Parents at Rise have long documented how the family policing system affects Black and brown people living in low-income areas of NYC. In July, a team of researchers from Duke University and Rutgers University published the study, “Contact with Child Protective Services is pervasive but unequally distributed by race and ethnicity in large US counties.” As its title suggests, the paper finds that the system impacts the lives of far too many Black and brown families.
Dr. Frank Edwards, an assistant professor at Rutgers University’s School of Criminal Justice who studies race and state violence, policing and family separation, was part of the team that worked on this study. Here, he discusses their findings in NYC and nationally, mandated reporting, investigations and why he is an abolitionist.
By Keyna Franklin, Assistant Editor, and Sara Werner, Contributor
Q. Please tell us about your study on contact with child protective services (CPS) by race and ethnicity in large U.S. counties. What did you find?
A. I worked on this study with Chris Wildeman and Kieran Healey at Duke and Sara Wakefield, who is also at Rutgers. We wanted to get a sense of how common CPS contact was for different groups of kids across large cities in the U.S. National numbers show that investigations are incredibly common for Black children in particular. We wanted to explore how those experiences differ for kids across the country.
We found that contact with the child welfare system is a “normal” part of life for kids and families of color, especially Black children. In a lot of cities, over half of Black kids can expect an investigation before they turn 18. We also found that foster care is incredibly common in many places, and termination of parental rights (TPR) is pretty common in some places.
Q. What was your approach to the research? Where and when is the data from?
A. This study uses data from the federal government (AFCARS and NCANDS) from 2014 through 2018 to estimate lifetime risk. The method we used allowed us to ask, “If risk levels stayed exactly as they were in this five-year period, how likely would it be that kids in a particular group would experience a specific event before their 18th birthday?” Using this method, we can track how likely an event is to occur over time.
Q. What do the findings tell us about the surveillance and separation of Black and brown families?
A. They tell us that contact with and separation by the child welfare system is incredibly common for Black, brown and Native families—more common than people who don’t know the system would appreciate, and perhaps more common than even some people who do know the system might expect. Those impacted by the system may not be too surprised to know that, in some communities, about half of kids get investigated.
Most people who design child welfare policy would not want to see numbers this high and don’t think that child-abuse and neglect rates are as high as these numbers suggest. It’s a call to action to address family crises without involving CPS.
Q. What is the data on involvement with NYC’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) for Black and Latinx children in NYC—and what does it mean?
A. We show that child welfare system-involvement is incredibly common. Of all kids in NYC, 33% get investigated, 15% get a substantiated case [meaning the system claims to have found some believable evidence of abuse or neglect] and about 3% go into foster care before their 18th birthday.
We show that 44% of Black kids in NYC get investigated, 23% get a substantiated case and about 6% go into foster care before their 18th birthday. More than one in 20 Black children go into foster care, and close to half experience an investigation. That’s an incredibly high and concerning rate.
We see that 43% of Latinx children in New York can expect an investigation before their 18th birthday, and about 20% can expect a substantiation. A much smaller number of Latinx and white children go into foster care compared to Black children—2% of Latinx and white children in NYC go into foster care by age 18.
White children in NYC have a 19% investigation rate before age 18. Black and Latinx children in NYC have more than double that investigation risk. White kids have a 7% substantiated case rate—also way lower than for Latinx and Black children.
Numbers for foster care in NYC are lower than the national average, which I would want to investigate further by looking at ACS data. The national average for Black children entering foster care is about 12%. While the NYC rate is lower, investigation rates are very high. We’re seeing different ways systems work. Some investigate frequently; some make removals more frequently when they investigate. This data gives us a way to zoom in on where inequalities for children of color are emerging in the system.
We didn’t do a deep dive to explain the numbers, but the history of structural racism and bias in ACS in NYC is well documented. High rates of investigations are one example of the kinds of things we see across the board in terms of punishment, poverty and structural violence against communities of color.
Q. People unfamiliar with the system might think, “There was just an investigation. Nothing happened. The family is still together.” At Rise, we talk about the fact that an investigation itself does harm. What do you think about this?
A. Parents’ work to talk about investigations and how invasive they can be has been powerful and illuminating for folks who haven’t been affected by the system. Even if the likelihood of removal is low, you know there is a chance you could lose your kids in the process. That’s horrifying and something that no parent or caretaker ever wants to go through.
Kelley Fong’s research with moms shows that seeking out services like supportive housing becomes much more dangerous when you’re worried about potentially losing your kids. Parents in crisis may choose not to try to get the resources they need because they’re worried about a CPS investigation.
Our society’s knee-jerk, default reaction is to involve CPS whenever something’s wrong in a family rather than offering resources or support. People may think an investigation is not a big deal—but the evidence is clear: that’s just not true. It’s a really traumatic experience for kids and parents.
Q. What did you find about investigations on a national scale?
A. The national investigation rate for Black children is over 40%. If we zoom in on certain communities, which I can’t do in my data, that number is going to be 60 or 70%.
That is also true for specific populations in certain states. About 70% of American Indian and Alaska Native children in Alaska get investigated. In Minnesota, about two-thirds of Native kids get investigated.
Q. What is the role of mandated reporting in causing families to become entangled in the system?
A. Mandated reporting is a massive issue. About half of all reports are made by doctors, teachers and cops. If you try to access services or have a child in school, mandated reporters are everywhere.
Mandated reporters are told they have to make reports and—though I don’t want to defend the decision to report—what are they going to do if they see that a kid needs something or a family is having problems? There are not a lot of places they can turn because we don’t have enough services and resources available.
We’ve also heard of schools using CPS to enforce virtual class attendance. We can talk about whether the child welfare system is appropriate at all, but certainly it shouldn’t be used for truancy, much less for absence from a Zoom classroom—that’s not abuse or neglect.
My colleagues and I are now looking across the states at how often infants are reported to CPS by medical professionals for substance exposure—and it’s really, really common. Infants are more likely than any other age group to be investigated, and doctors make a huge chunk of those reports.
Q. Do you think the family policing, or child welfare, system should be abolished?
A. I do. I worked in the system in Texas—kids were bouncing all over the place and had so much instability in their placements. I worked with kids who were aging out and saw how long they’d been in the system—many of them for 15 years or more. Then, when they turn 18, there’s nothing for them.
The child welfare system reflects how the U.S. treats poor people across the board. We blame individual people for problems our society creates. We treat widespread child poverty as if it’s a problem with parents rather than a problem with our social safety net, economy, housing and other factors that lead to families being in poverty and crisis.
In a lot of places, 60% of child welfare cases are for alleged neglect. Sometimes those allegations can be really serious, but most of the time they’re related to poverty— inadequate supervision because there’s no childcare available; or inadequate housing because of how expensive it is and how difficult it is to find somewhere to live.
The history of separation of Black and Native families is another reason to abolish the system. Taking children from American Indian and Alaska Native families was a genocidal act to try to destroy tribal nations. The history of the separation of Black families is a direct legacy of slavery.
We have to be honest about who we are as a country, where policies came from and whether this is who we want to be. We know there are other, better ways to address family crises and child abuse and to work with families than what we do now. I’m firmly an abolitionist, both in terms of what I think is morally right and as a social scientist. The evidence is clear that there are ways we could do less harm and more good, probably for less money.
Q. What does research show could be more effective?
A. We can invest in programs like home visiting for new parents, where a nurse who knows what new parents go through and how to access services coaches parents during the incredibly stressful period of pregnancy through birth. The visiting nurse can be a resource rather than a hawk looking for problems. The evidence is strong that that helps a lot.
The evidence on cash transfers is also clear. Wisconsin had a policy that, when a child was taken into care, the state would seize any TANF cash support the parents were receiving and use it to pay for foster care. The state ran an experiment where it passed those TANF dollars back to moms while they were working toward reunification with their child. Reunification rates went way up because, in so many cases, money is the underlying problem.
We spend about as much money on foster care annually as we spend on TANF. An average foster placement pays about $80 a night in federal Title IV-E money to a foster parent or group home. It can be more based on assessments of children’s needs. What would happen if we gave $80 a night—$2,400 a month—to parents who were being exposed to the system? That would have a transformative effect on family stability.
Q. Did the pandemic affect rates of investigations, foster system-involvement and termination of parental rights (TPR)?
A. It almost certainly did. There are a lot of questions about the pandemic’s impact, but we have to wait a year or two for the data to answer them.
We know reports went way down, and if reports are down, placements go down. During the pandemic, there was a lot of moral panic—people were saying, ‘There are no reports, so there must be undiscovered child abuse and neglect.’ My understanding is that, despite a decrease in reporting, we didn’t see big spikes in hospital admissions for childhood injuries or other signs of physical abuse.
I’m also interested in the impact of the enhanced Child Tax Credit. It has reduced the child poverty rate dramatically already—and more could be done. We’ll want to explore whether we see lower levels of neglect reporting when substantial checks are hitting parents’ bank accounts.
Q. Parents are sometimes given the choice to “voluntarily” surrender their rights and have a chance to visit their child or get TPR and possibly not see their child again until they turn 18. Was this dynamic considered in your study?
A. No, it wasn’t—and I appreciate you raising it. That gets hidden in the data. That’s effectively the same as a prosecutor offering a plea to someone in criminal court, saying, “We can go to trial and I can throw the book at you or you can accept three years’ prison now.” It’s coercion. You’re threatening a really serious consequence to get cooperation on something the agency wants.
When TPR or foster care numbers in some places look low, I think a lot of times we have what you’re describing: agencies using coercive strategies, threatening serious action if parents don’t cooperate by making “voluntary” agreements for a placement or TPR. When I talk to folks who have been involved in the system, I often hear these kinds of things. That’s really troubling and something I’m concerned about, and it’s not something we can see in the data.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
A. I would love to send my appreciation to parents at Rise and to parents who have been organizing around these issues for a long time. It’s absolutely critical to move policy forward. I think about the role of Native mothers in pushing for the Indian Child Welfare Act legislation in the 1970s. I certainly don’t think the conversations we’re having about abolition or serious changes in the child welfare system would be happening without the organizing of system-involved folks and parents.
>> See the related NCCPR blog post, “Pervasive,” “ubiquitous,” “extremely high”: New data reveal the extent of the invasion of Black homes by family policing agencies.