It is easy to look back and see the damage caused by racist assumptions memorialized in black and white. Media coverage is not benign; it has consequences in policy decisions that affect the lives of real people. The past is rife with examples of poor communities of color bearing the brunt when the press reports assumptions instead of facts—the war on drugs, the myth of crack babies, condemning government officials for their failure to protect children.
When there is widespread coverage of racist perceptions, the direct policy response has always been policing Black communities in any way available. With this robust history of reporting misinformation and correcting the record later, it should be no surprise that the media has jumped at a chance to perpetuate yet another stereotype. In this moment, when we are seeing a drastic reduction of calls to the state central registry reporting child maltreatment, the public is being inundated with articles warning of a child abuse epidemic. There is an assumption in our culture that underlies all of this coverage—that without constant surveillance, Black parents are a danger to their own children.
These articles are not based on facts. Instead, the press is misleading the public by editorializing what a drop in reports of child abuse and neglect really means without any evidence to support its claim. Calls to the state central registry are down in 2020, but ACS does continue to remove children. Even when parent-child visitation will be infinitely more difficult, if not impossible during the pandemic, child protective services, ACS in New York City, continues to separate children from their parents with no plan for reunification. In the world of COVID-19, the usual suspects continue reporting suspicions based on poverty and racism. Schools continue calling ACS, and even NYPD, to go check on Black and Brown children. City shelter staff continues to report the most minute suspicions. Because one thing this country always prioritizes is policing and surveilling Black and Brown people.
We are hearing the entire world shout in a unified voice that Black lives matter. A movement centuries in the making is finally being heard and amplified. But police are not the only terrorizing presence in Black communities. ACS is another occupying force. In New York City, ACS works with the NYPD to gain entry to homes. ACS is trained using mock apartments and mock courtrooms, in a fashion that’s been compared to the NYPD’s “fun house.” ACS and NYPD collaborate to interrogate and examine children at the Child Advocacy Center—a precinct dressed up as a hospital. ACS has the power to search homes without a warrant, has no obligation to advise parents of their rights, relies on false reporting to get their foot in the door, all without parents having any access to an attorney until the case is filed in court. To Black families, ACS looks no different than NYPD. Despite the insidious overlap between these systems, child welfare is often left out of conversations about Black liberation. Black families have been trapped in the child welfare system for generations. And yet, as movements about mass incarceration and policing have been building, their link to the foster system’s destruction of families is often forgotten. The sensationalist journalism warning of a spike in child abuse because children are trapped in their own homes only ensures that all of these movements will forever be stymied by racist assumptions.
Nationwide, child protective services agencies act as the police for families. Understanding that Black Lives Matter and that the taking of Black lives by police needs to stop, efforts toward decarceration and ending police violence should include stopping the destruction of Black families. Just as society’s trust in the police has been tragically misplaced, so has the use of foster care as a means of protecting children. This country is saying loud and clear, we do not need police to keep our communities safe. Neither do we need ACS, because surveilling Black families and removing Black children does not keep families safe.
The media continues to speculate that even though reports are down, child abuse must be up based on the misguided notion that children are only safe if mandated reporters continue to report suspicions. However, in nearly two-thirds of investigations, ACS does not find any credible evidence to support the allegations. The conclusion that fewer reported cases means child abuse is increasing has no data to support it and is instead a conclusion based on the racist assumption that Black parents are unfit to raise their children. Why not see the reality right in front of us: that perhaps the decrease in reports is because the rate at which families have been accused of child maltreatment in the past has been frivolous, unnecessary, and toxic to Black and Brown communities. Our notion of safety should not be government surveillance and intervention.
Imagine if ACS’s $2.7 billion budget were invested in communities. New York City’s families could help themselves. New York City communities could support each other. And the solution, when communities are helping their members, would never be separating or surveilling families.
Joyce McMillan is a fellow at the New School. She became an activist for child welfare reform after she was investigated for child neglect. Jessica Prince is an attorney and policy counsel to the Family Defense Practice at The Bronx Defenders.