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Neglecting At-Risk Children in the Name of Cultural Sensitivity

It started three years ago: a troubling case for a veteran mental-health professional that involved a young girl with serious health issues and a history of severe trauma. There were a multitude of protection concerns, including the girl’s low functionality, well below her chronological age. She was the equivalent of a five-year-old, but with the appearance of a young teen—a dangerous combination. A succession of partners to her single parent came in and out of her life. She was often the displaced target of their hostility, meant for a partner who was often absent. A string of child protection workers were involved, each less invested in her case than the one before. Phone calls and letters were directed to Toronto’s Children’s Aid Society (CAS), urging that the girl no longer be left at home for hours on end, or allowed to leave the house mid-winter without a hat, coat, or gloves. It was reported that many nights, the girl was making her own supper, and putting herself to bed; or left in the care of adults who would retraumatize her with emotional and physical abuse. CAS would respond with the equivalent of a shrug: The parent was doing their best. There was no imminent danger.

Then came COVID-19. Her school and in-person social services were closed. Boredom and loneliness closed in. The girl had no friends or other family in Toronto. And the only person she could connect with was a soon-to-be stepparent back in her birth country, whom she occasionally called. The hours alone stretched into days and weeks. She exhibited signs of anxiety and depression. She couldn’t say what she did all day.

CAS was informed that the girl was being left to her own devices for eight to 12 hours a day. It was dangerous to leave an adolescent with the mental capacity of a first-grader unsupervised for such long stretches, not to mention cruel. But the assigned child-protection worker reported that the situation had been investigated. The girl was left alone only when her parent went to work. Plus, she had a cell phone.

But, as it turned out, the parent also left the city on weekends, leaving the girl by herself. Her cell phone sometimes worked, sometimes not. The CAS worker noted that in case of an emergency, she could access WhatsApp through the computer provided by her school.

The cell phone stopped working after it was dropped in water. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, at least in the short term, as the girl had stumbled onto a dating app. She’d also taken to posting pictures of herself, on various social-media platforms, dancing around the house in revealing shorts. Still, according to the CAS worker, there were no protection concerns.

Then, after months and months of insistent prodding from a mental-health professional, a case conference was finally scheduled. A long list of concerns was prepared and presented, recounting protection issues dating back more than a year. Yet unbeknownst to the mental-health professional, the CAS had invited an “equality liaison” to the meeting. The liaison dismissed the expert’s concerns, explaining that they were overblown, maybe even symptoms of what she termed “middle-class bias.”

The mental-health worker was stunned. Over the years, she’d worked on the case with a team, whose members had all attempted to support the girl and her family, and who shared her own concerns. Were they all biased?

The girl was not white. She was born in another country. She lived in a low-income environment. All that was true. But didn’t she deserve to have the same standards applied to her case as any other child? Instead of spending time on the call discussing what could be done for the girl, the specialist was forced to fend off accusations of cultural insensitivity. In particular, the liaison suggested that she and her team had failed to consider supports that might be available from local, culturally specific sources within the “community.”

“What community?” the mental-health professional wondered. This girl was painfully alone.

* * *

Like other child-welfare agencies across North America, the Toronto CAS has few public supporters. Nobody is posting stories on the Internet about the positive experiences they have with the bureaucracies charged with removing children from parents’ care. There are entire websites devoted to attacking the CAS, mocking its workers, telling people what to do if they’re ever contacted by them. (Don’t let them into your house; deny everything; accuse them of racism; and so forth.) Anyone looking for nuanced context regarding child welfare will mostly find misinformation, ad hominem attacks, and scandals, some imagined, a few real. The same is true in the media coverage: There are no media reports about the tragedies that CAS prevented, no journalists writing stories about potentially life-saving interventions—children and teens saved from caregivers with documented patterns of dangerous neglect.

The current media environment promotes the idea that child-welfare agencies are, at best, “problematic”; at worst, racist. Reporters frequently point out that black and Indigenous children tend to be removed from their parents and caregivers at much higher rates than, say, white or Asian children. Within the discipline of social work, particularly in academia, there is an ongoing, increasingly radicalized debate. Defenders of welfare agencies point out that these disadvantaged groups—for many reasons—tend to experience much higher rates of issues that are associated with potentially neglectful and dangerous situations for children, including substance abuse, domestic partner abuse, and parental incarceration. On the other side, many argue that any such talk merely distracts from “the real problem that creates and maintains disproportionality [among races]—racism, both within child welfare and in society at large.”

The rise of Black Lives Matter and similar movements have given the latter argument more rhetorical force. Dorothy Roberts, professor of Law, Sociology, and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that CPS—Child Protective Services, as it is often known in the United States—is “an integral part of the US carceral regime… Just as police don’t make communities safe, CPS affirmatively harms children and their families while failing to address the structural causes for their hardships.”

Such blanket statements may once have seemed extreme, or at least open to healthy debate. No longer. They are now on the syllabus at Master of Social Work (MSW) programs across North America. If you are a young case worker at a child-welfare agency in Canada or the United States, you will have taken courses that advance the idea that your mission is shrouded in racism. Of the seven courses required to earn a MSW at the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, two focus exclusively on “racism and social work practice.” At the Rutgers School of Social Work in New Jersey, the syllabus of a required course called “Diversity and Oppression” aims to help students “understand how power and other dynamics manage and sustain oppression at the individual and institutional levels.”

The intent behind these courses, at least originally, was benign. And it is undeniable that Canada and the United States both have a long history of racist policies, including the removal of children from poor, racialized families to give them “a better life.” (In Canada, in particular, this racist intent was embedded into the country’s Residential School system.) Unfortunately, social workers are now being encouraged to extrapolate from these historical examples in a way that suggests their own conscientious day-to-day work will inevitably be classified as both racist and classist. Their jobs were already difficult. It’s hard to imagine how much more so they have become in the current climate.

* * *

“It’s time for CAS to stop trying to bring children into the child welfare system—and focus on supporting the family instead,” reported the Toronto Star recently, paraphrasing its interview with Mahesh Prajapat, Chief Operating Officer of CAS Toronto. But what will this look like, exactly?

One clue came last month, when Ontario announced the end of its “Birth Alert”—a system by which child-protection agencies alerted hospitals to the potential that newborn infants were at risk because birth mothers, fathers, or other family might not be able to provide necessary care. These alerts, a provincial press release indicated, “disproportionately affect racialized and marginalized mothers and families.”

When I showed this news item to the mental-health worker who’d shared the above-described case with me, she asked the obvious question: What were they going to do instead? According to the release, I told her, the new plan was “high quality, culturally appropriate… collaboration between children’s aid societies, hospitals, service providers, Indigenous partners and community-based service providers.”

“I just want them to do their job,” she told me. “Why can’t they just do their job?”

This woman isn’t the type to worry about a kid missing lunch or getting the occasional case of lice. She has more than 20 years of experience working with families and children in true crisis, including with issues ranging from rape, to drug addiction, to terminal illness. One of her first placements as a trainee was with pediatric oncology patients. Where others might look away, she looks closer. She has seen it all, and knows what neglect and abuse look like. She knows when a child is not getting minimal standards of care, either as defined by law or by the children’s own real psychological and physical needs. She also knows how to document her concerns and get help for children and families that need it. But in recent years, she’s noticed that it’s become harder to get CAS officials to take decisive action. Even when children are removed from unsafe environments after months of documentation and reporting, many are returned to parents or other biological family, even though circumstances hadn’t substantially improved.

Back to the girl—and the question of what “culturally specific” services might be available to help her. Neither the liaison nor child-protection case workers had been able to offer any recommendations. The imperative to keep families together with “community” support seemed, increasingly, to be code for not doing much of anything.

Finally, in June, the near constant flow of emails and phone calls from the mental-health professional yielded some minor progress: Two workers were hired to each spend a day per week with the girl. No longer would she spend every day alone. With luck, the girl might be pulled back from the brink.

But after a month, one worker, who’d spent 12 hours with the girl each week but had yet to be paid, was threatening to quit. The other worker was spending her days with the girl taking her along on her other job: door-to-door delivery of food to the elderly. Both reported that often, at the end of their long shifts, the parent had not yet returned home as scheduled. Meanwhile, the supervising CAS case worker was unreachable, on vacation.

By then, it was nearly August. The days were long, hot, and humid. Everyone was exhausted and drained—including the mental-health professional. The summer of COVID-19 continued, and the child continued to deal with it, still mostly alone.



Hal Niedzviecki is the founder and publisher of Broken Pencil: Magazine of Zine Culture. His most recent nonfiction book is Trees On Mars: Our Obsession with the Future.



  1. We seem to be working toward a point as a society where social workers will have to be officially identified by race and then allowed to work only with children who have been officially identified as belonging to that same race.

  2. Nothing hurts nonwhite people more than left-wing thinking.

  3. I can foresee a day in the not too distant future when a social worker’s credentials will say something like this:

    “Authorized to work within the X racial community as defined by statute.”

  4. You should have looked in a mirror instead of editing that statement.

    And trying to push the idea that ICE is racist it’s going to be a tough row to hoe. Especially given that Trump is actually not using it to its full capacity, the way Obama did. Or is he not on the left anymore?

    They carry out government policy, as passed by Congress, administered by the executive, and overseen by the courts. But of course, to you, that’s inherently racist, for incoherent reasons that make no sense.

    Incidentally, Trump using ICE and immigration has actually increased black jobs enormously, something which the left has failed to do for decades.

    Again I say, look in a mirror. And while you’re at it, some cognitive behavioral therapy would really help you. Want to take a break of 6 months or so from posting this inanity, just to do gratitude journaling, meditation, and some serious work with a therapist on cognitive behavioral therapy? Trust me that you will have an easier time on here when you get back, because you won’t be quite as nuts.

  5. This is why the modern, more aggressive form of social justice is harmful. Because it ultimately ignores the true reasons for disparities between communities. It is possible to draw a direct line between child abuse and neglect, and poor cognitive development, violent crime, teen pregnancy and poverty in later life.

    But the real problems can only be put into context when we consider peer groups in socialisation and education. We know that bad behaviour spreads, whilst good behaviour doesn’t- although many educators would deny this, not realising that the former is often permanent, whilst the latter is almost always temporary, if it happens at all. What further complicates the issue is that if local bureaucrats fail to arrange for sufficient behavioural placements within the local school system (given that generally these problem tend to emerge in the vast majority of cases in the poor, high crime neighbourhoods in the bottom 20% to 30% of the spectrum), entire communities can be deprived of the equivalent of two years worth of education for their kids, by the end of K-12.

    Under these circumstances, it is little wonder that the school-to-prison pipeline emerges as a sociological phenomenon. Combined with an absence of fathers in the community, it kills social mobility in the crib. The sooner politicians and policy makers are brave enough to be honest about these unpalatable truths, instead of deferring to ideological fanatics, the sooner it might be possible to enact real positive change in these communities, instead of sticking band aids on gaping leg wounds. The current strategy seems to be to sweep the problems under the carpet, and then blame the police when they are inevitably forced to clean up the mess.

    This Atlantic article details a British drama, based on real life events, which shows how cultural sensitivity can be a dangerous weapon in the hands of a well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided, social worker. God help us all, now that this sort of delusional thinking is beginning to permeate bureaucracies.

  6. All it takes is a handful of political officers - “equality liaisons” - to paralyze the entire system.

  7. BLM states that the idea of a nuclear family is racist, so I don’t see them encouraging fatherhood any time soon

  8. Yep, taking your role as a father seriously is now a function of ‘whiteness’ to the BLMers…

  9. They do, and yet …

    I come into daily contact with a good many black Americans. Some of them are my neighbors, and when I say neighbors, I don’t mean they live in another subdivision nearby. They live on my street. They live around the corner on the next street. They are husband/wife couples with children. And when I say children, I mean black children living with their black fathers in the same house.

    When I’m in an office around town, whether it’s a business or a government agency, I’m dealing with a lot of black Americans who have pictures of their families on the walls above their telephones. Pictures with black women and black men with their black children. The implication being in these families, anyway, black children are living with their black fathers.

    I have concluded that there is an awful lot of this going on. Black nuclear families. Intact.

    And thriving in America.

  10. Agree, I too have black neighbors as you’ve described. However, it would be nice if they could find their voices and tell BLM to stop speaking on their behalf regarding areas they know nothing about.

  11. According to the left, it’s only a bad thing when he does it. Obama was a saint.

    Yes, we’ve interfered in just about every country in the world. And amazingly, despite our colonialist, hegemonic, horribly evil ways and our dictator president, at least according to the news, everyone wants to immigrate here. Because we’ve got it so good, we’ve got to use ICE to beat them off with.

    And actions in the Cold War? Are we about to start cherry-picking history again?

  12. Oh, one other thing here. ICE is actually stimulating the economy in no small way. It is also improving the lot of workers in all sorts of very unpleasant jobs.

    If you are working in, say, a poultry processing plant, and are an illegal immigrant, it is a problem. For one, you’re taking a job away that someone is going to want. In fact, after Mass deportations at these plants, jobs went to minority workers, people who hadn’t had jobs available to them, in nearby towns.

    Do you remember my argument about the minimum wage? How does an employer get around it? Easy. Hire an illegal immigrant, who cannot complain if they are paid poorly and denied full benefits or good benefits or anything else, and then treat them like dirt. They’ll be grateful, and if they’re not they have to shut up anyway because you can get them deported. They know you were falsifying paperwork on their behalf. Meanwhile, minorities cannot get those jobs because minimum wage prices them out, because illegal immigrants are able to undercut.

    Now Deport them, and all of a sudden minimum wage must be paid to get the workers that you need , so all sorts of entry level jobs open up. Without minimum wage, minorities could have competed more evenly, but with minimum wage, they could not compete with illegal immigrants. So a great deal of economic Prosperity showed up in the town near the food processing plants that got raided, because all of a sudden people from those towns were able to get jobs, and the money wasn’t being sent out of the country to family back home. It was staying in the local community.

    Now, ICE was acting at the behest of President Trump, so it was carrying out the agenda Republican. Obviously, therefore they were jackbooted Stormtroopers.

    When they were carrying out Obama’s agenda, which was even more deportation, they were not jackbooted Stormtroopers because he was a Democrat. Therefore, they were apparently leftist.

    Personally, I think that’s a stupid distinction. They were carrying out legal orders from their superiors, and obeying their oath. The president that they were obeying and the laws that they were operating under may have a party tinge, but it might be quite different from the actual beliefs of the people doing the job.

    Personally, I think a lot of Washington institutions are not particularly partisan, they’re institutionalist and preservationists. In other words, if someone is threatening to change them or weaken them, they will resist them no matter what. I think this is actually why they participated in Russiagate so willingly oh, they were afraid that Trump was going to do something that Trump actually did. As a good businessman, he wanted an audit. He wanted to be able to fire people for cause, and get his own people in. They were able to use Russiagate to tie him up quite a lot and slow down the process.

    Have you ever worked for a federal government in any capacity? I have. I personally would love President Trump getting some Auditors in and trying to fix some of these incredibly broken processes I had to deal with. It was a special kind of hell.

  13. I’m familiar with similar cases involving native children. It goes hand-in-hand with the unhinged leftist-hippie belief, the one that’s increasingly dominant, that certain non-white people are magic. They think, if you leave these people to their own devices, their innate ‘magic’ will rise to the surface, and their problems will be solved. To quote a white woman who repeatedly interrupted an inquest into the death, by starvation, of a native child living with native ‘caregivers’ “The people KNOW what to do, give them more money and decent housing, and they’ll do it!” The caregivers had previously destroyed an on reserve home and were living in a newish trailer. They both had health problems related to obesity and heavy smoking. There were, apparently, out of magic!

    The misery caused by ‘Magical thinking’ as it relates to vulnerable people, with intractable problems, that sadly belong to ‘magical’ groups, will continue to grow until members of the afflicted communities have enough responsible members to look after themselves. Their ‘white Saviors’ have been possessed by Marxist demons!

  14. Sadly, there is nothing new here. I completed an MSW 36 years ago in the UK. I saw numerous examples of this kind of woolly thinking. Colleagues who argued vociferously that we should only have same race adoption, ignoring the fact that this left black kids in care homes. Colleagues who saw genital mutilation as a ‘cultural practice’ about which we should be appropriately cautious. Many appeared blind to the reality of female abuse and violence.
    Derived from post modernist ideas, cultural relativism blinded people to the fact that whatever their speculations about social forces at work, they had choices to make and actions to take.

  15. All right, a demonstration of nuance.

    Before the Soviet Union, child labor was common in the West. That’s your thesis. Therefore, we were bad, and now the Soviet Union forced us to be better.

    And somehow, it didn’t force Afghanistan or Pakistan, who still use child labor. It didn’t force China, and yet Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union and it’s one of China’s closer neighbors. And yet somehow child labor wasn’t affected.

    So what precisely lead to child labor going away in the West? When did this happen, why did this happen? To answer your question here, it happened before the Soviet Union was ever formed. If you look at the various laws, they came into being before the Russian Revolution, decades before. They were a response to workers unhappiness and Revolt, which led to laws being passed to meet a number of their demands.

    You see how this works?

    You don’t just rant angrily and assume that you’re right. That’s what you’re doing. Before you do that, because you really are showing your ass on here, and not your face, you should check dates. You should check reasons. You should take a look at where the laws started being promulgated and why.

    Nuance. Without it, a lot of people have trouble taking you seriously. It’s like a house built on foundations of sand. If you don’t actually understand what you’re trying to use as the foundations of your argument, you look ridiculous and your argument fails automatically.

    You are also committing one other very serious error that I think I should mention. You insist on justifying everything by modern standards as good or bad. It’s a serious flaw in your thinking, as you can understand history unless you understand what was good or bad by the standards of the time.

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