I’m scared when I hear a hard knock at the door. I think they are coming. I was scared to go to school because they will come to the school and remove me and put me in a foster home. All because if my Mom and Dad don’t do what they want, never mind they are not abusing us.
I will be so glad when I am 18 and my brother is 18. Then I know [no one] will never be able to put us in a foster home again.
Those words were written in 2006 by a 14-year-old girl who’d already endured needless foster care placement once. A caseworker decided her mother couldn’t cope with being a single parent, holding a job and going to college. In 2006, the family was under investigation again – because the school system lost some records.
The girl’s mother also wrote about the experience:
As soon as they heard the loud knock on the door my children knew it was [child protective services]. And they were scared. It’s amazing how a hard knock on the door can only mean one of two things – or maybe both – in certain neighborhoods.
The Knock That is Now the Norm
Even more amazing, and more horrifying: the findings from a new study that attempts to estimate how often children hear that loud knock on the door. If you’re black, it’s more likely than not that it will be a part of your childhood. The study estimates that 53 percent of African-American children will be subjected to a child abuse investigation before they turn 18.
It will happen to 32 percent of Hispanic children. It even will happen to 28 percent of white children. In all, the study estimates, more than a third of all American children will endure the knock on the door and all that follows.
The study does not break down the figures by income level. We can only imagine the percentage of poor children for whom this trauma is a typical part of childhood.
Of course, the fear of that knock on the door is likely to be greatest in cases where a child has already been consigned needlessly to the chaos of foster care before, such as the 14-year-old quoted above. She was repeatedly abused in foster care. But even when it does not result in removal, a child abuse investigation is not a benign act.
At a minimum, children endure the trauma of strangers coming to their home, asking about the most intimate aspects of their lives, turning the house upside down, and leaving everyone in fear. If the allegation is physical or sexual abuse, the children may be subjected to a strip search and an intrusive medical examination. If anyone else did that, it would be sexual abuse.
That one should even have to point out that a child abuse investigation is traumatic for a child is testament to the willful blindness about race and class that permeates child welfare. Most of the time, when a black man is forced up against a wall by police and frisked, it doesn’t result in arrest. But only right-wing extremists dismiss the trauma of stop-and-frisk as harmless.
Of course, if you’ve already convinced yourself that a child abuse investigation is no big deal, it’s easier to oppose any change in the process to make it even a little less traumatic.
When Appalling Findings Don’t Appall
But there is something even more appalling than the actual findings: the fact that the researchers were not appalled. On the contrary, approaching child welfare as a public health problem and not a social justice problem, the researchers blithely suggest that their findings mean child abuse is rampant, and the fact that 78 percent of allegations don’t even meet the extremely low criteria for “substantiation” is irrelevant.
How do they know? Because some surveys in which questionnaires are administered to children and youth find that a whole lot of them have been maltreated in some way. One survey cited claims that 38.1 percent of children experienced “maltreatment.” But the actual questions posed by that survey use some very broad definitions. Here’s the question about “neglect”:
When someone is neglected, it means that the grown-ups in their life didn’t take care of them the way they should. They might not get them enough food, take them to the doctor when they are sick, or make sure they have a safe place to stay. At any time in your life, did you get neglected?
They might as well have asked “At any time in your life were you poor?”
The researchers also cite a study which purports to show that the rate at which children are re-abused is about the same whether the first report was substantiated or not. But the researchers neglect to mention that the rate of alleged re-abuse in either case was very low – between 4.5 percent and 18 percent, depending on how one counts.
So even taking the substantiation study at face value, it merely tells us what we already know: substantiation decisions are arbitrary, capricious and cruel, and whether a case is substantiated depends more on factors such as which caseworker shows up at the door, the race of the family, and whether there was a high profile fatality in the news recently than on any objective measure of maltreatment.
The findings in the new study of exposure to child abuse investigations suggest not an epidemic of child abuse, but rather an epidemic of false reports and over-investigation.
British researchers understood that after they found similar staggering rates of investigation, and looked at them without the willful blindness that sometimes characterizes their American counterparts.
So here is a modest proposal for helping to open some eyes. The next time researchers embark on one of those grand surveys asking young people about the trauma in their lives, they should add this question: “Were you ever the subject of an investigation of a false report of child abuse?”
They can grab a bunch of headlines by reporting that the rate of “emotional abuse” has skyrocketed.