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LA Times Op-Ed engages in child welfare fear mongering, but this time, politicians may not be falling for it

Richard Wexler
Written by Richard Wexler

A recent column in the Los Angeles Times presents a peculiar theory about social problems: If a solution doesn’t work, the problem doesn’t exist!

That, at least, is the claim of right-wing author Naomi Schaefer Riley.  In her op-ed she argues that because an experimental attempt to reduce racial bias in LA County’s child welfare system didn’t seem to fix the problem then clearly there is no racial bias in child welfare. 

The experiment in question concerns a strategy known as “Blind Removal” meetings, which was temporarily used in two separate offices of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. The experiment involved a cluster of cases in which the DCFS workers stationed at each of the two offices considered removing a child to foster care. In this cluster of cases, when they were referred to committees to evaluate, all information identifying the family’s race was removed.

Yet, an evaluation found that this Blind Removal strategy didn’t change the disproportionate rate at which Black children were taken away from their families. (Although, in one office it may have reduced removals of Latinx children, and also may also have reduced removals overall.)

In her op-ed for the LAT, Riley cites the part of the evaluation concerning Black children but leaves out some crucial context. 

For one thing, the official evaluation of the research makes it clear that the whole experiment was a mess: 

*Some cases that possibly should have been subjected to the process weren’t.

*Data were so incomplete it was hard to tell what happened in certain cases

*Frontline staff members were not prepared for the experiment beforehand, not everyone involved was fully “blinded” and other experiments were going on at the same time.

All of the above renders a serious comparison of blinded to not-blinded impossible.  In addition, part of the time period used for the “before” part of “before and after” comparisons occurred at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Furthermore, there was a crucial element in the research that the evaluation failed to mention: In one of the two areas of LA County where the experiment was conducted, Compton-Carson, only 1.3% of children are white.  So while the workers might not have known if a child in a given case is Black or Latinx, they sure as hell could assume the child wasn’t white.

Most importantly, the evaluators concluded that if Blind Removals didn’t work, it didn’t mean there was no bias.  It meant that the bias was so intractable, and started so early in the process, that Los Angeles County needs to double down on bolstering support for impoverished families instead of ratcheting up surveillance and removal.

In her there-is-no-bias op-ed, however, Riley supports her claim with a single study that concludes that since poverty, low education, and similar factors are risk factors for maltreatment, and Black Americans are more likely to be afflicted with these ills, therefore disproportionate substantiation of allegations against Black families—and the removal of Black children—is valid.  

In other words: Poverty equals neglect, and we should take away people’s children because of it. 

Child welfare systems around the nation have tried that deeply flawed strategy for more than 50 years – and done it particularly aggressively in Los Angeles.  So, how has that experiment worked out in LA County? 

It has caused 58% of Black children in Los Angeles to be forced to endure the trauma of a child abuse investigation before they turn 18. 

LA County tears apart families at one of the highest rates among America’s biggest cities and their surrounding counties, more than double the rate of New York City or Chicago.  All those children endure the same depth of emotional trauma we’ve learned is experienced by children taken away from their families at the Mexican border. 

Kids unnecessarily removed from their families are also placed at high risk of abuse in foster care itself

And LA’s high rate of removal didn’t stop those horrible cases of children known-to-the-system dying.   On the contrary, all those false reports, trivial cases, and poverty cases overload DCFS case workers so they have less time to find the relatively few children in real danger.

By Riley’s logic the fact that the take-the-child-and-run solution has failed means that child abuse isn’t really a problem.  That, of course, is ludicrous.  The right choice to make when a solution fails is to try another solution.  Fortunately, much as it upsets right-wing ideologues like Riley, there is one solution that has been proven to work: Help struggling families.  Children in poverty are at higher risk of maltreatment – so take away the poverty (or even just ameliorate it a little).

Multiple studies find that even small amounts of additional financial support will reduce not only neglect but even the worst kinds of abuse.  (Such an investment also costs less than foster care, and far less than group homes and institutions.) 

Chapin Hall, a child welfare think tank at the University of Chicago, estimates that every additional $1,000 per person living in poverty invested in public benefits, whether for medical care, housing, food, or child care, causes a a 2.1% reduction in foster care placements, a 4.3% reduction in abuse and neglect reports – and a 7.7% reduction in child maltreatment fatalities.

Obviously, financial help does not solve the racism that infects child welfare because, contrary to Riley’s claim, study after study—each controlling for other variables—finds there is racial bias, over and above class bias, in the realm of what should be called family policing.

But Riley isn’t just in denial about racial bias. She opposes any measure, however modest, that would curb the power of the family police.  Minnesota, for example, tears apart proportionately even more families than Los Angeles.  And, as in Los Angeles, that hasn’t stopped the horror stories.

She opposes a new law in Minnesota, that simply requires agencies to work harder to try to keep families together – by making “active efforts” to do so.  She also wrings her hands over the fact that the new law raises the standard of proof before a judge can consign a child to the chaos of foster care. Now the standard will be a little higher than the previous “preponderance of  evidence,” a standard so low it’s the one used to decide which insurance company pays for a fender-bender.

In her op-ed, Riley misrepresents a recent New York City initiative as simply “training mandated reporters like teachers to call [Child Protective Services] less often.” 

In fact, the NYC initiative teaches mandated reporters when to report and when to use better alternatives.  As a result, according to an April 24, 2024, report, “schools have referred more than 400 families to community-based organizations providing prevention services and other supports.” 

Then it’s off to Massachusetts where Riley complains about a hospital deciding not to automatically call the family police whenever a child is born exposed to drugs. The hospital made the change because the approach discourages prenatal care and hospital deliveries – putting children in greater danger.  (And in a state that celebrates middle-class “cannamoms” we know who was being reported and who was not.)

When the Los Angeles Times accepted Riley’s op-ed, they may have presumed that her opinion fell somewhere within the bounds of reasoned discourse because she has a perch at the American Enterprise Institute. But if AEI ever was simply a center-right alternative to the centrist Brookings Institution, it’s far  more extreme now.  And Riley is a prime example of this shift. 

Her leanings are demonstrated when she proudly compares her book attacking family preservation to the work of Charles Murray, who is the co-author of, among other publications, the infamous The Bell Curve, which attributes poverty to differences in the “genetic makeup” of poor people. 

(Other titles from Riley’s publisher include: American Bolsheviks: The Persecution of Donald Trump, The Case To Impeach and Imprison Joe Biden, Ashli: The Myth Of Voter Suppression: The Left’s Assault On Clean Elections, Crime Inc.: How Democrats Employ Mafia And Gangster Tactics To Gain And Hold Power, and Rise of the Fourth Reich: Confronting Covid Fascism with a New Nuremberg Trial, So This Never Happens Again.)

Riley’s take on race is so appalling she was kicked off a place as a regular contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education. She dismisses and demeans the lived experiences of the very youth she claims to want to protect.  She has called for requiring any parent reapplying for public benefits whose child has not otherwise seen by a “mandated reporter” to produce the child for a child abuse inspection.  When writing the same sort of commentary for a far-right think tank she titled it “Wokeness has come for Child Protective Services.”  

(One presumes that the Los Angeles Times would not have published Riley’s commentary had she used that headline when submitting it.)  

Fortunately, local policy makers are getting harder to fool.  In Minnesota, the state’s largest newspaper tried to use Riley-style fearmongering to stampede the state into taking away more children, but local lawmakers saw through it and passed the law Riley hates.  

And in Los Angeles, LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell stood up to Riley in a scathing letter to the editor.

After decades perhaps we’re finally outgrowing policy-by-fearmongering.  If so, it just might save some children’s lives.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform,


  • Celeste loves to post Wexler’s stuff and unfortunately this ideology seems to be gaining ground with the blue state administrative AWFL’s .(eg the ones in firm control of Los Angeles and Minnesota) So I guess just like the black lives matter fiasco we’re going to get a body count indicating the folly of this nonsense.

  • Richard Wexler’s honest and common sense response was more compelling then the false narrative that Riley articulates that she is interested in saving and protecting Black children and preserving Black families through her work. Being Black and living in poverty does not equate to child maltreatment and neglect. Also giving birth to a substance exposed infant does not automatically make a woman a bad parent — the family dynamic is more complex then that.
    The body count of the failure of foster care is not just the number of children that die with their parents or in foster care but also includes the numbers of older youth that age out of the child welfare system to homelessness, prison and poverty.

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