Last month, author and political commentator Jeff Greenfield wrote an essay for Politico on the politics of fear – and how Donald Trump exploits it. He wrote:
History teaches us lessons of what can happen when genuine public fears are co-opted by the demagogues, fear-mongers and over-reactors. There was a reason to fear crime in the 1960s and 1970s, because violent crime in America was increasing by leaps and bounds, but that didn’t mean the only response [had to be] four decades of over-incarceration, driven by politicians’ fears of looking soft on crime.
There was a reason to fear a Soviet espionage network looking for military secrets during a Cold War waged in the shadow of countless nuclear weapons, but that didn’t require McCarthyism as a response.
There was a reason to fear where Al Qaeda might strike next after 19 men with box cutters killed 3,000 people in the heart of two great cities, but that didn’t mean we had to invade Iraq.
Let me add one to Greenfield’s list: There is a reason to fear that a small number of parents are brutally abusive and will do terrible things to innocent children if they are not stopped. But that doesn’t mean we needed to create a system that puts millions of children through frightening investigations every year, and casts thousands of them into a chaotic system of foster care, traumatizing some of them for life.
Yet that’s what we’ve done. Some of the same people who probably are horrified by Donald Trump seem to have no problem using his tactics in the fight against child abuse.
Case in point: Suppose someone tried to set up a role-playing exercise concerning international relations. But every Muslim character was a terrorist and they all said things like “death to America” and “kill the infidels.” The furor at this blatant bigotry would be enormous.
Yet a column in The Chronicle of Social Change recently sang the praises of a role-playing exercise about foster care in an article that begins with the script for those taking the role of birth parent:
The birth parent leans in and whispers horrific things to her child.
“I don’t want you.”
“I can’t protect you.”
“Don’t tell anyone our family secret.”
Everyone playing a birth parent is instructed to “choose an addiction” – since, of course, every parent who loses a child to foster care must be an addict.
In fact, the problem of drug abuse, like the problem of child abuse, is serious and real. But both also have been subjected to enormous hype, and inflated figures.
Where in this role-playing exercise are the birth parents who lost their children because their poverty was confused with neglect? Where are the mothers who were beaten by their husbands and then had their children taken away because they “allowed” the children to “witness domestic violence”? And where are the ones who lost their children because of a false positive drug test or whose “drug problem” consists of smoking marijuana?
This same role-playing exercise features only “enlightened foster parents.” There are many of these. But since multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, they can’t all be enlightened.
And where are the caseworkers who immediately jump to conclusions about families because they are poor, and especially if they are poor and African-American? That is something that study after study has shown to be a common problem.
Yet this exercise in stigma and stereotyping not only isn’t condemned, it is honored. The guy who came up with it, David White, won an “Angels in Adoption” award.
Donald Trump would be proud.
Suppose Donald Trump were asked which states were doing the best job at solving a social problem. Suppose he replied that it’s complicated, “but I will tell you the states that do the best overall are the ones that have smaller, whiter populations” [emphasis added].
Even Trump never actually said that – but Michael Petit did, when asked which states are best at preventing child abuse. He’s the founder of the group that calls itself Every Child Matters, and he said it at a Congressional hearing.
And then there is this, from a former social worker for the Washington, D.C. child welfare agency. She laments the fact that a judge would not let foster parents adopt a child, and instead awarded custody to:
The 19-year-old father, jobless and a high school dropout. … He had not abused or neglected Davon. Nevertheless, it was clear that Davon would do better with his foster parents.
In other words, why do we need actual maltreatment to take away a child forever? And why help a birth father with employment and child-rearing? Let’s have a society in which mostly white, middle-class caseworkers descend upon impoverished communities and take black children from parents because they would be “better off” elsewhere!
Perhaps she should send the idea to the Trump campaign. I’m sure they’d love it.
None of this is new. In the 19th century, Protestant minister Charles Loring Brace snatched away children whose parents, poor Catholic immigrants, he deemed genetically inferior and threw them onto “orphan trains” even though many were not orphans. Brace knew how to whip up a crowd with scare stories.
Other child savers, as they proudly called themselves, hid their agenda of fear and loathing of the immigrant poor – and their efforts to confiscate their children — behind horror stories of brutally beaten children, complete with “before” and “after” pictures for the media.
They, and their latter-day counterparts, could be Donald Trump’s role models.
If there is a difference between Donald Trump and today’s child savers it is this: The child savers mean well. They want to help children and they really believe their “solutions” will work.
But Greenfield wrote something else in his Politico column on the politics of fear:
The dilemma, of course, is that in every one of these examples, the lunge toward useless, or foolish, or dangerous, or deplorable responses seems almost built into the political system.
In child welfare, we have a system that subjects millions to needless investigations, traumatizes thousands with needless foster care – and still overlooks children in real danger.
“Useless, foolish, dangerous and deplorable” seems like a pretty good description of that system. If we’re ever going to change that, America’s latter-day child savers need to stop playing the Trump card.
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org