Criticizing Trump child welfare positions, AEI author believes maltreatment is on the rise
The conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI) published a set of recommended “lessons learned” about child welfare practice during coronavirus, while taking issue with several child welfare positions the Trump administration had during the pandemic.
The list includes sticking to permanency timelines, moving non-child protection services into the purview of other systems, and permanently embedding more virtual options into the system.
“Maltreatment incidence is likely on the rise, given the combination of social isolation, increased economic precarity, and heightened caregiving burden for children who would typically be in school or day care,” the report began, drawing a clear disagreement with Trump officials who last week said they had seen no evidence of a surge in abuse and neglect. “Yet, fewer such incidents are referred to state child welfare systems, and core [child welfare services] activities are delayed, canceled, or moved to a virtual format in some areas.”
The number of identified victims of maltreatment reached a recorded low in 2019, according to data released by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) last week. In discussing that report with the Associated Press, Trump child welfare officials said they had not seen any indication that maltreatment was on the rise amidst the pandemic.
“We can’t just assume because parents have to spend 24/7 with their kids, that there’s going to be more abuse,” Lynn Johnson, Trump’s head of ACF told AP reporter David Crary.
The AEI report said that while “the true rate of child maltreatment during this time is unknown, surges in interrelated social ails lend credibility to the hypothesis that maltreatment has risen too.” It cites increased 911 calls for domestic violence, an uptick in the use of opioids and methamphetamine, and the stress of unemployment as factors.
“It’s very challenging to ascertain the true incidence of maltreatment at any point in time,” said the author of the report Sarah Font, a professor at Penn State University, in an email to The Imprint. “However, I think that it would be very surprising to see maltreatment rates remain stable in times of increased economic insecurity and social isolation – both of which would imply higher risk based on pre-pandemic studies of risk factors for maltreatment.”
Among the recommendations put forth by AEI:
Surveillance: The report argues that the absence of teachers and school officials from kids’ lives left a hole in the maltreatment reporting system. It recommends two controversial ideas for increasing eyes on children: tying public benefits to home visits, and triggering automatic reports on newborns whose mothers had already seen a child removed from their care.
Workforce: In future emergencies and in the current one, child welfare workers should be designated essential workers and in-person investigations of maltreatment should be mandatory, even in a pandemic circumstance.
Virtual presence: Remote participation in child welfare proceedings by biological parents, children and other stakeholders should be made a normal option going forward. The report defends the limitations many systems have put on in-person family visitation during the pandemic, but says going forward, increased virtual visiting should be built in to bolster in-person time during reunification efforts.
Terminations of parental rights: The report argues that the timelines to permanency enshrined in the Adoption and Safe Families Act – which say states should move to terminate the rights of parents if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months – should continue “without delay” during the pandemic.
This is another clear disagreement with federal officials during the Trump administration, who stressed that the constraints on reunification services and courts should not be held against parents.
“Too often we ask children to adapt, rather than putting the onus on those responsible for children (including the child welfare system) to adapt,” Font said. “The ASFA timelines have such broad exceptions – including when agencies fail to make reasonable efforts – that it’s not clear additional flexibility on timing is truly needed.”
Recruitment and Retention: Some states or private agencies saw a surge in interest for fostering, while others struggled to keep the homes they had, the report notes. It recommends that the federal government do more to gather consistent information about and encourage innovation in foster parent recruitment.
Increased Social and Economic Supports: The report argues, with little direct tie to the pandemic, that the child welfare system “routinely fails to adequately investigate maltreatment or protect children from harm” but is asked to take on services outside this scope including housing and income supports for families. It again criticizes the Trump administration here for its executive order calling for greater partnership between child welfare and community-based organizations, and for its Thriving Families initiative, aimed at testing out ways to rethink systems around the idea of family well-being.
University of Houston Professor Alan Dettlaff, one of the leaders of the upEND campaign pushing to abolish the child welfare system as presently constituted, said he agreed with the recommendation to isolate child protective services and move services meant to support families out of that realm.
“Increasing social and economic supports by community-based agencies is indeed a necessary step toward alleviating the harm to families caused by child welfare systems,” he said, in an email to The Imprint.
But the rest of the report’s recommendations, he said, “would result in increased surveillance of families, increased unnecessary family separations, and increased termination of parental rights due to punitive timelines that prioritize adoption over family reunification.”
“No one favors unnecessary removals,” Font said, when asked to respond. “Unnecessary for whom? There is no doubt that a lot more could be done on primary prevention … but the small proportion of referred children who are removed (and the high rate of re-maltreatment among those who aren’t) does not, to me, imply over-zealous decisions to remove kids.”
The report, “What Lessons Can the Child Welfare System Take from the COVID-19 Pandemic?” was co-signed by a group of researchers and policy analysts that includes Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet, University of North Carolina professor and Children’s Data Network Co-Director Emily Putnam-Hornstein, and University of Pennsylvania child welfare fellow Cassie Statuto Bevan.