The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The child-separation crisis no one sees

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) has said he is open to narrowing the state’s definition of child neglect. (Michael Conroy/AP)

An earlier version of this column stated that the rate of repeat substantiated maltreatment of children in New York City almost doubled from 2000 to 2016 despite a large increase in funding for preventive services. The rate of repeat maltreatment was largely unchanged over that period. The previous rate was drawn from a New York Citizens Budget Commission report that was corrected after this column was published. This column has been updated accordingly.  

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

While America argued about whether the Trump administration was right to separate children at the border, a much larger child-separation crisis has gone almost entirely unremarked: in America’s foster-care system. And in this case, the problem is not that we’re taking too many children away from their parents. We’re not taking enough.

This may sound horrifying to you. It certainly sounds horrifying to many social workers. But the question also has become more urgent because of a dominant ideology among child protective services agencies that overemphasizes family reunification. The view of many working in this field is that parents are often the real victims in cases of severe family dysfunction — victims of poverty, of racism, of inequality — and that taking away their kids only punishes them further.

It shouldn’t be necessary to say it, but this has things dangerously backward: Children’s interests should come first. And of course it is most often in the interests of children to remain with their parents — but not always. The problem is that our child-welfare workers are too often reluctant to acknowledge the exceptions. As a result, we are making poor decisions about where kids are safest.

This issue has only become more urgent in the wake of the opioid epidemic. According to a March report by the Department of Health and Human Services, every 10 percent increase in overdose death rates is correlated with a 4.4 percent increase in foster-care entry rates. In 2016, according to HHS, 1,700 children died from maltreatment — a jump from the 1,589 during the previous year.

The highest rate in the country was in Indiana, so let’s zoom in there for a cautionary tale. Why such a high death rate?

The first, and easiest, answer is always a lack of funding. And in December, in fact, the head of the state’s Department of Child Servicesresigned, saying recent service cuts made to the agency “all but ensure children will die.” Unfortunately, however, it’s not true that greater expenditures necessarily lead to better outcomes. In New York City, for instance, the Administration for Children’s Services’ budget for preventive services — this is support of families to keep kids out of foster care — went from $123 million in 2000 to $235 million in 2016. But the rate of repeat maltreatment was largely unchanged over that period.

So we need to look more deeply at that data. It is true that Indiana has a higher rate of children in foster care than neighboring states, but it is likely that in Indiana some children are simply being removed from parents for a short period and then returned to dangerous situations. We have two strong pieces of evidence for this.

First, if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months, parental rights are supposed to be terminated. But the percentage of kids whose parental rights have been terminated in Indiana has dropped precipitously in recent years; indeed, according to calculations by Richard Gelles, former dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, it is an outlier among surrounding states. And second, Indiana lags well behind its neighbors in the percentage of kids who are adopted out of foster care. In fact, the percentage of kids adopted out of foster care in the state plummeted by 50 percent between 2006 and 2015. 

Further, Indiana also has a high rate of kinship care — placing kids with extended family rather than nonrelatives. While often extended family is the best option for kids, it’s also true that extended family can suffer from the same kinds of dysfunction as a child’s immediate family. And placement with kin can mean that the offending biological parents still effectively have access to the kids.

Many advocates will cheer all this as evidence that more children in Indiana are being kept with biological families — or are being removed only temporarily and then put back after their parents receive services. The problem, though, is that many of these parents are not capable of caring for their children. And that’s the most likely reason maltreatment and fatality rates have skyrocketed.

Why is it so important to take the time to diagnose this problem correctly? Because misdiagnosing it can lead to solutions that make things worse. In Indiana, to reduce the number of removals, the governor has said he is open to narrowing the state’s definition of child neglect. But of course redefining “neglect” doesn’t actually turn a neglected child into a cared-for one.

Keeping kids with their families is everyone’s first choice, and there is no doubt that many parents involved in child-welfare cases have gotten the short end of society’s stick. Many were themselves mistreated as children. This is tragic — but trapping children in abusive or neglectful situations will only create another generation of victims. Sometimes separation is the best outcome.

Do children need to be with their families? Yes. But sometimes that means finding them a new family where they can thrive.

Read more:

Sherry Ettleson: The heroes in the D.C. foster care bureaucracy

The Post’s View: A tragic foster care failure

Kathleen Parker: Philadelphia’s unnecessary war on Catholics

Susan Punnett and Erica Rosenberg: For teens in foster care, adoption is a lifeline