Noah Cuatro died of suffocation in July 2019 at his home in Palmdale, California, just before his fifth birthday, his body riddled with broken bones. As a recent joint investigation by the Los Angeles Times and the University of California, Berkeley, shows, Noah could have been saved.
From the time he was put into foster care briefly as a newborn because his mother had fractured the skull of his sister to the accounts from extended family members of abuse, from a doctor’s report that he weighed only 17 pounds at the age of 2, with muscles so weak he could not walk, to the bruises on his neck and arm that a caseworker found on an unannounced visit, there were many opportunities to rescue Noah from his abusive parents. But his social worker was accused of racial bias in the case by her co-workers — she is black and the Cuatros are Hispanic, but no evidence of prejudice was cited — so a court order that she had finally obtained to remove Noah was ignored.
As the investigation concluded, the decisions leading to Noah’s death “raise questions about a signature policy implemented by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.” This policy was part of a “national movement” in child welfare, “calling for a less adversarial approach to parents, respect for diversity, and a shift in focus away from the family’s weaknesses and toward its strengths.”
Like so many decisions in child welfare, the question of how to handle Noah’s case ultimately revolved around adult sensibilities, not child safety. This “national movement” places children in harm’s way by keeping them with their parents or other blood relatives at all costs. It is not that parents who have harmed their children can never change, but the pendulum has swung too far. Children in danger are treated instrumentally to promote the rehabilitation of their parents, the welfare of their communities, and the social justice of their race — all with the inevitable result that their most precious developmental years are lost in bureaucratic and judicial red tape.
These are the same policies adopted in New York City that have led to a number of recent fatalities, including the murder of 1-year-old Legacy Beauford allegedly at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend, a violent felon who had previously come to the attention of authorities. This is also the case in the death of 4-year-old Jaycee Eubanks, who was allegedly beaten to death by his stepfather after being reported by his day care to authorities for severe bruising. And it's also the case in the death of 7-year-old Julissia Batties, whose abuse by her stepbrother was reported multiple times to both the Administration for Children’s Services and the police before he allegedly killed her.
We don’t encourage battered women to “reunify” quickly with their partners, but that’s exactly what we do to children. And reunification isn’t simply the policy for families in which there has been a trivial supervision question. No, states even have policies for reunifying children with their sexual abusers. We are having a national reckoning about how to protect children from abusers in their churches, Boy Scout troops, and gymnastics teams, but when it comes to abuse by their family members, we are all too eager to sweep matters under the rug.
Family preservation and reunification are promoted as policies that will respect diversity and help to end racial disparities in child welfare. Advocates point out that black children are overrepresented in all parts of the child welfare system, but they never mention other disparities, such as the fact that black children are three times as likely to die from maltreatment as white children. Fixing disparities for these activists is not about meeting the needs of children who are at risk. It is a response to demands for social justice by and for adults.
Fatalities such as these mentioned make headlines. Yet behind the 1,800 or so child deaths by maltreatment every year nationwide, there are 800,000 substantiated allegations of abuse and neglect. And we are failing many of the children involved by pretending they are safer at home.
Even worse, activists are demanding the elimination of foster care and mandated reporting of maltreatment by teachers and doctors. They are demanding a decrease in police involvement in responding to and investigating domestic violence because it leads to more reporting of maltreatment. Activists argue that all these protective policies could be replaced with preventive ones, such as more food stamps and housing vouchers. But the problems driving child maltreatment are much less about material need than they are about substance abuse and mental illness. The adults running these child welfare systems prefer to blame poverty and racism than acknowledge that a small minority of parents in this country are unwilling or unable to care for their children.
Some states and localities have touted their dramatic reduction in foster care roles in recent years, claiming this drop shows that they are working in a less “adversarial way” with parents. But the methods used to arrive at such reduced numbers make it hard to see the effects of these policy changes. In New Orleans, for instance, a judge has all but stopped approving children to be placed in foster care because she determined there were too many black children coming into care. A study of the results of this policy was done by Casey Family Programs, a private nonprofit organization in Seattle that will not release the study to the public. Reducing the number of children in care and making racial disparities disappear make adults feel better but say nothing about whether vulnerable children are safer.
The same is true for efforts to limit the number of children in group homes. In 2018, Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act to shift money away from congregate care into programs to “strengthen families.” But beds in facilities for children with severe mental and behavioral challenges are disappearing. The result is that we place children with dozens of different relatives and foster families, each one less equipped to deal with these challenges than the one before. When we run out of options, we let children sleep in offices, as hundreds have done in Texas this year. Adults can say they tried to put children in family settings, but how are the children better off?
It is time for child welfare agencies and family courts to return to their core mission of protecting children. Noah, Legacy, Jaycee, and Julissia deserve nothing less.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.
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Original Author: Naomi Schaefer Riley
Original Location: Activists against child welfare