Wisconsin has seen a 50% decrease in child abuse and neglect reports since school closings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar trends can be found across the United States. Since teachers compose a large percentage of those who report suspicion of child maltreatment to child protective services (CPS), the decrease in reports is largely connected to children having less contact with mandatory reporters. There are legitimate concerns that in increase in child abuse could result from the combination of stressed-out parents with children who are stuck at home.
Racial Disparity in the Child Welfare System
What is not highlighted is that this drop in reporting will also result in fewer African American children being unjustly separated from their parents. Racial disparity in the child welfare system has been a problem for decades. When determining if a child is a victim of maltreatment, black children are twice as likely as white children to be classified as victims. Additionally, black children are four times more likely to be separated from their parents than white children and placed in out-of-home care.
The most common child maltreatment determination is neglect, which accounts for 75% of all determinations. Physical abuse accounts for 18% of victims and sexual abuse accounts for 8.5% of victims. (The percentages add up to more than 100% because multiple reasons can be offered in a determination.) Though horrid cases of physical and sexual abuse make the evening news, neglect is the dominant determination and it is very closely related to poverty.
Losing Your Kids for Being Poor
A grave injustice was recently endured by an African American woman with nine children in Milwaukee whom I will call “Charlotte.” She went to the Division of Milwaukee Child Protection Services (DMCPS) for help with housing in late 2017. Instead of aiding Charlotte with a security deposit or a housing voucher, DMCPS removed all nine children. Her children were traumatically separated from mother, siblings, friends, cousins, aunts, uncles, and other extended family. CPS placed the children in multiple foster care homes with white families in the suburbs.
Thankfully, Charlotte discovered the Casa Maria Catholic Worker in Milwaukee, which provides housing for mothers fighting to get their kids back from CPS. Her required court conditions in the form of classes, meetings, and court hearings made it challenging for her to maintain a job. Casa Maria provided housing and groceries for Charlotte, which created a situation where her children were allowed to visit. She got her older children back after almost a year and her youngest children after 18 months. Two years after she initially went to DMCPS for help, her case was ultimately closed.
Without Casa Maria, Charlotte would have lost her children. Much of this trouble could have been avoided with little expense to the taxpayer if DMCPS had instead provided Charlotte with a security deposit or housing voucher. The private institution contracted to handle Charlotte’s case received over $10,000 each month for ongoing case management services. There was no allegation of maltreatment against Charlotte. She only lacked housing and asked for help.
The average time that children remain in out-of-home care is almost two years. One of the reasons it took Charlotte so long to get her kids back was the same roadblock faced by most parents who have had their children removed—CPS’s guiding principle of “the best interests of the child.” Once children are removed from the home and children’s court becomes involved, this principle comes into play.
The longer the children are out of the home, the more likely a mother will hear that her children are bonding with a prospective adoptive family who has financial resources and it would be in “the best interests of the children” to allow this white suburban family to adopt. If a mother does not voluntarily relinquish her children, she faces an uphill battle to be reunited with her children, even if the original reason for the removal has been resolved.
Impoverished mothers fighting to get their kids backs from prospective suburban adopters are facing additional obstacles during this pandemic. COVID-19 has been employed as an excuse to stop parental visits with children. CPS agencies in Wisconsin and elsewhere have sided with prospective adopters in not allowing parents to see their children, making the termination of parental rights and the adopting out of children more likely when this pandemic winds down.
Impoverished Black Mothers Face Difficult Hurdles
Prospective adopters have the added advantage that 92% of the children adopted through CPS qualify for financial subsidies until a child turn eighteen. So while black mothers may have their children removed because they are poor, middle-class white families in the suburbs will receive a monthly subsidy to raise adopted black children.
Casa Maria began collaborating with other parent activists and advocates because we repeatedly witnessed great parents having their children removed. Mothers like Charlotte, who have struggled with the child welfare system, remind me of the biblical figure of Jesus’s mother in the Gospel birth narratives.
As the black liberation theologian Diana L. Hayes wrote in her classic text And Still We Rise, Mary is the symbol of “the courageous and outrageous authority of a young unwed mother who had the faith in herself and in her God to break through the limitations her society placed upon her to say a powerful and prophetic ‘yes’ to empowerment, challenging the status quo by her ability to overcome those who doubted and denied her to bring forth and nurture her son as a woman of faith and conviction.”