During the early months of the Covid pandemic, some experts issued dire warnings that child maltreatment would spike because children were spending more time with their families. They speculated that the lockdown put children at risk because they were confined to their homes with potentially abusive parents, outside the watchful gaze of social workers, teachers, and other mandated reporters. By June 2020, when child abuse reports to New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) had plummeted sharply, police, prosecutors, and child protection officials told The New York Times that the decline “could be a sign that an unseen epidemic of abuse is spreading behind locked doors.”
But subsequent data revealed the opposite: Children remained at least as safe in 2020 as they were the year before. A review of available national data, published in JAMA Pediatrics in December 2021, concluded that there was no significant rise in child abuse related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only did child welfare reports plunge but emergency department visits fell and hospitalizations were stable. The researchers determined that decreased monitoring could not explain the full decline. In New York City, investigations related to child fatalities—which were required despite the lockdown—dropped by 25 percent between February 2019 and June 2019 and the same period in 2020. When the city reopened in fall 2020 and ACS resumed investigations, there was no deluge of child abuse cases that had gone unreported during the pandemic.
These findings challenge the assumption underlying the false predictions—that the child protection system is necessary to keep children safe. It is true that when New York City shut down in mid-March 2020, so did its child protection apparatus. Mandated reporting decreased as professionals saw fewer children; caseworkers curtailed their investigations into homes; and family court judges heard fewer petitions and removed fewer children from their parents. Yet children fared as well—if not better—without these interventions into their families. Even then–ACS Commissioner David Hansell had to concede in testimony to the New York City Council in June 2021 that children remained equally safe in their homes during the shutdown as when the system he ran was in full operation.
This nation has traditionally relied on a destructive child welfare system to meet children’s needs. Every year, child protection agents investigate the families of 3.5 million children suspected of child maltreatment. Based on vague child neglect laws, the investigators interpret conditions of poverty—lack of food, insecure housing, inadequate medical care—as evidence of parental unfitness. Caseworkers search homes, subject family members to humiliating questioning, and inspect children for evidence, sometimes strip-searching them. The majority of Black children (53 percent) experience a child welfare investigation before reaching age 18, not only because they are more likely to be poor but also because of long-standing racist stereotypes that disparage and devalue their family bonds. If caseworkers detect a problem, they coerce families into an onerous regimen of supervision and therapeutic remedies that address parents’ presumed pathologies, not the children’s needs.
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On top of the trauma inflicted on investigated families, the system harms even more children who aren’t forced into its net by misconstruing the problem—and directing resources and attention away from it. The vast majority of US children who are denied adequate housing, nutrition, health care, and education by inequitable policies and social structures—by far, the greatest harms to children—are simply ignored by child welfare agencies. Among Western nations, the United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty, invests the least in supporting families, and spends the most on child removal and foster care. In 2019, more than 10 million children—nearly one in seven of all the nation’s children—were living below the federal poverty line, measured at $26,172 for a family of four. Child poverty rates for Black and Native children—the very ones child protection investigators target most—were more than double those of white children. More than half of all Black and Native children are poor or near-poor.
What kept children safe during the pandemic when the child protection system ground to a halt? Anna Arons, an acting assistant law professor at New York University, discovered some answers by studying what she calls New York City’s unintended experiment with temporarily abolishing ACS. She found that New York City’s children “stayed safe with less surveillance, less government intrusion, and less family separation” because the pandemic generated more caring and effective ways to support families. Community-based groups sprang into action to provide tangible resources to residents who asked for assistance. By the end of July 2020, more than 50 mutual aid networks throughout the city were providing essential items like groceries and diapers and offering services like child care and mental health therapy. They deployed hundreds of thousands of dollars to meet people’s needs through the work of thousands of volunteers. For example, Brooklyn-based Bed Stuy Strong built a network of 2,700 volunteers within a month, and Crown Heights Mutual Aid made 1,300 grocery deliveries in the lockdown’s first 60 days.
The federal government also played a major role in providing for children’s welfare during the pandemic. In April 2020, Congress rendered pathbreaking support to impoverished families by passing the CARES Act. As part of a stimulus package, the act provided a one-time payment of $1,200 to adults earning less than $75,000 a year, with an additional $500 payment for each child under the age of 17 and $600 per week in extra unemployment benefits, through the end of July 2020. It was the largest distribution of direct aid to families in US history. The checks went directly to parents without strings attached, forgoing the investigation, surveillance, and disruption entailed in child protection measures. A March 2022 Columbia University report found that the expiration of the federal expanded child tax credit program in January plunged 4 million children back into poverty, with Black and Latinx children suffering the most.
The pandemic revealed both the folly of our current child welfare system and the promise of a radically different approach. We could start by diverting the billions of dollars spent on investigating, monitoring, and separating families to tangible resources provided directly to parents and other family caregivers, as well as to voluntary community-based supports for families. The evidence is incontrovertible that wide-scale government policies that reduce childhood poverty by increasing family income and meeting families’ material needs would dramatically lessen the harms to children that child welfare agencies claim, but fail, to address. As we saw in New York City, mutual aid groups can provide effective alternatives to child protection agencies. These networks are animated by a child welfare philosophy that is diametrically opposed to the dominant one: They are caring instead of punitive, voluntary instead of coercive, generous instead of stingy. The unintentional abolition of the child welfare system that occurred temporarily in New York City should support an intentional shift in child welfare policy—to dismantle our destructive approach and replace it with one that supports children and their families. The pandemic taught us that reimagining child welfare can keep children safer.