June 27, 2018

Child Welfare Needs to Have Its ‘Stop-and-Frisk Moment’

By Michelle Burrell

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I have believed for a long time that child welfare needs its own “stop-and-frisk moment.”

Though stop-and-frisk was a police tactic for decades, during the waning years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure at New York City Hall it underwent a public image shift. Whereas before many talked about it as a useful tool for preventing crime, it became framed as a discriminatory tactic that unfairly targets Black and Latino men. The backlash that accompanied this image shift helped discourage use of stop-and-frisk; stops shrank from a peak of 685,724 in 2011 to 22,565 just four years later.  

There are two major realizations that helped shift the conversation around stop-and-frisk that I believe are also relevant to the child welfare conversation. The first concerns confronting practices that are overly invasive. People began to look at stop-and-frisk and ask, “So, you’re walking down the street and a police officer can just ask you for your ID without really explaining why? And that can result in your arrest if you refuse?” That felt like too much to people.

There is a similar dynamic in the child welfare system. Caseworkers enter homes, not necessarily showing official documentation or identification indicating who they are and why they are there.  Once in the home, they ask a series of questions, some related to the investigation at hand and others not. Parents do not understand that the caseworkers are collecting information that may result in an eventual Family Court petition alleging abuse and neglect, and give them an abundance of information (not always connected to their actual parenting) in hopes that if they are honest, they will be left alone. As happened with stop-and-frisk, we need to get to the point where people are looking at the child welfare system – essentially the act of the government entering the home of private citizens to judge their parenting –as overly invasive.

The second conversation-shifting realization that happened with stop-and-frisk was that it wasn’t working. Though the practice was justified as a way to get guns off the street and reduce the number of shootings, data show that the dramatic increase in stops between 2002 and 2011 was not associated with any significant decline in the number of shootings or murders (which did decline, but for other reasons). Simply put, stop-and-frisk wasn’t addressing the root causes of gun violence, so we moved away from it. Now, that doesn’t mean that by reducing stop-and-frisk we have solved the underlying problems of racial bias in law enforcement that it came to symbolize.  But the attention focused on the ineffectiveness of stop-and-frisk has also shed light on the other ways that racism infects our policing, legal, and justice systems.

Effectiveness is something we need to talk about in the realm of child welfare also. The system removes children from situations it deems dangerous, based on limited information, but we rarely talk about the trauma the act of removal itself causes. We also rarely talk about the mismatch between this solution and the problem, which is so often simply a lack of resources. We need to shift our attention and look at our problem not as children who are being abused but as families and communities that need support. And as with stop-and-frisk, we need to take an honest look at how racial biases and misconceptions influence decisions to remove children from their parents. It is not a fact that only parents of color in poor communities abuse and neglect their children. It is a fact, though, that communities targeted by institutional racism and faced with poverty need actual support that recognizes their assets and supports their well-being.

Photos by: Maite H. Mateo

Michelle Burrell is Managing Attorney at Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem.