From Denial to Desperation: Misrepresentations on Child Welfare and Race

In a column in The Chronicle earlier this month, Marie Cohen includes the following statement. Almost everything in it is untrue:

Starting in the early 2000s, a group of wealthy foundations and allies called the Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare promoted the notion that a racist child welfare system is behind the disproportionate representation of African-American families in the child welfare system.  As evidence has accumulated that contradicts this view, the alliance has quietly suspended its work, and has not published anything since March 2015.

The statement is about as accurate as a Donald Trump tweet storm. I’m devoting an entire column to it because it illustrates how a series of small misrepresentations piled one on top of the other can create a narrative entirely divorced from fact.

There really is an Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare. It is run by the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

But that is the only part of the entire paragraph that is entirely true.

I am aware of no occasion on which the Alliance has said the entire system is racist. If Cohen knows of such a statement, let her come forward and present it. The Alliance has, however, put out superb reports, such as the Michigan Race Equity Review, which document how biases play a role in the needless removal of children of color from their homes.

The other misrepresentations are more serious. Cohen claims that the Alliance hasn’t published anything since March 2015. This false claim is the only evidence she offers for her further false claim that the Alliance “quietly suspended its work.

“Publish Or Perish” Does Not Apply

There are two problems with this:

  1. Even were the claim about publishing true, it would be irrelevant. An Alliance is not the same thing as an untenured college professor. It does not perish if it does not publish as often as Cohen wants it to.
  1. The claim is false. This publication was issued a full year later. And there has been more recent work; unless, of course, you cling to a quaint 20th century definition of “published.” The Alliance organized and conducted a webinar on September 28, 2016.  The Alliance conducted another webinar on November 17, 2016. And another on February 22, 2017.  (Surprisingly, none seems to have gotten attention in The Chronicle, even though they dealt with one of this publication’s favorite topics: predictive analytics in child welfare.)  The Alliance also is sponsoring an Accelerating Change awards competition. The call for entries was issued on March 28, 2017.

All of this is available on the Alliance website.

Alliance Director Tashira Halyard told me about a few of the other events the Alliance has planned, including a conference this fall. Among the topics: this memo from the  Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services concerning the need to “ensure that child welfare agencies and state court systems are aware of their responsibilities to protect the civil rights of children and families in the child welfare system.”

Inference Peddling

Then, having falsely claimed that the Alliance wasn’t publishing and then falsely claiming that the Alliance suspended its work, Cohen said these things-that-did-not-really-happen happened “[a]s evidence has accumulated that contradicts” the view that child welfare has a racial bias problem.

This is a classic example of what can best be called inference peddling.  Cohen wants us to infer that there is now so much evidence that racial bias is no problem in child welfare that people who once said there was such a problem have given up and gone away.

In fact, Cohen’s exercise in inference peddling suggests that those clinging to the fiction that child welfare is magically exempt from the biases that permeate every other aspect of American life are getting desperate.

That’s understandable. The denial movement demands that we deny one study after another which finds that even when poverty is taken into account, there is racial bias over and above the class bias that permeates child welfare.

It also demands that we deny common sense.

In Florida, for example, the Tampa Bay Times just completed an exhaustive examination of police shootings. The newspaper found that many were justified. But it also found strong evidence of racial bias.

In six Florida counties, including four large ones, law enforcement also does child abuse investigations and makes the initial call on removing children.  So, as I noted last week, if the denial movement is correct, here’s what it means: If a sheriff’s deputy in these six counties confronts a black man and shoots him, there might be bias. If a sheriff’s deputy confronts a black man and takes away his children, there is no bias.

One recent study suggests that a majority of black children will have to endure a child abuse investigation at some point during their childhood. It is horrifying to think that, in some cases, those black children and their parents will be investigated by people so arrogant they actually believe that all bias magically stops at their office doors.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 50 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).

1 Comment

  1. Barbara Needell at Cal conducted brilliant and disturbing research that indicated conclusively that racial biases influence decision-making in Child Welfare. Her research controlled for income and family dynamics, and isolated race as a significant determinant that resulted in a higher percentage of removal and longer than average stays in care for African American children.

    As a County Social Services Director, I had a choice: I could dismiss the findings as flawed (they weren’t), I could assume they did not apply to my County (sample sizes too small to measure), or I could do all I could to standardize assessments and enhance peer review. I am glad we chose the last approach, the prudent approach.

    Now, of course, California’s mental health service delivery system must conduct its own introspective analysis, because all the data point to racial bias–and especially in some counties–where African American and Hispanic children are being served poorly. All the work done by Child Welfare programs is undercut by failures and bias in other systems (hello, law enforcement) and they, too, cannot afford to pretend that justice is blind to color.

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