Last night, Kellyanne Conway posted nude photos of her daughter on Twitter. Less than a week ago, the night before Biden and Harris’s inauguration, Twitter was outraged by leaked videos of Kellyanne Conway threatening her daughter with: “You’re lucky your mom’s pro-life!” Tweets that CPS needed to be called popped up across the timeline. Many people who barely survived their own abusive parents gently replied, explaining that it is naive to think that CPS (Child Protective Services) will investigate a powerful, wealthy white mother. Poor, Black and Brown families have their children taken away for far less.
In November, CPS placed my niece with my dad who trafficked me in the 90s. They told me that they need to investigate. It has been two months. January is supposed to be Human Trafficking Awareness Month, but the growing thrum of ill-informed QAnon hysteria illustrates how much we need pragmatic CPS reform more than viral awareness campaigns. What good is building awareness of human trafficking if we can’t trust CPS to do their only job?
Our taxes fund CPS’s work, but how can we trust an institution whose systemic racism, classism, and child abuse clouds the first page of search results when you Google their phone number? CPS has a long history of racism, documented when Congress passed the 1978 ICWA law to stop social workers from committing bureaucratic genocide after decades of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families. CPS’s legacy of racism continues today in the disproportionate targeting of Black and Brown families, social workers’ complicit role in the Border Patrol’s inhumane atrocities against immigrant families, and in their systemic minimizing of concerns about white, affluent parents. This is how the Harts murdered six Black children, Markis, Hannah, Abigail, Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera. Most of the children were adopted from the Texas foster system. Multiple CPS investigations of the Harts had been opened in different states, and each time they moved to a new state where they could restart the abuse with a clean slate. Part of this is because we do not have a national child abuse database. And part of this is because white parents who do not appear poor are rarely ever investigated and charged by CPS, even if they aren’t as powerful and connected as Kellyanne Conway.
For those of us who escaped our parents’ abuse with the shrapnel of PTSD lodged in our bodies, we know that CPS can only be trusted if you’re lucky enough to meet one exceptional anti-racist social worker who actually cares, and who doesn’t conflate poverty with abuse. But those social workers are rare in CPS because they burn out quickly, working in a system that purports to prevent child abuse, but more often facilitates it.
CPS needs to be reformed, but we also need to increase funding because if you are an organization that does not pay well, you will attract the worst people in the field. Instead of talented and kind therapists or social workers that employers like hospitals might attract, you will end up hiring from a pool saturated with candidates who are motivated to work with vulnerable populations for nefarious reasons.
For example in New York State last year, the Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) had a budget of $3.8 billion with a net decrease of $236 million from the previous year. This might seem like a lot of money, but that is the OCFS budget for the entire state of New York. OCFS’s budget to protect vulnerable children across the entire state is 23 times smaller, compared to the $88.19 billion NYPD 2020 budget to police one city. When people say “Defund the Police’’ this is what they mean.
New York’s disproportionate budget is a microcosm of nearly every city, every county, and every state’s CPS funding across the U.S. Repeatedly, we approve bloated budgets for police forces and barely fund services to protect and serve our most vulnerable citizens: children who are only granted legal rights by proxy. Due to nothing but sheer luck, some of us are fortunate enough to have been born to non-abusive parents. Children only have as many rights and protections as the adults around them are willing to give.
So what are the solutions? After all, January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
- Leadership: Just like executive leadership for anti-trafficking nonprofits which are usually led by wealthy white men and women who are not trafficking survivors, CPS is usually led by white people who did not grow up in foster care. We need social workers, therapists, and executive leadership that reflects the demographics of the children that CPS protects. In positions of power at CPS, we need immigrants and the children of immigrants; Black, Brown, Indigenous and Muslim leaders; survivors of the foster care system; child trafficking survivors; and LGBTQ leaders, especially those who were homeless as teenagers when their parents kicked them out. Without leadership that is representative of the population that CPS claims they want to protect, CPS will continue to be a racist, classist institution that taxpayers fund to commit child abuse.
- Stop punishing parents for being poor: We need to interrogate why we take children away from impoverished parents who can’t afford childcare. Foster parents are given a monthly stipend to help them care for foster kids. What if we gave this stipend instead to parents who are not abusive, but had their children taken away because they couldn’t afford a babysitter for their work shift at a job that pays minimum wage or less.
- Transparency, Oversight and a Simple Grievance Process for CPS: I had to threaten to sue, call social workers for two months, and do the investigative work for CPS that my taxes are supposed to pay for before I finally got in touch with an ombudsman to review the case. And still nothing. This is not a system that is easy for anyone to navigate, and it was very difficult to figure out who to talk to.
- CPS and the Border Patrol need to stop forcibly removing children from their parents at the Mexico-U.S. border, locking children in cages, and placing them in the foster system. In addition to this being horrifically inhumane and hopefully a war crime that we will be held accountable for as a nation, our foster system has been overwhelmed for decades. We can’t even safely care for the children whose parents were not trying to seek asylum in the U.S.
- Stop punishing domestic abuse victims: Many children are taken away from their parent when there has been a domestic violence call, citing accusations that they were not able to protect their children from a violent environment. What if instead of paying foster parents to care for the children who were forcibly removed, we gave that money to the parent who was beaten so that they can move their family into a new and safe location without increasing the children’s trauma of their family being pulled apart?
- Increased Funding: With more funding for CPS, many of the reasons the police claim to need such a bloated budget would dissipate. The police are paid to police poverty. So what if we addressed poverty instead? Would that put the police out of a job, and if so, isn’t that a good thing? I’m sure the families of police officers want to live in communities with less violence too. What if CPS could support poor parents in finding stable housing, paying for childcare, and accessing education instead of taking their children away because they can’t afford a babysitter for their shift at work?
- National Database: The Harts would not have been able to murder six children (Markis, Hannah, Abigail, Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera) so easily if we had a national database to track child abuse investigations.
- Documentation: CPS needs to keep records of investigations for 100 years because abusive parents frequently become abusive grandparents.
January is supposed to be Human Trafficking Awareness Month. But as QAnon has shown us with the arrest of a Cleveland Schools therapist who participated in the siege of the Capitol, constructing real solutions is more important than building awareness. We are the adults in the room, and as taxpayers, we need to stop being complicit in CPS’s atrocities, hold these public agencies accountable for their dangerous negligence, and fund these services like we actually care about children. No one condones child abuse, so why isn’t CPS reform and funding a popular bipartisan issue?
How do you call CPS on CPS? Because it should not feel like winning the lottery when the child abuse hotline is answered by a compassionate, thoughtful social worker who actually cares that CPS placed an infant with a violent trafficker.