Race, Journalism and Child Welfare: The Double Standards Run Deep

The Tampa Bay Times is earning well-deserved praise for a package of stories called Why Cops Shoot.

Since no government agency was keeping track of police shootings in Florida, the Times took on the task. The newspaper tracked 827 police shootings in Florida over six years and analyzed each one.

“Most of the shootings seem justified,” the Times concluded.  But, the newspaper said, there also are

“systemic problems that lead to questionable shootings: police operations that target minority neighborhoods; dubious traffic stops and nervous cops who rush to judgment; bad decisions by police that put them in harm’s way so they feel forced to shoot.

 In the worst cases, officers lie. They change their stories, tamper with evidence. They can kill an unarmed man lying on his back.”

And the Times found something else: “Police are more likely to shoot if you’re black.”  A series of graphics lead to a conclusion as obvious as it is inescapable: Racial bias plays a role in police shootings.

To which many no doubt would respond: Tell me something I don’t know.

The idea that there is racial bias in policing is now so accepted that the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a public apology.

And policing is not alone. As I’ve noted before, if a black man and a white man enter a store or hail a taxi, few would doubt who is more likely to be followed around the store and less likely to get the cab. Even in the hard sciences, where objectivity theoretically is at a premium, black scholars have more trouble getting research grants.

A Blindspot in Child Welfare …

Everyone – or at least everyone on the political left – would agree: Racial bias is part of every aspect of American life. Everyone, that is, except those liberals who keep insisting that one field is magically exempt: child welfare.

Those who are, to use one of child welfare’s favorite phrases, “in denial,” tell us the grossly disproportionate rate at which black families are investigated as alleged child abusers and have their children taken away has nothing to do with race – it’s because of poverty. (This is actually an improvement; I’m old enough to remember when the child welfare establishment insisted they never took children because of poverty either.)

In fact, it’s both. Broad neglect laws make it easy to confuse poverty with “neglect.”  But even when you factor in poverty, study after study finds racial bias over and above the class bias.

… And in Newsrooms

This willful blindness among some of my fellow liberals also can be seen in certain newsrooms – such as the Tampa Bay Times.

In an editorial last year, the Times acknowledged that Hillsborough County (metropolitan Tampa) took away children at the highest rate in the state. The newspaper even noted that the rate of removal in Hillsborough was far higher than Miami-Dade County, which has nearly double Hillsborough’s population.

But bias? No way! And, opines the Times, anyone who thinks there’s a problem can’t possibly be a good liberal. As the editorial put it:

“The figures are sure to give ammunition to antigovernment conservatives, many of whom like to frame the child protection process as antifamily. But that overlooks the facts and misses the point.” 

And what are those facts?

 “Hillsborough’s rangy size and high poverty levels help create especially troublesome home environments.”

There’s just one problem with that: The rate of child poverty is higher in Miami-Dade where, the Times acknowledges, far fewer children are taken.

Another of the Times’ facts: In the majority of cases, children are not removed from their homes.

Well, yes. But in the majority of cases where police confront citizens, they don’t shoot them. That doesn’t mean no one is ever wrongfully shot, as the Times has just illustrated.

But most striking was this argument:

“[I]n more than 4,000 cases since 2011, a judge has found that investigators got it wrong only 66 times.”

The Times series on police shootings produced a strikingly similar statistic, but a vastly different conclusion:

“[N]o matter what [police officers have] done, they almost certainly won’t be charged with a crime, the Times found. Only once in the six years and 827 shootings analyzed was an on-duty cop charged with a crime for shooting someone. It got thrown out of court.”

So to review: When judges rubber-stamp removals of children from their homes, it means the removals must be justified. When prosecutors won’t prosecute police it means police are not being held accountable.

Of course, one can see why some liberals would cling to the notion that child protection workers are somehow immune from bias. After all, they’re caseworkers, not hard-nosed cops. Right?

Not so in six Florida counties, including some large ones. In those counties, sheriffs’ departments investigate child abuse allegations and remove children.  The counties include four in the Times circulation area: Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee and Hillsborough.

Once again, to review: In the considered opinion of the Tampa Bay Times, if a sheriff’s deputy confronts a black man and shoots him, there may be bias. If a sheriff’s deputy confronts a black man and takes away his children, there can’t be bias.

Because, as far as the Tampa Bay Times is concerned, those who take away children are always right.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 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).