‘Abolish the Police,” protesters chant. What does that mean? One widely tweeted answer: “Almost every role in our community a police officer fills would be better handled by a social worker.” Yet consider an area in which social workers already tend to be the ones who enforce the law. Child-protection agencies routinely send social workers to respond to reports of abuse or neglect.
These workers have little or no training in investigation. Their studies include a lot of information about racial sensitivity and cultural competency, and they may be qualified to de-escalate a dispute, but they aren’t trained to ask the questions that might reveal if a child is at continuing risk. Often they will question a child while the alleged abuser is present.
Nor are social workers trained to protect themselves in dangerous situations. The Chicago Tribune found that, between 2013 and 2017, at least a dozen employees of Illinois’s Department of Children and Family Services workers were seriously threatened or attacked on the job. Some departments avoid problems by sending workers out in pairs. One former agency head told me she let her workers carry mace. That’s counterproductive if the point of replacing police with social workers is to avoid the use of force.
Social workers have a high turnover rate—about 30% a year nationwide and as high as 65% in some agencies, according to a report by Casey Family Programs. That means the workforce tends to be young and inexperienced. “For those workers who remain on the job,” Penn State sociologist Sarah Fontwrites, “burnout manifests in the workplace as work avoidance, apathy toward the well-being of clients, and feelings of cynicism and futility.”
And racial disparities are an issue in child welfare as with police. Agencies are often accused of racism because social workers remove a disproportionate number of minority children from their homes. (There are reasons for these disparities besides racism, like a larger percentage of black homes with unrelated men, but social workers are no more likely than police to address this issue.) In a practice activists call “Jane Crow,” social workers subject black mothers to low-level surveillance—some call it harassment.
Social workers aren’t subject to some of the checks that police officers are when it comes to getting involved in the lives of these poor and minority families. They aren’t taught about the rights of the accused and the rules of evidence. As lawyer Diane Redleaf chronicles in her 2018 book, “They Took the Kids Last Night,” in some cases social workers will continue to monitor parents or keep their children away even when police think no evidence supports a claim of abuse. Ms. Redleaf documents how social workers sometimes keep parents in an extralegal limbo, requiring them to take parenting classes or jump through other hoops, and then threaten to take legal action if they don’t.
If the activists in the streets and their leaders are interested in getting the authorities to stop harassing people for minor missteps, turning things over to the social workers wouldn’t seem to be a recipe for success.
Ms. Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.