“The Coronavirus Could Cause a Child Abuse Epidemic”
—Headline on opinion column, New York Times
“We must not allow a public health pandemic to become an abuse pandemic.”
—Globe & Mail columnist in Toronto
“We cannot let a health pandemic become a child abuse pandemic!”
—Sheriff in Texas on Twitter
“I’ve read some articles where it said this a coronavirus pandemic. I also read it could become a child abuse pandemic.”
—Georgia director of a child advocacy center
Well, yes. By now, just about everyone must have read some version of the hype and hysteria around the fact that, thanks to COVID-19, fewer mostly white, middle-class “eyes” will be on children who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite.
What this kind of hysteria really shows us is the extent to which racial and class biases permeate child welfare and our perceptions of the families caught up in the child welfare system. That claims of a “pandemic” of abuse are amplified in news coverage with no thought to what people making those claims are really saying should give us pause, too.
By racism I don’t mean the wear-a-sheet-and-burn-a-cross variety. I mean the kind that’s more subtle, and that all of us, whatever our own race, need to guard against.
Because the underlying message in all those warnings about a “pandemic of child abuse” is: “As soon as people like ‘US’ take our eyes off people like ‘THEM’ — they will unleash their savagery against children on a massive scale.”
Or as a California district attorney put it: “For the most vulnerable people in our community ‘shelter-in-place’ is the same as putting them in a cage with a violent gorilla,”
THE MOLEHILL OF TRUTH
As is so often the case, underneath the mountain of hype is a molehill of truth. Stress sometimes prompts adults to fly off the handle and take it out on the children. Of course the coronavirus pandemic is increasing stress. And yes, with schools closed fewer teachers will notice the extremely rare cases in which a child really is abused as a result. (This also happens every summer, so far without unleashing an annual pandemic of child abuse.)
So it is reasonable to express concern about this. It also is reasonable to tell families under stress where they can call for help, and to ask neighbors to watch out for each other by, perhaps, making a video call to a friend to distract their children for a while, or dropping off food and other necessities on that neighbor’s doorstep.
What is unreasonable, dangerous and yes, biased both in terms of race and class, are dire warnings that as soon as the mostly white, middle-class professionals aren’t looking, those uncivilized poor people who are disproportionately people of color will rise up and viciously assault their children on the scale of a pandemic. When these warnings are accompanied by calls to report anyone and everyone to child abuse hotlines for anything and everything, they make everyone less safe — and not just in the usual ways.
Even in the best of times, 91% of calls to child abuse hotlines either are screened out or found to be false after investigation. Another 6% involve “neglect,” which often means the family is poor. Looking only at cases that are investigated, 83% are false reports. (And please, child savers of America, spare us the canard about how “they’re not false, we just couldn’t prove it!” That was discredited decades ago when the only study I know of to second-guess caseworker decisions found they were far more likely to wrongly “substantiate” an allegation than to wrongly label it “unfounded.”)
By using COVID-19 as an excuse to encourage even more false reports, we don’t just traumatize the children who are needlessly investigated and steal workers’ time from finding children in real danger. Now, by needlessly forcing caseworkers to go through home after home opening refrigerators and cupboards and questioning everyone, we put both the families and the caseworkers at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. And by calling it a pandemic and analogizing impoverished parents to violent gorillas, we encourage our own worst instincts about race and class.
No, I’m not going to conclude with some sort of reference to a pandemic of racism. That’s the wrong analogy. Pandemics sweep over us and do enormous harm but eventually they end. The racial and class biases in child welfare, and everywhere else, are more like cancer. It’s always with us, often incurable and very difficult to treat. But the odds improve when you catch it early.
Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.