When I was 10, my mother, a fifth grade teacher, taught a girl close to my age who would arrive at school an hour early every day with matted hair and unbrushed teeth. Her caretakers, elderly grandparents, neglected the girl’s hygiene. My mother did not. She kept a hairbrush, hair ties, a toothbrush, and toothpaste in a desk drawer, just for her.
I’m not privy to every instance when my mother contacted child-protective services for her students. But there were many, and most times, the authorities did nothing. Meanwhile, abused children who continued to come to school sat at their desks with unkempt hair at best, or a rainbow of purple, blue, and green bruises, red scrapes, and pink scars at worst.
Her story reflects the failures of a child-welfare system designed to put the needs of adults over children, as Naomi Schaefer Riley claims in her book, No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives. The stories Riley, a children’s issues expert at the American Enterprise Institute, recounts in the book are not unlike those my mother has shared over the years at our dining room table.
More than 600,000 kids were victims of abuse or neglect in 2019. Roughly 2,000 kids die each year from abuse-related fatalities. And while the official number of children classified as victims has dropped in recent years, Riley provides evidence that the result is more likely a story of shifting semantics and reclassifications rather than a decline in abuse.
Throughout the book, Riley mentions common threads in abuse cases, such as drugs and alcohol or the presence of an unrelated adult such as a mother’s boyfriend. She also dispels the common notion that while abused children often come from impoverished homes, poverty is not necessarily a cause or prerequisite for abuse and neglect cases.
Egregious cases of maltreatment that hit the mainstream media continually remind the public of the need to reform the child-welfare system, Riley says. Take the case of eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was tortured and killed by his mother and her boyfriend. Prior to the boy’s death, concerned bystanders reported the case to social workers several times.
It would seem obvious that children’s needs should be the first and foremost concern of the child-welfare system, which includes child protective services, foster care and adoption law, and family courts. This is rarely the case, Riley argues. Rather, the child-welfare system often caters to drug-addicted or deadbeat adults and prioritizes racial and social justice objectives over the best interests of millions of victimized children.
Left-wing activists have successfully made race one of the top factors in determining whether a child should stay or be removed from a home.
Advocates for racial equity are quick to admonish the foster care system with charges of injustice and systemic racism. This notion is based on statistics that show black and Native American children make up a disproportionate percentage of those in foster care. Black activists—like the popular "antiracism" advocate Ibram X. Kendi—have decried transracial adoption (white parents of black youths), likening it to neo-colonialism or neo-slavery. Further, Riley says, the perpetrators of abuse in minority families are themselves viewed as victims of lingering oppression and racism in society.
In addition, social workers and judges, fearful of being viewed as biased, are disincentivized from separating minority families. As a result, minority kids are left in vulnerable positions.
"Children who have substantiated reports of child abuse and neglect are left in dangerous environments because the system is reluctant to be seen as breaking up black (or Hispanic or Native American) families," Riley writes.
Instead of working to fix the system or decrease threats to children across all communities, Riley says, racial justice activists ignore varying rates of abuse and seek only to equate outcomes between various demographic groups.
Judges also use kids as prizes for inept adults. Threatening to take custody of a child could be the incentive a mother or father needs to get clean—indeed, Riley provides one positive example in the book. The author notes, however, that this treatment of children is remarkably "utilitarian."
"Just as parents see the removal of children as the stick, now they want to see reunification as the carrot," Riley writes. "The children in this scenario merely serve as tools to get parents to clean up their acts."
Reunification of the family is the preferred solution in the child-welfare system for cases of childhood abuse and neglect. This is based in part, Riley says, on unsubstantiated claims that removing a child from their home inflicts some of the greatest amounts of trauma a child could ever experience. Many believe that, with proper resources and training, adults can learn to parent properly. Hence the haste to allow for parental visitation and the opposition and lack of enforcement on termination of parental rights.
Studies show, however, that a significant number of children who are returned to abusive parents will again face maltreatment or return to foster care. Studies from several states that Riley cites found the majority of children who died at the hands of their abusive parents were already known to the foster care system—sacrificed to the idea of family reunification.
"[B]ut more disturbing is that children who have been removed from their parents’ homes because of abuse or neglect are then brought back to visit or stay with those parents," Riley says. "And they are subject to physical or sexual abuse all over again."
Riley’s book might have benefited from a brief discussion of the collapse of institutions—namely marriage. While mentioned numerous times in the book, mainly in the form of stories about mothers and their revolving doors of abusive boyfriends, such as in the Fernandez case, Riley does not speculate on or articulate the role that the collapse of marriage might factor into the equation.
The author notes, however, that such forays into broad societal issues mean nothing to children once they are killed, tortured, abused, and neglected. Rightly, the book’s main priority is: What can the child-welfare system do now to protect children from becoming the next victim?
She offers some solutions. Group homes, where children are sent to live with trained caretakers and other foster care kids, place less pressure on children than shuffling from one unsuccessful foster arrangement to another. Bolstering the ability of middle-class Americans to take on foster care would create more opportunities for children to find loving homes as would supporting, rather than demonizing, religious foster care organizations.
Child protective services investigators need assistance as well. Often, these officials are called into dangerous situations and lack the necessary training to address a plethora of issues they could confront each day. Left-wing racial justice activists call to defund the police in order to shift funding to social services. These services, however, could benefit from police-like training and, more broadly, taking a "first-responder approach" rather than that of a social worker, Riley says.
To that point, why aren’t child-protective services deployed like police officers to homes when teachers or other mandatory reporters make allegations of abuse on behalf of a child? Lack of resources plays a role. But why don’t they then involve the police? Where are the arrests? Contacting child-protective services to address abuse cases should not result in violent and drug-addicted parents being able to evade the law. This point merits further discussion.
Introducing data analytics to the child-welfare system may also provide a way for social workers to make more clear decisions about best courses of action for children. Collecting data points and plugging them into algorithms, instead of relying on social workers’ subjective evaluations of each case, could help reduce the number of false flags and help focus resources on children who need the most help. Similarly, sharing data across law enforcement, medical services, and the child-welfare system could help adults with past records of abuse from slipping through the system.
In short, the child-welfare system must be reoriented, as Riley rightly states, to put the needs of children first. Until then, the mistreatment will continue. And teachers like my mother can only pick up so much of the slack.
No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives
by Naomi Schaefer Riley
Bombardier Books, 304 pp., $28
Published under: Book reviews