems that deal with less severe concerns); about 251,000 children entered foster care — a maximum rate of 3.2 percent. Even when there is clear evidence of harm, a majority of children are left at home — often only to be harmed again.

Myth #2: Abuse is worse than neglect, and most of what the child-welfare system calls “neglect” is just poverty anyway.

This claim (see here, here, and here) draws on two true statements: Most child-welfare system involvement is triggered by neglect allegations, and most children found to be neglected have low-income parents. Yet, most states do not consider involuntary neglect — deprivation due solely to poverty — to qualify as neglect for the purposes of CWS intervention. However, that has not stopped claims that foster care could be avoided if only we could purchase washing machines or other material goods for families. CWS records do a poor job of capturing the context of neglect, but examples of scenarios include very young children left alone, unsafely supervised due to parent intoxication or serious mental illness, or in the care of dangerous nonparent figures; exposed to family violence; or living in dangerously unsanitary conditions due to lack of parental upkeep. None of these are “just poverty,” and existing evidence implies that authorities can tell the difference. Thus, it should come as no surprise that neglected children suffer serious developmental consequences that are, for most outcomes, similar to those of abused children.

Myth #3: Foster care makes a bad situation worse.

Foster care has been singled out by many as a cure worse than the disease. The quality of foster care can and should be improved but experiences and outcomes of foster care are often misreported. The vast majority of children in foster care do not experience frequent placement changes, are not placed in group homes, and are not abused in foster care. The vast majority do not age out of care and instead are typically reunified, adopted, or placed with permanent guardians.

A study of 1990s Illinois foster care — which overwhelmingly consisted of children in long-term kinship care — has been repeatedly cited as conclusive proof that foster care makes things worse. Yet, no rigorous studies have found similar effects — in fact, a comprehensive look at the best evidence does not show that children are “worse off” in foster care, and recent studies also suggest benefits of foster care for school performance. And, although there are cases of maltreatment in foster care, there is no doubt that children are safer in foster care than remaining in home after an investigation.

Myth #4: With enough services, we won’t need foster care.

This is the premise of the 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act, with seeks to reduce foster-care usage by allowing federal foster-care dollars to be used for non-foster-care cases. But, as a careful review of their own clearinghouse shows, few services are proven to prevent maltreatment among families who have already harmed children. Even those that show promise do not work for all families — not even close. In fact, there is an implicit acknowledgement that the services will not keep children safe “in their homes,” as the Act also funds informal placements with relatives (but not formal kinship care).

As further evidence that we cannot safely eliminate foster care no matter how much support is given, countries with far more generous social programs than the U.S. still have sizable foster-care systems — in some cases, they use foster care at higher rates.

These myths are pervasive because we want to believe them — it is distressing to acknowledge the true scope of child maltreatment, the long-term harms it inflicts, and that its causes are both numerous and difficult to address. Pretending otherwise does not protect children, help parents safely care for them, or rectify racial and economic inequalities. If we’re committed to protecting the most vulnerable members of our society, it’s time to stop trotting out these myths and face the facts.

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