We’ve all heard the refrain that it takes a village to raise a child. But what if your village is out to get you? Since March, the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) has been encouraging the public (through a veritable media blitz) to call in and report anything that could be child abuse. The agency posits that, without the surveillance of teachers, there are fewer reports and fewer reports mean that there are fewer eyes on children, which means that there is a pandemic of abuse.
This is a false hysteria that many news outlets have picked up on, capitalizing on all of the accompanying hand-wringing. “Think about all the children that are stuck inside and getting abused by their parents,” the headlines scream.
Sociologists have been lamenting the decline of the American community for more than two decades for good reason. Life is, simply, easier when we are working together and forming group alliances because it makes for safe and more productive neighborhoods. In his 1995 article “Bowling Alone,” sociologist Robert Putnam refers to social capital – “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” – that operate as the glue for community structure. In the article, and his subsequent book, Putnam demonstrates that the loss of social capital through the slow decline in membership in civic engagement groups such as parent teacher associations , Boy Scouts and even bowling leagues, has contributed to a historic period of political disengagement and community decline.
The exception to this decline lies in the resilience that can be found in Black, brown and Indigenous communities. For example, the “Hispanic paradox” is well-documented: despite levels of poverty and discrimination similar to other American minority groups, Hispanic Americans live significantly longer lives, appear to have lower suicide rates than white Americans, and are less likely to die from drug overdoses. Many sociologists attribute this resilience to greater social capital in Latinx communities – strong bonds of family, home region or church. In other words, a greater reliance on each other for support.
It is this community bond that is placed directly at risk when the Colorado Department of Human Services asks “if not you, then who?” in repeated requests for the public to call the child abuse and neglect hotline.
Yet, now, we find ourselves in this moment where there is a groundswell of calls for racial justice and equity in all that we do – not just in the formal policing system but in how we police Black and minority families. As the scholar Dorothy Roberts has so directly stated, “[r]egulating and destroying Black, brown and Indigenous families in the name of child protection has been essential to the ‘ongoing white supremacist nation building project’ as much as prisons and police.”
The Department of Human Services’ campaign heightens this problem because it calls for an increase in surveillance of the Black, brown and Indigenous families that it purports to help. And that too, based on faulty logic and an inadequate understanding of how the system operates on the ground. According to CDHS data, pre-pandemic, 68% of all call-in reports were screened out by the agency as unworthy of an investigation. In the months since, this percentage has held steady even with the drop in call volume. In other words, both pre-pandemic and post-pandemic, only about one-third of all calls are screened in for an investigation.
Asking neighbors and friends to spy on their communities and report back to a big brother agency is not the cure-all to the problem of child abuse that CDHS seems to think that it is. Not only will CDHS waste more resources to screen out the call, which has a high probability of happening, but that neighbor has now undermined their relationship with a family they were probably just trying to help.
A recent Harvard study concluded that the inconsistency with which statutory reporting requirements are applied by mandatory reporters creates an ambiguity that breeds distrust of the child welfare system – especially in Black and brown communities. So if there is murkiness among professionals required to report their concerns, asking regular civilians to make credible assessments of complex family dynamics and then call an authority figure to report what they see is not only seeding this distrust, but fraying the ropes that hold communities together. Still worse is repeatedly asking civilians to take on this task in the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis that is specifically affecting the communities being policed.
CDHS is spending precious resources on this campaign. Spreading this kind of misinformation is more likely damaging the social capital that forms the crux of the support for immigrant and minority families in this crisis than helping them. The agency should perhaps spend that ad money re-investing in the communities that it seeks to divide, one call at a time.