Ugly Questions About Family

Sometimes practicality demands answers to ugly questions from academia. Regulators make decisions about risk based on a dollar value of death. Military planners contemplate apocalyptic destruction as a strategy to keep peace. When we shirk answering these ugly but necessary questions, people suffer.

Government policies that separate children from negligent or abusive parents raise these types of ugly questions. Probing the limits of children’s innocence and love for their parents feels profane. Nevertheless, judges and regulators make decisions every day to intervene in families with implicit value judgements about how important mothers are to their children, for example. The government chooses to remove around 8% of kids into foster care sometime during their childhood [check this stat]. Social scientists need to approach some ugly questions relevant to family policy. Here are a few.

The value of children being with parents. Having policies about when to remove a child from home implies a working judgement of the value of living with Mom or Dad. Further, placement decisions frequently involve deciding between placing the child with relatives that may have some dysfunction vs strangers who check all the boxes (kinship care vs. foster care). Better understanding of the value of being with family is paramount.

Semi-adult capacities of teenagers. The relationship of children to their parents is a classic principal-agent problem, whereby the child advocates for their own wellbeing indirectly by influencing their parent. At 18, our societal rule is that kids are developed enough to not have a legal guardian. It’s not that an 18-year-old is fully mature—just that they’ve reached a tipping point where independence is generally better for them than the alternative of continued guardianship.

Economic theory mostly concerns agents who act rationally for their own benefits. Typically, children are seen as agents in some contexts but not in others. It’s a binary. This lack of understanding of the partial agency of children is tolerable because of the ubiquitous presence of parents who know them, love them, and act in their children’s interest. But when the government takes custody of children, it neither knows nor loves the children in a meaningful sense so it has less ability and motivation to act in their personal interest. CPS needs a better understanding of children’s partial agency to understand how children’s wishes should be considered.

How to raise children without parental love. When children are removed from home, it’s a response to a parent failing in the role, but nobody has illusions that judges and foster parents do a perfect job either. We normally put a lot of trust in parents because they are biologically disposed to love their children. Apart from love, the other main ways our society gets motivated are by profit and the will of voters.

The current foster care system already stands on this three-legged stool of love, voters, and money—but it could undeniably be designed better. Courts and foster care agencies face very little market pressure. Long-term performance metrics are lacking. Public revulsion toward playing with the lives of children makes experimentation and innovation difficult. Clever mechanism designs to better align caregivers’ and foster children’s interests are needed.

(If you think that raising kids without parental love is a dystopian untenable idea, then research on this topc should also help make CPS more reluctant to remove children from home.)

We must face the parallels between CPS and the criminal justice system. The purpose of the child welfare system is to prevent violence and neglect toward children. As in criminal justice, CPS accomplishes this goal in two main ways: (1) direct intervention and (2) deterrence. Fear of CPS intervention motivates some parents to treat their children differently than they would do otherwise. It is possible for CPS actions that directly harm one child to indirectly help many children.

As a recent example, removing this 10-year old from his mom who allowed him to get a tattoo is possibly a net negative for the child, but punishing her in this way sets an example that deters other parents from letting their young children get tattoos.

This tradeoff is an ugly fact that we should wrestle with. Obviously, not all CPS actions hurt children. Instead, we can think of it in terms of the threshold that CPS sets for when to interact in cases of child abuse or neglect. If the goal is to narrowly help directly affected children, the bar for removal will be higher than if the goal is broader—a combination of helping the directly-affected children and indirectly influencing the behavior of other families. There will be cases when the direct harm of removal exceeds the direct benefit of escaping the abuse/neglect, but, in combination with the indirect deterrence effect to abuse/neglect in other families, it is determined to be a net benefit to society to remove the child.

The hard reality of balancing objectives in CPS provokes some problems.

  • It implies a type of accounting system, balancing dispersed benefit against concentrated harm. On what basis are those decisions made?
  • Causing direct harm to children is demoralizing for child welfare workers. Child welfare relies heavily on workers’ internal motivation to attract high quality employees even at low wages. This is a parallel to teachers and clergy. Can we help social workers see the indirect benefits of their actions?
  • Families are composed of caretakers and children. The deterrence goal is to influence caretakers’ actions so it could be argued that the pain of losing custody of their children has legitimate purpose, like how we think jail should not be ‘too comfortable.’ There is no such deterrence goal for children. Apart from the central decision of whether to remove them from their parents’ custody, the experience of CPS involvement for children should be as beneficial as possible.

When is it constructive to report abuse? The child welfare system uses a dual approach of supporting families it identifies as struggling but separating them when they do not improve. What’s more, CPS deputizes medical and childcare providers by requiring them to be “mandatory reporters” of child abuse. From the perspective of a struggling parent, these workers are Jekyll and Hyde. Fearing increased surveillance, parents resist receiving available help. Until CPS can resolve this conflict, we will always prioritize punitive removals over family support.

Written on September 13, 2022