A sprawling report released today by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union describes civil rights issues within the child welfare system as a “national family separation crisis” that needs “immediate attention and action.”
The analysis of federal and state data and dozens of interviews with parents draw attention to the harms of child welfare investigations and the disproportionate involvement of Black and Indigenous families in foster care systems across the country. These “system interventions,” the report reads, “too often unnecessarily disrupt family integrity and cause harm to the very children they aim to protect.”
In one of many anecdotes, a California mother told Human Rights Watch researchers that Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services social workers removed her 4-year-old daughter during an investigation of a domestic violence incident. The government workers charged the mom with failing to protect her child by allowing her to witness a verbal argument. A father the study refers to reported that he reached out to New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services to get mental health support for his daughter — only for her to be removed from his care and placed into foster care.
Authored by Hina Naveed, Aryeh Neier fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, the report entitled “‘If I Wasn’t Poor, I Wouldn’t Be Unfit’: The Family Separation Crisis in the US Child Welfare System” concludes there are too many children removed from home, parents under investigation who lack due process rights and Black and Indigenous families who bear an unfair burden of the system’s harmful practices.
In interviews with parents, lawyers, advocates and government workers, the report stated that too often, child welfare agencies use circumstances of poverty, such as housing instability and inadequate resources, as evidence of parental unfitness. The court proceedings that result can culminate in lasting impacts, like the termination of parental rights. Further, the authors conclude, parental substance use is too often used as a reason for removal, without clear evidence of a safety risk to the child.
“System interventions also fail to adequately address the needs of the family, and in some cases exacerbate the problems that they intend to remedy,” the report reads.
While the report is national in scope, the analysis highlights four states — California, New York, Oklahoma and West Virginia — chosen for the high number of system-impacted families and a strong record of racial and socioeconomic disparities.
The report from the two human rights watchdogs lands as the nation’s child welfare systems — a long overlooked sector of American society by the mainstream — have been under unprecedented scrutiny by federal and international human rights groups. One example arrived this summer, when the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination questioned federal child welfare officials about the over-representation of Black and Indigenous families in the country’s foster care system at the Palace of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
On Aug. 30, the panel asked the Biden administration to “take all appropriate measures to eliminate racial discrimination in the child welfare system, including by amending or repealing laws, policies and practices that have a disparate impact on families of racial and ethnic minorities.”
And on Friday, the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will begin hearings to investigate potential civil and constitutional rights violations for Black families involved in New York City’s child welfare system. After taking testimony from lawyers, advocates and agency officials, the group will release a final report next year.
The report — which relied on federal and state data — notes wide variation in how states respond to child maltreatment as well as various outcomes, such as the termination of parental rights and mandated reporting requirements. Nationally, 7% of all reports of child abuse and neglect allegations were anonymous. But in Mississippi and New Mexico, for example, anonymous reports made up more than 30% of hotline calls. Law enforcement referrals for child abuse and neglect comprised 48% of referrals in South Dakota, but less than 10% in four other states.
Due to a lack of standard definitions of abuse and neglect nationwide, the threshold for a child welfare investigation in one state may not be pursued in another, the report stated. In New York, neglect factored into roughly 96% of all cases of children with substantiated maltreatment reports. Conversely, in West Virginia, neglect figured in only about 40% of all cases where maltreatment was confirmed.
The termination of parental rights is another area where states show significant variation. For every 10,000 children in West Virginia, about 44 had parents whose parental custody would be severed by the government. In New York, by contrast, only three per 10,000 children were permanently removed from their parent’s care.
The report documented widespread racial disparities for Black and Indigenous families throughout the child welfare system. For example, Black children are subject to investigations at nearly twice the rate of white children and are also more likely to be separated from their parents than children of other racial or ethnic groups. Black and Indigenous children are also more likely to remain in foster care for longer periods of time, and have their parents’ custodial rights permanently severed, than their white peers.
Contrary to other groups, Black families, regardless of income level, are more likely to be surveilled, according to an analysis of more than 800 counties in the report.
“This really supports what Black families for a very long time have been shouting from the rooftops,” Naveed said in an interview with The Imprint. “They are experiencing more surveillance, they are subject to more intrusive investigations, [and] that it doesn’t matter whether they have resources or whether there is a safety issue or not.”
The report concludes with a series of recommendations for federal and state legislators, county child welfare agencies and judges. It calls for replacing anonymous reporting with secure confidential reporting, reducing the scope of some child welfare interventions, providing parents more support and time to complete service plans and increasing due process protections for parents.
Human Rights Watch and the ACLU also called on the United Nations and the Organization of American States to improve greater oversight of the American child welfare system and to establish an independent monitoring mechanism to report on human rights violations.
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