The Surreal Nightmare of Western Child Protection

by Suranya Aiyar

This article was first published in the Sunday Guardian on September 22, 2018 under the title ‘The real agenda behind Western child protection’.

Is CPS a symptom of the modern social collpase? Photo: legacy1995 on Salvadore Dali, The Persistence of Memory

Last week, we looked at the systemic obstacles to family reunification in the child protection model we have adopted from the West. In particular, we noted that the “best interests of the child” standard, which qualifies the right of the child to be restored to his biological family, in practice, victimizes vulnerable families.

How has child protection worked in the West?

Let us take a deeper look at how this system has worked in the West, which has had this version of child welfare for the last 4 decades. I will take the examples of the USA, England and Norway.

Targeting the underclass

It is acknowledged in Western countries that their child protection laws overwhelmingly target their underclass – the poor, the unemployed and people on welfare. This is so even in relatively classless Norway. A wide-ranging survey of parents interacting with the Norwegian child welfare system carried out in 2008-2009 as part of a national project called “The New Child Welfare Services” found that 75% of the parents were “working class or unemployed” and that the “clients” of the child welfare services have “increased social and economic disadvantage” compared with the general population.

Writing for Time in a recent article, Sherry Lachman, a former foster child who runs a foster care organization called Foster America, says that many children in the foster system have been separated from their families because of poverty-related challenges: “Mold on the walls; a child left alone at home while a parent, who cannot afford child care, is at work, an empty fridge…these things routinely land children in foster care” (“I was in Foster Care, Family Separation isn’t Just a Problem at the Border”, Time, 2 August 2018).

Anecdotally, people critical of the care system in these countries will say case workers will refer to parents typically targeted as the “dregs of society” who don’t deserve any consideration. People who work with children in these countries, like paediatricians, will say that the foster care system targets only people on welfare who “have children just to get benefits”.

Protection, or punishment?

It is odd that the child protection services in these advanced countries are so hostile towards the underclass. Afterall, child protection is part of their larger welfare system that is supposed to be assisting this very class of people. Perhaps the unstated thinking here is that if someone is poor or needy despite the many advantages in these developed societies, then it must be their own fault. Worse, there must be something very wrong with them. So wrong, that they are bad even for their own children.

Could it be that in the West, the aim of child protection is to break-up families that deviate from a certain (middle class) ideal, rather than to simply give refuge to abused children?

Low removals for physical/sexual abuse vs high removals for “emotional risk”?

This could explain why the threshold for child removals has steadily been lowered over the years, going far below any conventional understanding of child abuse.

For example, in the USA, sexual abuse accounts for only 4% and physical abuse for 12% of removals (AFCARS Report, Oct. 2017).

In England, child removals for “abuse or neglect” have been at 60 to 62% for each year since 2012, but the data does not give the breakdown of removals for different types of abuse such as sexual, physical or emotional. We have some hints from the trends for children subject to a “child protection plan” which is the penultimate step to filing foster care proceedings. This data indicates that the system is a lot more concerned with “emotional abuse” than with sexual or physical abuse of children. For each year from 2010 to 2017, children subjected to a child protection plan for physical and sexual abuse have been about 6-10% and 4 %, respectively, of all cases, while “emotional abuse” and “neglect” cases have been at over 30% and 40%, respectively. What’s more, the percentage of cases finally assessed as physical and sexual abuse cases have actually declined each year since 2013; going down by about 4% in the former category and about 0.5% in the latter. (Department for Education, SFR 50/2017 “Children looked after in England (including adoption), year ending March 2017”, Table A1 and SFR61/2017 “Characteristics of children in need” pg. 11 and Table D4 for each of the years from 2013-2013 to 2016-2017).

Child removals in England for “family dysfunction” and “family in acute stress” have been at about 25% for each year since 2012 (Department for Education, SFR 50/2017). So, again we have a substantial number of cases – about a quarter – where the reason for removal is something other than abuse or neglect.

The official data does not say what kind of “family dysfunction” or “acute stress” lies behind these child removals, but the English courts’ foster care orders indicate a wholly unreasonable basis for making these assessments. There are any number of English court orders permanently removing children from their parents that say that the parents are loving and the children are unharmed but are “at risk of future emotional harm”. This assessment is made on claims about the parents having a low IQ; or not agreeing with a social worker’s assessment of their children’s problems; or a “squalid” home, and other such shockingly inadequate grounds for the drastic action of permanent child removal.

In Norway, official data showing the breakdown of reasons for taking children into care is not provided, but the official body, BUFDIR, that issues data on children in care says that “parents’ lack of parental abilities and a high degree of conflict in the home are the two most frequent reasons for children and young to come into” the child welfare system.

Bente Heggem Kojan, one of the academics involved in the New Child Welfare Services project mentioned above, quotes official data of Statistics Norway showing that physical abuse and sexual abuse were only 1.8% and 0.6%, respectively, of the “main reason for intervention in new cases” in 2008 (“Norwegian Child Welfare Services: A Successful Program for Protecting and Supporting Vulnerable Children and Parents?”, Australian Social Work, December 2011). This may not be representative of other years, and children eventually placed in state care may come preponderantly from the small number of abuse cases. But if they do not, and BUFDIR’s use of the words “parental abilities” rather than “abuse” or “addiction”, suggests they do not, then we are again looking at a situation of large-scale child confiscation in circumstances far removed from any conventional understanding of abuse.

What lies behind claims of drug addiction to justify removals?

Western advocates of this model of child protection will talk about the drug-addicted parent and the “crack-head” prostitute single mother. Certainly, one can see the dangers of leaving drug addicted parents to their own devices, but it is not clear that cases of parental addiction are the majority in child removals in these countries. In the USA, for example, the cases involving parental drug abuse are 34% and alcohol abuse are 6% (AFCARS Report, October 2017). High, but not the majority of cases involving child removal. Also, these numbers might include cases of recreational marijuana (these details are not given in the statistics). Besides, drug use is well known among elite millionaires (some even tweet publicly about it, like, recently, Tesla’s Elon Musk), Hollywood celebrities and other upper castes of Western society, yet their children are not similarly targeted.

So it does appear as though child protection in the West, and similarly harsh laws, such as those allowing the state to supercede the family in taking over care of the elderly or the mentally ill, is a way of keeping its underclass and perceived misfits and “failures” in check.  This would explain why these exceptionally repressive and closed systems are being tolerated in the very Western societies that lay so much store by being open and “free”.

CPS as a tool of repression in “free” societies

Progressive societies are loath to tell people how to behave. Not even children, hence the unease around spanking and scolding. The state welfare mechanism allows them to do just that without giving up the ideal and self-image of individualism and free choice.

Parents cannot tell their daughters not to have children with unstable, jobless live-in partners. This is respect for individual liberty and the privacy of “consenting adults”. But the state can take away children from these very women, and society will look the other way. This is child protection.

The child protection advocates’ favorite trope of the drug-addicted couple leaving their baby to waste to death as they lie in a heroin haze, gives the game away. There are so many steps before a baby comes into the picture where things have gone wrong, and yet nothing and no one has been able to stop the sharp fall to disaster, except in the cruelest way, and right at the end, by snatching away the child.

How is this our problem?

This is called “welfare” and touted as a model for South Asian countries to follow. But this is not welfare. This is a society sinking under the breakdown of social and filial ties, and clutching at straws in the form of heavy-handed state intervention. This is a cover-up for the price that is paid in Western society for some of its most glorified ideals of individualism and personal freedom. These are failures and mistakes that are very different from our Indian ones. Yet we in India are busily adopting these measures from the West. Why? And why isn’t anyone in the Ministry of Women and Child Development asking these questions?

This is Part 4 of a series of essays by Suranya Aiyar on child protection laws in India and abroad. The series was published in the Sunday Guardian in September 2018. The remaining essays in this series are here.

India Should not have Adopted the Western Model of Child Protection    

The Dangers of the Unicef-Advocated Child Laws in India

India’s Foster Care Laws Wrongly See the Family as the Child’s Adversary

The Desolation Wrought by the Unicef-Model of Child Rights