50 years after the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, it’s time to redefine child protection through a lens of equity and support

OPINION: By broadly defining abuse and neglect, CAPTA enabled the creation of a punitive child welfare system that conflated the circumstances of poverty with parental neglect, disproportionally affecting Black families. Fifty years later, Congress must act on what we have learned since its passage: Black families need support, not surveillance.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.  

Preventing child abuse is something we all care about. Yet, the first federal law enacted to do just that fails to actually reduce harm to children, instead powering a massive child welfare system that traumatizes and disrupts the lives of millions of Americans — disproportionately Black communities and those experiencing poverty.

As we honor Black history this February, we look back at a decades-old law that remains, to this day, a blight on generations of Black families.

In 1974, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, known as CAPTA. 50 years later, its devastating effects are clear. Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., working together with parents and youth experts who have suffered the harmful effects of this system, advocates, activists, scholars, and our communities, must act now to reconsider this law — and the system overall — that has let kids, families and communities down.

By vaguely and broadly defining abuse and neglect, CAPTA has enabled the creation of a punitive child welfare system that conflates the circumstances of poverty with parental neglect. Rather than acknowledging the systemic barriers faced by families, predominantly Black families, including a lack of access to quality food, housing, child care, health care, mental health supports, and other necessities can compromise a parent’s ability to provide for their children, child welfare agencies and courts label parents “unfit” and punish them. The need for systemic change is urgent — the current response not only hurts parents, it harms their children.

CAPTA, through federal funding, incentivizes states to prevent, assess, investigate, prosecute and treat child abuse and neglect. The result: 50 years of forcible family separation and hundreds of thousands of children entangled in a system described by Kaylah Mcmillan, a woman removed from her mother as a child, as “life in a tsunami.” CAPTA has also led to the expansion of a matrix of state “mandated reporting” requirements that oblige society’s helpers including social workers, medical professionals, educators, and others who care for or interact with children to report suspicions of abuse or neglect, or risk facing legal consequences themselves.

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One of the consequences of mandated reporting is that it can discourage a family or parent from seeking help or punish them if they do. Consider a parent who is facing violence in the home, is struggling to afford food for their children, or, like many in this country, is unable to find affordable, livable housing. Often, when these parents reach out — going to the hospital for example or seeking therapy — that nurse or therapist whose trusted expertise they desperately need, is required under law to report suspected abuse or neglect in the home. That report can then lead to intervention by Child Protective Services (CPS), invasive interviews, threats of child removals and potentially, and most devastatingly, removal of a child from a caring parent.

In a 2023 report, University of Irvine sociology professor Kelley Fong spoke with mothers, primarily women of color, about their involvement with CPS, to learn more about their experiences. She found that “[t]ime and again, mothers told [her] how hurt and betrayed they felt by the schools, hospitals, and other service providers that had accused them of child abuse or neglect. These feelings are important in themselves, exacerbating a sense of exclusion. By fueling distrust and disengagement, they also distance families from the very systems tasked with assisting them.”

Mandated reporters are also more likely to report Black families to CPS, and CPS, in turn, is more likely to investigate those families, determine that the allegations against them are true and remove the children from their parents. In the United States, 53% of Black children will be investigated by child welfare services, and 1 in 41 Black children will have their parents’ legal rights terminated before their 18th birthday. The U.S. Administration for Children and Families, the federal agency responsible for overseeing national child welfare policy, itself acknowledged in 2021 that Black children and other racial minorities are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system.

The current bloated child welfare system is drowning caseworkers in false reports and cases where family poverty is conflated with neglect, making it less — not more likely — that they can identify the children who are actually at risk. Lawmakers must redirect CAPTA funds to strengthen community services and anti-poverty measures, including allowing for direct financial support for families and communities who face the highest risk of CPS involvement. Further, it must remove the requirement that states enforce mandated reporting regimes in exchange for receiving funding.

Our co-author on a prior article, parent Shakira Paige, demonstrates the harm that CAPTA has caused. She recounted how rather than seeking help when her family was experiencing food insecurity, she fed her family peanut butter for days because she was terrified that the staff at her shelter would report her, leading CPS to take her children. In this 50th year that we’ve been subjected to CAPTA, Congress must reflect on all we have learned since its passage: Black families need support, not surveillance.

Shereen A. White is the director of advocacy and policy at Children’s Rights.

Shanta Trivedi is an assistant professor of law and faculty director of the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

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