Child Deaths and Faulty Facts: A Surefire Recipe for Misguided Child Welfare Proclamations

Last week, City Journal, a magazine and website published by the Manhattan Institute, published a fear-mongering column entitled “Parents Rights,’ at the Expense of Kids’ Safety.”

In that piece, a writer named Naomi Schaefer Riley, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, made two points. One was that “the [child welfare] system is failing to rescue the kids that it’s supposed to be helping.” The other was to question child welfare’s ability to prevent children from entering foster care and more broadly “promote family well-being.”

While both points should be interrogated, Schaefer Riley completely misrepresented a recent speech by a top official within the federal Children’s Bureau to make them. Maybe worse, she armed herself with cherry-picked statistics on child maltreatment deaths – a horrific but incredibly rare occurrence – to insinuate that ramping up domestic family separations has a corollary in reduced child maltreatment deaths.

In April, David Kelly, a high-ranking Children’s Bureau official, gave a speech at a conference focused on legal representation for parents accused of child abuse and neglect in Washington, D.C. It centered on a recent administrative rule change that will allow for possibly hundreds of millions of new federal dollars to pay for attorneys for children and parents in child welfare proceedings.

But, despite having read Kelly’s speech in The Chronicle, where all of this is clearly explained, Schaefer Riley incredibly suggested that:

“The point of Kelly’s speech … was to tell his audience the ‘good news’: thanks to last year’s ‘Family First’ law, states can now use Title IV-E foster-care funding for more ‘preventive services.’”

The rule change Kelly was discussing did not appear in the Family First Prevention Services Act, a 2018 federal law that expands services aimed at preventing children from entering foster care. It occurred over a year after that bill’s passage.

Beyond Schaefer Riley’s characterization of the speech being plainly false, her assertion is laughable to anyone who knows anything about the Children’s Bureau’s disposition toward Family First. The agency’s top official – Kelly’s direct boss – has been publicly ambivalent about Family First, even offering states an alternative funding mechanism.

Brushing aside that truth, Schaefer Riley uses Family First’s philosophy of foster care prevention as a convenient foil to argue that the system is too focused on “family reunification.” To prove that the system is failing to rescue kids, she relies on one of the greatest red herrings in child welfare: child death statistics. While true that the few children who die from child maltreatment are often known to the system, I have yet to encounter any compelling evidence that placing more children in foster care can do much to stop that sad fact on a population level.

Let’s compare New York City and Los Angeles County, the two largest locally run foster care systems in America. Both have similar general populations: 8.6 million in the former and 10.2 million in the latter. But New York is home to roughly 8,400 children in foster care, while L.A. has more than 18,000.

Inasmuch, New York appears softer on parents – so the number of children dying there should be higher, right? Child deaths of all kinds reported to the New York State’s child abuse hotline show that New York City averaged 111 deaths from 2015 to 2017. Over the same period, L.A. County, which has about 20 percent more people, averaged 310 child deaths (reported through its hotline) – 180 percent more than New York City. So does it follow that L.A.’s approach that removes more children really makes them safer?

More importantly, neither jurisdiction has seen more than a minor fluctuation in the tiny percentage of child homicides associated with families previously known to the system. This despite countless federal and local child welfare policy and leadership changes in the five years from 2012 to 2016, the most recent data publicly available for both jurisdictions.

Back to David Kelly’s speech – the one that Schaefer Riley so fundamentally misrepresented. He was talking about expanding legal services to parents involved in child welfare proceedings – something that New York City probably does better than anywhere else. That New York parents are more regularly afforded due process rights is something a conservative with more libertarian instincts should be able to appreciate, and Schaefer Riley seems to endorse with her concern over net-widening at the end of her column.

Unfortunately, Schaefer Riley totally sidestepped the substance of Kelly’s speech in her zeal to argue that the child welfare system should be more aggressive in its response to suspected child maltreatment.

Child welfare is a field of wild complexities and contradictory data. Even the best thinkers with the best information struggle to make proclamations that work in the real world. This doesn’t mean we should not try to chart a different course for the system. And I applaud Schaefer Riley for trying. But we will never make progress if we have to recast the truth to get there.

I have asked City Journal to post a correction.


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Daniel Heimpel
About Daniel Heimpel 180 Articles
Daniel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.