Child Welfare Alarmism Paints Unfair Picture of Families

If we learn only one lesson from the pandemic, it must be that family is essential. Not just our own family or families that look like ours do, but all families.

We should not need a public health crisis to remind us of this simple and very human truth. Most of us realize, although perhaps may not always fully appreciate, just how vital family is in our lives.  Relationships can be complicated, and we might not always get along with all our family members, but at the end of the day family is a source of strength that helps us become and remain resilient. When we look with intention at our own families, as imperfect as they may be, they are most typically a source of strength.

This pandemic has been a powerful reminder of the essentiality of family. Many families are spending more time together than perhaps has ever been possible as schools have closed and many are unable to go to their jobs and are working from home or out of work. If we are honest, for most of us it is a balancing act. With the uncertainty and the newness, there are highs and lows and likely alternating appreciation and challenge, stress or anxiety.

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David Kelly, special assistant to the associate commissioner of the U.S. Children’s Bureau at the Department of Health and Human Services. Photo: Children’s Bureau

Families that may not ordinarily have financial concerns are experiencing them now. Parents that may be accustomed to child care and other supports to help them balance their responsibilities may now be without that help. Many parents are dealing with significantly more concerns and higher levels of stress.

There have been countless op-eds, blogs, columns, and social media postings speaking to the challenges even parents of upper income levels are facing. There are daily accounts providing parental advice or sharing stories on how to deal with our current conditions. Some of them turn to humor, which can be healing and helpful in tough times, although there can be a fine line between the humorous and disturbing. Several commentators have pointed to the prevalence of parents joking about losing patience with children and restraining them or parents calming their nerves with adult beverages or substances—or even allowing kids to use them. These are deeply troubling images that mock lack of parental supports, resiliency, and protective capacity in times of deep stress, regardless of one’s income level.

While there is value in discussing shared experiences and challenges, there is also a stark double standard on display. As parents with lived experience have told us in recent conversations, these are not jokes that poor parents and parents of color would ever feel safe making in public. They are statements that, even if made light heartedly, heighten scrutiny and the risk of separation in very real ways.

Unfortunately, our views of families involved with child welfare are often far less than generous. There remains a deep-seeded distrust and lack of faith in the poor families and families of color that disproportionality populate the child welfare system. It may not be as blatantly visible in all places and all times as it has been historically and can be quite implicit, but it is there just below the surface, insidious.

We need look no further than the daily features in newspapers across the country in recent weeks forecasting spikes in child maltreatment. Words typically used to describe natural disasters and war, such as surge and tsunami, describe what we should expect. Concerns about declines in reporting and leaps to grim conclusions abound. The claim is that more children will be in more danger because fewer people are watching families and making reports and that this will foretell or enable widespread abuse to go unseen and undetected. That the inevitability of imminent harm is a forgone conclusion by so many is disturbing. It is important to take a step back, consider what we know and do not know, and the role that implicit and even explicit biases play in driving this narrative.

If we take a rational look at what we know, there is good cause to question the legitimacy of the alarmism. We know that risk factors are high and that we must take them very seriously. We know that families will need support to deal with growing food insecurity, lack of housing stability, inadequate income, and social isolation. We know that child care, if it was even available for lower-income workers, is likely not consistently available now. We know that many families will not receive all the support they need and deserve. We know poor families are becoming more deeply impoverished, and we know families and communities of color are suffering disproportionally in multiple ways during the pandemic.

We know in normal times most calls to hotlines do not reach the threshold of warranting an investigation. We know that the majority of findings of child maltreatment are for neglect, not physical abuse or exploitation, and we know that there are strong associations between neglect and challenges associated with poverty.

The weight of the evidence points to the importance of supporting families and mobilizing around their needs. It is important to be mindful of the unfair pictures that foreboding narratives paint of poor families experiencing challenges. Such pictures and narratives may shape society’s willingness to offer help. If we take a closer look through a less judgmental and reactionary lens, we might be able to see the depth of resiliency that is present and the remarkable efforts poor parents make to get by on the smallest fraction of what many of us have.

If confined to telling binary stories of heroes and villains, an objective view may reverse the roles. Who is the hero, the parent doing the best they can under circumstances more difficult than most of us will ever know or experience, or the folks writing about the likelihood they will fail or actually seek to harm their children?

If we are truly a field and a society that looks to data and facts to help us understand the world, it is time to put to rest the preconceived notion and prejudiced narrative that parents are a danger to their children, because in the overwhelming majority of families involved with child welfare that is simply not the case. It is true that some children may be exposed to increased risk and danger during this time, and we should not ignore or dismiss the signs of abuse, but we do not have data to suggest that is the most typical scenario. Still, it is an incredible opportunity for the child welfare system to come together with communities to offer needed support, to ease social isolation, to link families and children with needed resources, and to help mitigate what is surely a stressful situation for untold numbers of families.

We can emerge from this crisis understanding just how important family is to everyone and with deeper compassion for those who may be struggling or going through hard times, no matter when those hard times or challenges may occur. We have a chance to see families—all families—as resources of resiliency and strength worthy of investment and care.

David Kelly is special assistant to the associate commissioner at the U.S. Children’s Bureau. This op-ed was republished with his permission.

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