A Little Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing for Children

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Every year or so, the child welfare community finds a new way to prove the adage “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

It works this way. Researchers publish a study or some committee (Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commission) issues a report which determines that “X” is a risk factor for child abuse. In other words, if someone who is an “X” or has “X” or does “X” is in the home, that person is more likely to abuse a child.

Having been officially deemed a risk factor, “X” then makes it onto various “checklists” and “risk assessment” forms that child protective services workers take with them when they investigate an allegation of alleged child maltreatment. 

If a parent has too many risk factors, the CPS worker may well walk out with the child – not because the child has been abused but because the “risk factors” supposedly tell us the child might be abused sometime in the future. It’s a bit like the science fiction movie Minority Report, in which people are arrested for crimes they haven’t yet committed based on predictions of three psychics in an oversize bathtub – only the psychics in the movie were more accurate.

The problem with all this is actually the best news in all of child welfare: The overwhelming majority of human beings do not abuse children. Period. And almost none will kill a child. The failure to take that into account can result in “risk assessment” that’s likely to do more harm to a child than any parent, by making it far too easy to consign the child to foster care.

The latest case in point comes from Minnesota. The Minnesota Child Mortality Review Panel released a report which found that, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune put it, “male caregivers were responsible for two-thirds of child deaths and near-fatal injuries from 2005 to 2009.”

Marcie Jefferys of the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota promptly declared this a “striking finding.” She knows because she’s read horror stories in the paper. “I had been noticing that in the paper for the past few years. There are so many babies being killed by boyfriends or husbands while the mother is off to work.”

No, Ms. Jeffreys, there aren’t. Because very, very few babies are killed by anyone.

Fully understanding the Minnesota report requires one more number, one nowhere to be found in the story. That number is 1,245,000.  That’s a Census Bureau estimate for the number of Minnesotans under age 18.

The report tells us that from 2005 through 2009 an average of just under 12 Minnesota children died or nearly died of child abuse.

Of course even one death of a child is one too many.  The only acceptable goal for child abuse fatalities is zero; and each such death is the worst form of tragedy. But in any given year, 99.99 percent of Minnesota children will not die or nearly die of child abuse at the hands of anyone.

That means the chances of a person of any given gender, age, race or whatever factor you want, committing fatal child abuse is infinitesimal. This study tells us the chance of the perpetrator being a male is infinitesimally less infinitesimal.

But, of course, that’s not the lesson Minnesota authorities learned. According to Minnesota Public Radio:

Later this year, child protection workers will add some new questions to their risk assessments. They'll ask if a male is alone in caring for a child under three and if he's employed.

After two years of gathering data, the Department of Human Services will decide whether those factors should be weighed in determining the risk the child is in.

Given that no caseworker is going to want to be blamed for leaving a child in a home despite the latest fad “risk factor” and given that Minnesota already has a hair-trigger mentality when it comes to tearing apart families, taking away children at a rate more than 80 percent above the national average, I doubt that workers are going to wait around for the official findings.

That’s why a little knowledge can be such a dangerous thing. Study after study has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, and the record of group homes and institutions is worse. 

But I know of no risk assessment checklist that instructs caseworkers to factor that in when deciding whether it’s safe to leave a child in her or his own home. Nor do I know of any such checklist which factors in the findings of the two studies of more than 15,000 typical cases – the studies which found that children left in their own homes typically fared better even than comparably-maltreated children left in foster care.

The way Minnesota is responding to these findings also illustrates how easily “risk assessment” can reinforce the biases that permeate child welfare. Note how it’s not just the presence of a man in the house that’s supposedly so dangerous, but an unemployed man. So this further tilts any risk assessment form against poor people.

The worst example of misusing a little knowledge was the rush to label “witnessing domestic violence” as child abuse. Across the country children have been torn from loving mothers because those mothers “abused” the children by “allowing” the children to be present while the mothers were beaten.

Aside from the fact that the research on the harm of witnessing domestic violence is more ambiguous than initial reports suggested, there is no doubt that the harm to the child  from being taken from the non-offending parent is far, far worse. One expert says removing children in such situations is “tantamount to pouring salt on an open wound.”

A successful class-action lawsuit (co-counsel was NCCPR’s volunteer Vice President, Carolyn Kubitschek)  stopped this practice in New York City, but the approach in much of the country boils down to “please pass the salt.”  In Utah, for example, “witnessing domestic violence” now is the single largest category of “substantiated” maltreatment.

As for what one can do to make the extremely low number of deaths of children at the hands of unsuitable male caretakers even lower: Instead of a new line on a “risk assessment” form, how about more low-income day care?

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org