The New Yorker Tilts at the Children’s Welfare System, Misses

February 8, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

In its February 1 edition, The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore took on the issue of children’s welfare agencies and how they so often get wrong the one job they’re tasked with doing – protection of children. Lepore’s article weighed in at a hefty 7,500 words. With all those keystrokes, you’d think she’d have gotten a lot more right than she did, but alas it was not to be. She nails a couple of issues, but only a couple. Her effort rates a C- that’s probably too generous.

How is it that someone writing for a publication like The New Yorker can miss so much about so important a topic? Who knows? But from here it looks like Lepore was more interested in riding her favorite hobby horses than actually coming up with sensible cures for what ails our system of child protection.

The good news about her piece of course is what she gets right. Broadly speaking, those things are two. Lepore finds the child welfare system to be mainly one for dealing with poor parents and their kids. That of course is generally the case as is its corollary, that programs for the poor usually get short-changed by state legislatures.

The second thing she gets right is that, over the decades, attempts to address abuse and neglect of kids tend to follow a scandal/reform pattern. A child dies in parental or foster care, the tragedy makes the news and the legislature leaps to change the system for protecting children, whether for better or worse. We see this with depressing frequency.

Lepore rightly points out that that’s no way to deal with child abuse and neglect.

Fine. Those two observations are accurate and important as far as they go, which isn’t very far. The list of the article’s detriments is far longer than that of its merits.

For example, there’s the issue of fathers. Out of Lepore’s 7,500 words, a grand total of six of them are “father.” On her stage, fathers are bit players with no lines and all but invariably villains. Four of the dads mentioned are baby killers and another has “a long criminal record,” together with never having set eyes on his child.

In short, Lepore is happy for New Yorker readers to assume that fathers cannot be part of any solution to the child welfare problem and indeed are antithetical to one. Nowhere is mentioned the many benefits of fathers to children. Is Lepore even aware of the Urban Institute study showing that one of the biggest problems of the child welfare system is its wholesale failure to contact and vet fathers when children are taken from abusive or neglectful mothers? Is she aware of Professor Kathryn Edin’s work on poor fathers, how committed they are to their children? What about the recent survey showing the same thing conducted for the Administration for Children and Families?

If she knows any of that, she didn’t let on. As I’ve said many times, if the issue is money, one good way for states to save would be to place kids with qualified dads rather than pay to place them in foster care. Lepore, like the states she criticizes, ignores the matter entirely.

Second, while abusive and neglectful mothers, in Lepore’s telling, come off as simply victims of circumstances, there’s not a word to inform readers just who it is who’s harming kids. The ACF for years reported that mothers commit about 40% of all child abuse and neglect. Add Mom’s boyfriend and the figure rises to almost 60%. Meanwhile, fathers are responsible for 18% – 20%. But Lepore managed to locate not a single loving father nor a single abusive mother. There’s an agenda at work there, but it’s not one with any chance of improving children’s welfare.

Mention of foster care is even scarcer than that of dads. Lepore literally never deals with the horrific state of foster care in this country or the many slings and arrows suffered by children consigned there. No, to her, family breakup and family preservation are just different but equal aspects of failed state efforts to address children’s welfare. They’re props in her drama, but little else.

The idea that foster care has been demonstrated conclusively to be, on average, worse for kids than parental care, never appears on Lepore’s stage. Neither does the fact that federal largess actively encourages states to remove children from their parents and, having done so, additionally encourages them to force adoption on those kids. Those are issues about which entire books could be written (and have been), but again Lepore ignores them completely.

All that adds up to a very long article with very little to say. The fact is that the issues facing children’s welfare agencies are now and always have been daunting. The whole thing is quite a thorny field that, tellingly, Lepore barely sets foot in. Her article is too simplistic to assist us in thinking about our system of children’s welfare.

That’s nowhere as apparent as in her “solution.” It seems there’s a program that Lepore found to her liking and, having done so, she anoints it as the only workable solution to the complex and difficult problems states face when parents endanger their kids.

It’s called “Minding the Baby,” that Lepore tells readers “is run jointly by the Yale Child Study Center and Yale’s School of Nursing.” It’s entirely laudable purpose is to intervene in families before trouble starts.

“The program offers services to poor, first-time mothers between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five. The mothers, who are identified by community health centers, volunteer to participate. From pregnancy through the child’s second birthday, a pediatric nurse practitioner and a clinical social worker take turns making frequent home visits. They provide health care, promote development and support mental health, taking on, to some degree, the role of a kind of grandmother…”

Yes, that’s the only solution to the country’s child welfare problems Lepore comes up with. To say that such a “solution” is unworkable on a large scale and will never be implemented is quite an understatement.

Where to begin? How about with the fact that the program would clearly require mountains of money to implement and keep in place? We now have single caseworkers assigned to individual cases. They usually have something like twice as many cases at a time as the industry says they should. Lepore finds it perfectly rational that we should simply double the number of caseworkers, with one being a pediatric nurse practitioner in addition to the usual social worker. I can’t see cash-strapped state legislatures leaping to take Lepore’s bait.

Then there’s the fact that the program only deals with first-time mothers and those under the age of 25. Does Lepore seriously believe that those are the only ones who abuse their kids? They’re not and that means the program is inapplicable to the broad set of abusive and neglectful parents.

Dads? No, they’re entirely excluded from the Minding the Baby program, which may be why Lepore likes it so much. Could young, poor, first-time fathers use a program like Minding the Baby? Of course, but Lepore and the program’s leaders aren’t interested in them or their needs. No, they’re content to marginalize fathers in the lives of their kids. In that, they’re just like most of the rest of our governmental approach to kids, i.e. guaranteed to fail.

Even worse is the fact that Lepore overlooks entirely the fact that Minding the Baby is entirely voluntary. First, that means that, once again, it has no chance of being implemented on a large scale. But more important is the fact that its voluntary nature is required.

Lepore never mentions it, but, when states seek to intervene in family life, they have to have a good reason for doing so. There’s a thing called the Constitution that tells states that they have no power whatsoever to enter a private home or family absent probable cause. Some vague belief that a particular mother might benefit from the services offered by Minding the Baby may be perfectly accurate, but it’s also perfectly irrelevant. Without some fact-based verifiable reason to believe a child is in danger, states can do nothing to require any parent to do anything regarding their kids.

This is Lepore’s “solution” to the so-far intractable problem of abused and neglected kids and how best to help them.

In 7,500 words, Lepore mentions none of this. That makes her article woefully deficient, but it also makes it yet another in a long line of efforts that pretend to take on the problem of children’s welfare head-on, but in fact do the opposite. Lepore not only ignores fathers as possible benefits to children, she also ignores many of the most serious problems that beset the children’s welfare system. Since she’s just writing and article, she can get away with that, but others who are more serious about the real issues aren’t so free.


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