How bad is America’s child welfare system? So bad, apparently, that the United Nations is now investigating it for racism. Because if there’s any group that knows about racism or child maltreatment, it’s a committee with representatives from China, Algeria, and South Africa.
Last month, in response to a report from two advocacy organizations, Children’s Rights and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, the U.N.’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination held a public hearing on the American child welfare system and demanded action from the Biden administration.
The report from the groups claimed that “institutional racism in the child welfare system, and the resulting harm to Black children and families, needs urgent action on the part of the United States.” It claimed that the U.S. is in violation of international treaties, including the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, because of the “disparate rates at which families of colored are surveilled, reported, harassed, investigated and torn apart — and the disparate harms felt by Black children and families experiencing these outcomes.”
And the Biden administration was more than happy to agree. Jessica Swafford Marcella, a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, responded to the U.N. committee by noting that “structural racism denigrates equity and equality.” Whatever that means.
So, what is going on in the U.S. child welfare system? And what business is it of the U.N.? It is absolutely true that black families are more likely to be reported and investigated for child abuse and black children are more likely to be taken into foster care or permanently removed from the custody of their parents. The reasons behind this are hardly a mystery, though.
Federal data released this year showed 504 black children died from maltreatment in 2020 — 73 more than in 2019. Black children were three times more likely to die from abuse or neglect than white children. And it’s not just the fatality rate. Black children are almost twice as likely as white ones to be abused or neglected — a rate of 13.2 for every 100,000 black children vs. 7.4 for every 100,000 white children. Native Americans suffer at the highest rate: 15.5 victims for every 100,000 children. Such numbers suggest that maltreatment is driving child welfare involvement, not a racist system.
And if racism were really driving the problem, how do we explain that Asians have lower rates of abuse and neglect than white families and that Hispanic families are represented in the child welfare system at exactly the same rate as they are represented in the U.S. population?
There are plenty of factors that account for child maltreatment in this country. In a paper called “What Child Protection Is For,” signed by a group of child welfare experts and published by the American Enterprise Institute, we noted that “black children reside disproportionately in single-parent households in isolated and disadvantaged neighborhoods. Child maltreatment (both reported and actual) is strongly associated with a range of risk factors, including poverty, maternal age, and family structure. Disparities in all levels of CPS involvement (i.e., reporting, substantiation, and foster care) do not exceed disparities in observable measures of social disadvantage and adversity.” Just as it is impossible to understand racial disparities in arrest rates without understanding racial disparities in the commission of crimes, it is impossible to understand racial disparities in CPS involvement without understanding racial disparities in child maltreatment.
Brett Schaefer, a senior research fellow in international regulatory affairs at the Heritage Foundation, told me he finds the U.N.’s investigation unsurprising. Treaty bodies, which are committees of independent experts that monitor the implementation of the international human rights treaties, hold periodic examinations“to help countries improve by issuing recommendations on how they could better comply with particular human rights articulated in the agreements. Instead, too often they have become vehicles for left-of-center activists to impose their agendas, which often lack broad democratic support, by borrowing the authority of an international human rights body.” Of course, he noted, “ideological treaty body experts frequently exceed the scope of their mandates [anyway] by using the review process to assert new interpretations of rights in ways that were never envisioned by the drafters of the treaties or by governments when they ratified the treaties.”
The report, which was also endorsed by a variety of other organizations, including the Bronx Defenders and the National Center for Youth Law, demanded that the U.S. reconsider major federal child welfare legislation from the past few decades, including the Adoption and Safe Families Act, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, and the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act. These pieces of legislation are intended to help states prevent child maltreatment, limit the amount of time that children can spend in the foster care system, and ensure adoptions are timely and that families that want to adopt are not hampered by financial constraints. They are all aimed at promoting the best interests of children.
But the complaints of the various groups all center on how adults in the system are treated. “The United States ripped my newborn child from my arms and completely destroyed our relationships, breaking the natural bonds of newborn and her mother,” one of the activists told the Imprint. “They refused to allow me to see her for long periods of time.” What prompted the removal? She doesn’t share.
It is not that poor decisions are never made in the U.S. about when a child needs to be removed from their home, though more and more often the system seems to be erring on the side of leaving children in dangerous homes. Recent high-profile cases in New York, California, and Michigan have all left observers scratching their heads about why, after numerous reports to child welfare organizations from relatives, neighbors, and teachers, as well as evidence that had been collected by social workers, children were left in the care of dangerous adults and suffered fatal consequences.
Decisions about when to separate a child from his or her family are all made by child welfare agencies but also approved by judges. Information about state child welfare systems and the decisions made by them are freely available, which, as Schaefer pointed out, is part of the problem. “Because the U.S. and other developed countries tend to be more open and cooperative with the treaty bodies and have vibrant and free civil societies that provide numerous and detailed submissions, committee comments on those countries are typically more pointed and detailed than comments on more repressive societies that limit access and restrict civil society. This unfortunately leaves the false impression that freer countries have deeper, more problematic human rights issues than they really do when compared to other nations.”
But it does not take great powers of observation to see the hypocrisy at work here. Just as the Left seems intent on arguing that the U.S. is exceptional because slavery once existed here or because there is a history of racial discrimination in this country, when in fact these circumstances have existed throughout the world and throughout history, it will insist that the U.S. is an outlier in the sense that different racial groups do not all achieve the same outcomes on a variety of social and economic measures.
As Schaefer noted, “Can anyone honestly say that child welfare in the U.S. is so seriously deficient when compared to China, where hundreds of thousands of families are forcefully separated in Xinxiang and put into reeducation camps? Or in any number of countries where children are routinely subjected to slavery, trafficking, marriage, or pressed into militias? Of course not.” But don’t try to tell that to the American Left.