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Child Welfare Is Becoming a Joke

The field is mired in risible theory and impenetrable jargon, and increasingly divorced from concern with the welfare of children.

Naomi Schaefer Riley
Naomi Schaefer Riley
5 min read

Earlier this week, a Brooklyn mother named Erin Merdy allegedly drowned her three children—Zachary (seven), Lillyana (four), and Oliver (three months)—in the water near Coney Island. Merdy, who had apparently been suffering from mental illness and possibly postpartum depression, had been reported to authorities on multiple occasions. Not only was she the subject of two neglect allegations made to New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, but the father of her oldest child also says he reported her to child protective services. His son told him he wasn’t being fed and that he was forced to urinate and defecate in a bowl while he lived with his mother in a homeless shelter. Too little is known about the investigations into these allegations, but it seems increasingly clear that warning signs were missed.

It certainly wouldn’t be surprising. It is not unusual for neighbors, relatives, doctors, and teachers to report signs of abuse or severe neglect to child welfare agencies only to find that those agencies fail to investigate, conduct cursory investigations, or determine that children whose parents are clearly suffering from mental illness or substance abuse are perfectly capable of continuing to care for their children. A few days ago, police arrested Dhante Jackson, six months after investigators found the bruised and battered body of his girlfriend’s daughter, eight-year-old Sophia Mason. Her mother is also being charged with murder. Reporters for a local paper found eight separate reports of abuse or neglect in the 15 months before her death that were all but ignored by authorities. Merced, California police sergeant Kalvin Haygood, among the first to find the girl, said: “It really makes you wonder, ‘Where did it all go wrong? Why wasn’t this child protected?’”

Child welfare is a serious business. In 2020, there were almost four million referrals alleging abuse or neglect of approximately seven million children in the United States. More than 1,700 children died from maltreatment in that year, almost half of whom were under the age of one. Social workers and other professionals at child welfare agencies all over the country are tasked with understanding which kids are at risk and, if possible, keeping them safe from parents and other adults who would do them harm. Unfortunately, the field of child welfare is becoming a joke. From the study of this topic in our most esteemed institutions to the training of professionals on the ground, it seems that child welfare has become almost completely divorced from the actual welfare of children.

Finding, training, and supporting qualified individuals to do this important work has become all but impossible. A report from Casey Family Programs estimates that the average turnover rate at child-welfare agencies in the United States is approximately 30 percent, with individual agency rates reaching up to 65 percent. That was before the pandemic and the current labor shortage. Another study found that, “For those workers who remain on the job, burnout manifests in the workplace as work avoidance, apathy toward the well-being of clients, and feelings of cynicism and futility.” And relative to their peers, “workers with high levels of burnout are more likely and quicker to conclude that children in hypothetical cases are at no risk of harm.”

So, how are we ensuring that child welfare agency employees are well-trained? At the top, the field is plagued with theoretical abstractions divorced from human nature. Take a recent article published in the Columbia Law Review titled, “Survived and Coerced: Epistemic Injustice in the Family Regulation System.” The author purports to show that:

[T]he family regulation system [child protective services] facilitated damaged knowledge production by requiring false or inauthentic victimhood narratives and excluding alternate knowledge. … The epistemic injustice lens offers insight into the marginalization of Black and Brown voices in punitive family regulation cases … ultimately reinforcing the cycle of subjugating marginalized knowledge.

How articles filled with this kind of nonsense are supposed to illuminate investigations into child abuse is anyone’s guess. Consider this article from the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare titled, “Can the Lifeworld Save us From Neoliberal Governmentality? Social work, Critical Theory, and Habermas,” which explains:

[O]ngoing colonial and carceral processes like slavery and settler colonialism, are at the root of health disparities, child maltreatment rates, and educational disparities (Gil, 2013), to name just a few sequelae of an economic order buttressed by the gendered and racialized maldistribution of resources.

“A critical praxis approach to policy,” the author declares, “would resist the liberal welfare state status quo in which structural inequalities are displaced onto individuals through stigmatizing, pathologizing practices (Bryson, 2016).” Presumably it will be obvious to someone—agency heads? CPS investigators?—what all this means exactly?

This sort of barely intelligible cant trickles down to conventions of professionals, which are often run by activists looking to derail the entire system. The goal of the upEND movement, for instance—launched by Alan Dettlaff, Dean of the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston—is the abolition of the existing child welfare system entirely. UpEND’s supporters claim that systemic racism underlies the entire idea of child protection and that it is therefore unsalvageable. The movement’s website states:

We strive for abolition because we understand that the biggest threats to child safety and well-being are ingrained anti-Blackness in our policies and practices; economic exploitation produced by racial capitalism; the continuing cultural genocide produced by colonialism; gender oppression sustained through patriarchy; and White supremacist norms of good parenting, family, and safety—norms that maintain power in the hands of oppressive systems.

People who actually see abused and neglected children on a daily basis will justifiably wonder: What exactly are you planning to replace the child protection system with? A blogpost on the website helpfully supplies the following answer:

A few characteristics of White supremacy culture that show up in the subtext of the “but what would you replace it with” question are perfectionism, a sense of urgency, and either/or thinking. These serve to stifle creativity, to stifle even the idea of holding space to do some creative thinking that might not be wrapped up in a flow chart after a one-hour brainstorm session. And that is by design. It speaks to another characteristic of White supremacy culture: the need to control the solution and define whose expertise is centered versus who merely gets to have input.

This kind of lunacy has even made its way to Washington, where some of the upEND movement’s leaders were interviewed for a podcast hosted by the Children’s Bureau. This agency, run by the Department of Health and Human Services, is supposed to be a trusted government research organization, where professionals can go to get good information about how to do their jobs better. Instead, the Children’s Bureau is promoting the kind of sloganeering gobbledygook offered by upEND.

Next month, the Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect at the University of Colorado will be hosting one of the biggest child welfare conferences in the country. Attendees are invited to hear lectures delivered in the kind of impenetrable theory and dogmatic jargon that has become increasingly common in the academic literature. Advertized sessions include: “Intersectionality in Adoption and Foster Care–Managing Multiple Identities,” “The Urgency of Intersectionality,” “Structures of Oppression: Setting the Context,” “Strategies to privilege lived experience when designing and refining interventions,” and so on.

But the conference agenda also features the kind of silly stuff that makes you wonder if they’re training CPS workers, preschool teachers, or even preschool students: “Everything looks better in a circle; Restorative Circles and social work with children and families” or “Solving child welfare in one word: MUSIC.” The problem is not simply that there are conferences that offer such absurd content. It’s that child welfare agency workers receive continuing education credit for listening to this gibberish. Their agencies are sending the message that this is the kind of training that will help them do their jobs well.

There are, of course, plenty of other fields in which academics publish ludicrous theories disconnected from real world experience and fail to train professionals in the skills they actually need. Education schools come to mind. And the state of the teaching profession is certainly shameful—many teachers don’t even understand how to impart basic literacy skills effectively. But deficiencies in child welfare have even more serious implications for the health and safety of the most vulnerable children. Contrary to what the academics running child welfare studies will have you believe, even the most rigorous study of Habermas cannot bring back Zachary, Lillyana, Oliver, and Sophia.

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Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the AEI and the author of No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.