It’s easy to fix a failing child welfare system like the one in New Mexico: just listen to your gut instinct – and do the opposite.
Gut instinct says: Children have been dying, as a Journal editorial put it, “seemingly … under the noses” of workers for the Children, Youth and Families Department – so we should rush to tear more children from their parents at the slightest sign of abuse or neglect.
That is always the knee-jerk response to child abuse tragedies, whether because lawmakers explicitly demand it or because workers are terrified about what will happen to them if the next high-profile tragedy is on their caseload. The result is a foster-care panic, a sudden spike in removals of children from their homes.
But that never works.
To understand why, consider: Yes, in some cases, the children who died were “under the noses” of CYFD caseworkers. But in 2019, so were 26,040 other children. That same year, New Mexico reported 11 child abuse fatalities – a rate slightly below the national average. So in 2019, 0.042% of the children on CYFD’s radar died.
That’s 11 deaths too many – the only acceptable goal is zero. But child abuse fatalities are needles in a haystack. We’ll never find the needles if we keep making the haystack bigger by further deluging caseworkers.
It’s not just fatalities that are uncommon. All forms of physical abuse represented 12% of cases, sexual abuse 3%. In contrast, 82% involved neglect. Rarely, neglect can be extremely serious – more often it may mean only that the family is poor.
So the system fails in all directions. When children are torn from everyone loving and familiar and consigned to the chaos of foster care in New Mexico, they are traumatized just as much as those taken needlessly at the Mexican border by the Trump administration. Multiple studies show the children also are at high risk of being abused in foster care itself. These independent studies find rates of abuse far higher than agencies such as CYFD report in official figures.
But even worse: It’s all those false reports, trivial cases and poverty cases that are making the haystack so large, making it harder for CYFD workers to find the children who really are in grave danger. Indeed, CYFD leaders have said as much, complaining about false reports deluging the state’s child abuse hot line.
There are ways to curb false and malicious reports, and ways to stop confusing poverty with neglect. A laser focus on ameliorating the worst effects of poverty would be a good place to start. Another crucial step: high-quality defense counsel for families – not to get “bad parents” off but to craft alternatives to the cookie-cutter “service plans” from agencies such as CYFD, which often consist of meaningless hoops through which families must jump.
Only those kinds of changes will give workers time to find children in real danger and break the endless cycle of tragedy.
The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform is at www.nccpr.org.