Our Child Protection System is Doing Everything but Protecting Children

Photo by US Department of Education | CC BY 2.0

by Khalid Mohieldin

At nearly every single level of operation, child welfare programs suffer from the same racist and anti-poor prejudices that have long plagued the nation’s broader criminal legal system. Child welfare agencies in the United States, in the name of child protection, have dismantled countless Black and Brown families, fed into the toxic stereotype of Black maternal unfitness, and trapped families into poverty, all while substituting perceived abuse of children with state-sponsored trauma. A recent report by the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLSP) underscores all of this, as it examines a disturbing history of irresponsible and inappropriate family separation by Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services (CPS) system. The report alleges that many Pennsylvanian parents have been unfairly placed on the state’s child abuse registry, leading to worse health and economic consequences for these parents and their children. As we’ve seen in similar carceral institutions, CPS criminalizes Black and Brown parents for being poor, rather than providing families with the necessary social services to ensure child well-being. It’s a system that demands drastic reform, especially for a city uniquely accustomed to the horrors of child abuse.

Child Welfare as an Expansion of the Carceral State

By its own design, Pennsylvania’s CPS has created few safeguards against the potential discrimination of parents and families.

We can look to training for Pennsylvania social workers as a prime example; for one University of Pittsburgh online course for mandated reporters of child abuse, “all you need [to report abuse] is reasonable cause to suspect. Information to support your concern may include the circumstances, your observations, your familiarity with the people and the situation, and your feelings and beliefs.” Essentially, a gut reaction. While a couple of slides later the training concedes that implicit biases should be recognized by the reporter, the course makes it very clear that any hesitancy to report should be ignored for the sake of the child. In a short post-lesson quiz, the training states that “if unsure whether abuse is occurring, the first thing you should do is report the suspicion immediately to [the state’s CPS reporting line].” 

It’s easy to sympathize with the under-resourced Pennsylvania case workers responsible for these potentially at-risk children. After all, the biggest fear in child welfare is the idea of under-reporting or under-recognizing abuse. However, research suggests that both in and outside of Pennsylvania, social workers report neglect and abuse for Black and Brown families at significantly higher rates, leading to the traumatic and often unnecessary separation of these families. One 2014 study found that nationally, 4.9% of white children will experience foster care placement before their eighteenth birthday, compared to 15.4% of Native American children and 11% of Black children. Elsewhere, a 2002 study of toddlers hospitalized in Philadelphia for bone fractures found that children of color were more likely to be reported as victims of abuse than white children. In 2017, 34.9% of children in the Pennsylvania foster care system were Black, despite the fact that Black children represented only 13.8% of Pennsylvania youth in the most recent 2010 census.

Such troubling racial discrepancies in the removal of children is at least partially attributable to the blurred legal language embedded into the child welfare system. As University of Pennsylvania Law professor Dorothy Roberts notes, “vague definitions of neglect, unbridled discretion, and lack of training form a dangerous combination in the hands of caseworkers charged with deciding the fate of families.” Take, for instance, Pennsylvania’s own reformed definitions of child abuse and neglect. Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law includes “failure to provide adequate medical care” under its definition of child abuse. Common examples of this include missed doctor’s appointments and difficulty in caring for children with complex medical needs. However, more often than not, these are consequences of poverty, not negligent parenting. Such was the case for CLSP client Kristina, whose medically fragile son missed a series of doctor’s appointments because his mother struggled with housing instability. Kristina was placed on the child abuse registry for perceived neglect, even though her son remained healthy and content in her care. It took years for her to finally get off of it, and at the cost of lost jobs, income, and time with her son.

Kristina is one of hundreds of thousands of American parents whose economic insecurity effectively became an invitation for predatory surveillance by child welfare programs. Since its inception, CPS has stood at the forefront of the campaign to criminalize poverty, a campaign that has had incredibly agonizing impacts on the children it’s supposed to protect. A growing volume of literature suggests that even the short-term separation of families has devastating consequences on children’s educational, physical, and mental health outcomes. In general, children placed into the foster care system are at much higher risk of PTSD, depression, alcohol/drug dependence, eating disorders, self harm/suicidal intention, and educational detachment

Implications for Parents

Separation of families through CPS also significantly decreases the well-being of parents. Beyond just the psychological effects of being separated from one’s child, placement on the child abuse registry has pronounced economic repercussions for families. The original CLSP report notes that in 2014, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed 23 bills that made hundreds of amendments to the Child Protective Services Law. Among them was an expansion of the criteria for child abuse clearance, which broadened the group required to gain child abuse clearances to include anyone expected to have “routine interaction with children, whether or not they have any direct control of or care for those children.” 

These expanded background checks have had particularly damaging consequences for low-income workers and workers of color, as these individuals are more likely to occupy fields directly related to childcare (e.g. nurses, teachers, home health aides, etc.). Nationwide, approximately one in seven childcare workers (14.7%) live in families with income below the federal poverty line. Additionally, a large share of these workers are women of color; in Pennsylvania, women make up about 37.3% of employees in the education and health services sector, and 29.2% are Black. In 2015, women of color represented 48% of the direct care workforce nationwide. While the industry is rife with low pay and worker exploitation, healthcare and education are burgeoning industries that are projected to have high growth rates in the near future, both in spite of and partially because of the ongoing pandemic. In Pennsylvania, healthcare is the state’s largest industry, and thus provides an avenue for many low-income individuals to find stable employment. Unfortunately, the state’s continued assault on these low-income communities via the child abuse registry is further eliminating the future economic advancement of these groups. 

Additionally, the rationale for these new legislative changes lacks practicality; the report notes that there is little evidence that suggests that those accused of minor child abuse or neglect pose risks in their place of employment. As such, the employment barricade that the abuse registry presents does little to prevent abuse, and instead only entraps individuals in the violent cycle of poverty.

A Way Forward

The CLSP makes a number of policy suggestions to reform Pennsylvania’s current child welfare system. The organization argues that the state legislature should amend current CPS law to require a hearing and exhaustion of appeals before an individual can be placed on the child abuse registry. Under this amendment, a special judge would oversee hearings, and financially indigent individuals would be appointed a public defender, much like the standard court hearings protected under the sixth amendment. Additionally, the report calls for a number of structural reforms to the registry. The report emphasizes the need for a tiered registry that recognizes the distinctions between neglect and abuse, as well as among the severity of the acts committed. Such reforms would reflect the degrees of criminal and civil law that are commonplace in our nation’s legal system. The paper also advocates for greater flexibility in the clearance process, meaning that individuals placed on the registry should be afforded meaningful, restorative, and less restrictive avenues to be removed from the list. Furthermore, the CLSP calls for the limited use of the registry as an employment screening tool. Finally, the group denotes the need for increased racial bias training and research for Pennsylvania social workers.

These are admirable attempts at reform, though it may be argued that these reforms are simply attempts at integrating the child welfare system into the already employed criminal legal system that regularly fails Black and Brown Americans. Advocates have increasingly called for the abolition of the foster care system entirely, replacing it with more expansive social safety net programs and informal kinship networks, a wider availability of affordable housing, and integrity for parental rights. 

Child welfare remains one of the most pressing and difficult policy issues that presents no easy answers. However, we cannot continue to hide behind the guise of child protection when our government is actively contributing to the violent and racist separation of families.


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