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Child "Protection" Agencies Do More Harm Than Good

When do-gooding doesn't do good, stop doing it!

By Will Offensicht  |  May 12, 2011

The budget discussions have made it clear that our federal, state, and local governments simply must cut costs by shedding some of the responsibilities they've accumulated over the years.  Having listed Child Protection Services as an area in need of cutting, we went into detail why protecting children is beyond a government's abilities.  Janice responded:

Such a negative and inhumane attitude - I guess its survival of the fitness in your world. Being part of the child welfare system as a social worker and now as a private practice clinician I have seen children's lives turned around in a positive way because they were given a better opportunity to grow and thrive in a healthier home. The media rarely covers these stories. As a tax payer myself I feel that helping the disempowered is an investment in our future because in some circumstances it does make a huge difference in a person's life.  [emphasis added]

Janice is entirely correct.  Not only is helping the disempowered, which includes most children, an investment in our future, it's an utterly necessary investment.  Unless we give the vast majority of our children the tools they need to take their places as responsible, productive adult members of our society, our high-tech civilization will collapse and half our population will starve to death.

We and Janice are in vehement agreement on that principle.  Where we differ is on how it can be achieved.

Janice believes that government programs can make a positive difference in children's lives.  Unfortunately, we're convinced by overwhelming evidence that Child Protection Services do far more harm than good.

Investigations and Interventions are Useless

American Child "Protection" Services are based on the Mondale Act which was signed by President Nixon in 1974.  The law requires that CPS agencies solicit anonymous reports of child abuse and that the agencies investigate each and every one.

This turns out to be a huge waste of time and money.  Even the New York Times, normally one of the bureaucracy's most vehement cheerleaders, has been forced to admit that child abuse investigations don't do much to reduce risk of harm to children:

Child Protective Services investigated more than three million cases of suspected child abuse in 2007, but a new study suggests that the investigations did little or nothing to improve the lives of those children.

The study cited by the Times pointed out that when investigation leads to action, the situation seldom improves:

A critical third barrier [to prevention efforts] is our limited understanding of the effectiveness of interventions after child maltreatment. Traditional CPS interventions such as family preservation and family support services after investigation are not associated with reductions in repeat maltreatment or foster care placement.  [emphasis added]

The Times says, "Traditional interventions," which are the cornerstones of our CPS system, "are not associated with reductions in repeat maltreatment or foster care placement."  In other words, even when children are being mistreated, government-approved CPS services do not reduce mistreatment or help families stay together.

Foster Care is Harmful

An MIT study has found that on average, abused children still do better when left in biological homes, even if those homes are very far from ideal.  MIT reported:

An MIT Sloan School of Management professor has for the first time used the analytic tools of applied economics to show that children faced with two options - being allowed to stay at home or being placed into foster care - have generally better life outcomes when they remain with their families.

Our government can't even teach kids how to read; why would anyone think they're able to substitute for parents?   The federal government pays state agencies money when they remove kids, however, so that's what they do even though the MIT study shows that government makes a lousy parent.

Why are government bureaucrats such bad parents to the needy children it's their job to help?  Is parenting rocket science?

Parenting is a great deal of work, but it's not rocket science.  A New Yorker article "The Poverty Clinic" cited research which shows that one of the keys to successful parenting is creating strong emotional bonds between child and parent.

A study in Oregon showed that overstressed children could be helped by changing the behavior of parents or caregivers.  The study encouraged foster parents to be more responsive to the emotional cues of their foster children.  A Delaware study promoted secure emotional attachment between children and their foster parents.  Both studies measured levels of stress hormones in children and found that teaching foster parents to bond emotionally to children reduced stress levels.

What kinds of parents have to be encouraged to bond with children?  Government-ruled parents, of course.  The New Yorker told of Monisha Sullivan, who had been placed in nine different foster homes and had had to adapt to nine different sets of foster parents.  How can any child bond emotionally to foster parents when she knows that she can be dragged away to another home at the whim of a bureaucrat?  How can a parent become emotionality bound to a child which might be taken away at any moment?

Our reader Janice is completely correct in saying that proper intervention can make a huge positive difference in a child's life, but that's not what government does.  By dragging children to and fro through the system, they mess up the child's emotions so badly that Monisha wasn't able to bond with her own daughter after giving birth.

It's Systemic

Janice is undoubtedly correct in saying that some children benefit from CPS intervention, but the agencies do more harm than good.  The problem is that government agencies operate by fixed rules which make no provision for common sense.  Some time ago, we discussed a particularly idiotic CPS outcome:

In an article "Hard lemonade, hard price," the Detroit Free Press reports:

The way police and child protection workers figure it, Ratte should have known that what a Comerica Park vendor handed over when Ratte ordered a lemonade for his boy three Saturdays ago contained alcohol, and Ratte's ignorance justified placing young Leo in foster care until his dad got up to speed on the commercial beverage industry.

Even if, in hindsight, that decision seems a bit, um, idiotic[emphasis added]

Everyone involved said that the police and social workers were "only following orders" based on agency rules.

The Freep quoted Don Duquette, a U-M law professor who directs the university's Child Advocacy Law Clinic, as saying that the emergency removal powers of CPS, though "well-intentioned" are "out of control and partly responsible for the large numbers of kids in the foster care system," which is almost universally acknowledged to be badly overburdened.

Here we have a bureaucracy which experts in the field say is "out of control" and is "universally acknowledged to be badly overburdened."  In other words, everyone familiar with the system knows it's out of control, yet there are no protests and no one wants to fix it.

Consider the effects of this "out of control" bureaucracy.  Unjustified child removal traumatizes children.  My friends who were wrongly removed during their childhoods distrust government deeply; their parents see government as a vast conspiracy to trash as many citizens as possible.  Is it sound public policy to turn good parents into enemies of government?  Is it a good idea to mess up children like Monisha so badly that they can't bond with their children?  It's good for the bureaucracy because they can increase their budgets by providing services to the messed-up children of children whom they abuse, but it's bad for society overall.

Starving the Beast

The more money CPS agencies get, the more children they can afford to abuse.  As far back as August 1989, the page-one article "Child-Abuse Charges Ensnare Some Parents In Baseless Proceedings," in the Wall Street Journal reported that two-thirds of children who removed from their homes as a result of child abuse interventions turned out not to be abused at all.

Abrupt removal is always traumatic for a child and MIT has shown that it generally leads to worse outcomes.  This means, mathematically, that our government abuses twice as many children as parents do.

When this history of our time is written, it will be shown that government Child "Protection" bureaucracies abused and harmed far more children than parents ever did.  One good thing about the upcoming cuts in state spending is that we taxpayers will be funding less child abuse.

What, then, of Janice's concern for helping the disempowered?  As with education, that's best handled by the private sector as we'll explain later.