In 2018, Jessica Pryce released a TED talk called “To transform child welfare, take race out of the equation.” Pryce, who was an investigator for Child Protective Services in Florida for a few years before going on to graduate school and becoming a professor at Florida State, described the results of an experiment in Nassau County, New York, and encouraged others to adopt it. Pryce’s video garnered 1.3 million views, and her influence in the field spread.

The biggest problem in child welfare, according to Pryce and many of her colleagues, is the presence of racial disparities. Black families are more likely to be investigated, and the reports of neglect and abuse about them are more likely to be substantiated. Their children are more likely to be removed and placed in the foster-care system. (That they are more likely to experience abuse and neglect and even die of maltreatment is rarely mentioned.)

Not surprisingly, many jurisdictions have taken to lecturing their workers about the dangers of unconscious bias. To combat this problem, Nassau County (which is part of Long Island), decided it would try a policy of “blind removals.” Simply put, the idea was that bias would be reduced if the people making the decision about whether a child should enter foster care remained ignorant of the child’s race.

There was reason to be skeptical about such an experiment. It is helpful, in principle, to have a person who has actually interacted with the child and the family involved in making such decisions. But never mind. The results of the experiment seemed nothing short of miraculous. “In 2011, 57 percent of the kids going into foster care were black, but after five years of blind removals, that is down to 21 percent,” Pryce explained to a round of TED applause. And many child-welfare leaders paid attention. Indeed, New York State asked that all the other counties make plans to implement blind removal. Los Angeles launched a pilot, too.

Unfortunately, as scholars dug a little deeper, they found it was too good to be true. Here, for instance, is a sample of the problems pointed out by Marie Cohen, a former social worker who runs a blog called Child Welfare Monitor:

Jessica Pryce’s percentages were not accurate. The 57 percent (56.7 percent) that she cites as the percentage of Black children removed in 2011 was actually the percentage of Black children removed in 2010. As for the 2016 data…37.1 percent of the children removed…were Black, rather than 21 percent cited by Pryce—rather a large difference.

There [had been] a sharp increase in the Black share of children removed, from 45.2 percent in 2009 to 56.7 percent in 2010, the year before the program was implemented. With the implementation of blind removals, the percentage of children removed who were Black declined for two years to 45.5 percent in 2012, then rose for two years to 57.4 percent in 2014, fell to its all-time low of 37.1 percent in 2016, then rose to 49.7 percent in 2018, dipping slightly back to 45.1 percent in 2019, then popping back up to 49.5 percent in 2020—higher than it was in 2009 before the program was implemented.

In other words, Cohen concludes, “with such large fluctuations from year to year, as well as changes in direction, it is hard to imagine drawing any conclusions from the difference between any particular two years.”

Little attention has been paid to this debunking, and Pryce has not issued any kind of retraction or apology for what seems like a basic inability to analyze some statistics. The TED talk is viewed and cited regularly. And now Pryce has a new book out called Broken: Transforming Child Protective Services, which offers a lengthier (ostensibly evidence-based) diagnosis of and prescription for how to fix the child-welfare system. But the bar for what passes as research in this field is so low that Pryce is a star.

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Pryce’s description of the evolution of this book says a lot not only about the field of child welfare but also about what passes for social science these days. Pryce notes that her first draft of the book was structured around the stories of black women who had been involved with CPS and reached out to her. Obviously, this is not exactly a scientific sample. But her editor wanted something more personal. So, Pryce writes, “I decided to only include cases on women I knew personally or worked with directly.” This is the “lived experience” that is guiding public policy in a variety of fields, and it’s what every publisher (including Harper Collins, apparently) wants.

Pryce’s time getting her Ph.D. from Howard University exposed her to the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw and the concept of “intersectionality,” which led her to realize that the “multiple identities” of black women “created vulnerabilities to the system.” She explains that “black women are often erased by and in American institutions.” So, for instance, when Pryce was a caseworker, she says, “our training prepared us to investigate an ‘abuser,’ hold that ‘abuser’ responsible, and save their children without much attention to culture, context or the weight of injustice.”

There are a lot of air quotes and italics in that passage that would puzzle most Americans. Is the idea that these parents are not actually abusing their kids? Or that CPS doesn’t really investigate? Or that taking kids out of abusive situations is not actually saving them? Or, as Pryce implies, that none of this matters because culture is more important and black kids should be left with their parents, even if they are being abused?

There have been other books recently about the problems of the child-welfare system and its intrusion into the lives of families. But at least books such as Torn Apart, by the University of Pennsylvania’s Dorothy Roberts, and They Took the Kids Last Night, by Diane Redleaf, actually presented families who had been falsely accused of mistreating their children and had their kids removed improperly. One might argue that these are the exception, but at least these authors are laying out the case for government overreach.

Pryce, on the other hand, presents stories of people who actually abused their children, sometimes severely—and still she claims Child Protective Services were somehow the problem. Take the case of Erica, a friend of Pryce’s, who was caring for her four-year-old goddaughter, Madisen. The girl’s mother and father suffered from substance abuse and mental-health issues and left the state with their other children, abandoning Madisen to the care of Erica. The child’s day care called CPS because she showed up with bruises all over her legs and arms from Erica hitting her with a belt. The girl told the day-care worker it was from a spanking. Pryce saw the pictures. Her colleague noted: “This child got her ass beat.”

Pryce cannot spare a thought for Madisen. She is instead invested in how difficult Erica’s situation was—what with having to work and go to school and take care of the child. Pryce writes, “Some believe that physical abuse is most commonly an intentional and willful act, but on the contrary, it most often occurs when a parent is using their chosen form of discipline.” To which one might ask: Who cares? And isn’t disciplining a child willful and intentional?

Or take the case of Jatoia, whose baby was born premature. Not even a month later, she and her husband Lawrence were in the emergency room. The baby was having seizures and trouble breathing. When the hospital found that the baby had severe head trauma—for which the couple had no explanation—it called CPS. Pryce goes on for page after page about how Jatoia, now allowed only supervised visits with the baby and his older brother, was being unfairly separated from her children. How dare they? But then it turns out that Lawrence (who clearly had a temper and had tried to choke Jatoia at one point) had dropped the baby and just didn’t tell anyone about it for years.

Jatoia took her case all the way up to the North Carolina Supreme Court, where Pryce tried to testify on her behalf about the disparate impact of child protection on black women. But it is hard to understand how Jatoia’s case illustrates the need for changing CPS or what her being black has to do with anything. The hospital correctly identified an injury and prevented the child from going back home with his parents, who had provided no explanation for this injury. The fact that CPS could not figure out which parent was responsible—and that one parent was hiding his culpability from the other—doesn’t seem to merit any systemic reform.

Pryce explains that “watching people in your life—people who are close to you—struggle through the CPS process is a form of torture, especially when you consider how many families have been put through the same process.” Oh. And is it torture to see children who have experienced abuse and neglect? Pryce doesn’t say.

CPS often makes poor decisions. Its workers are ill-trained and over-worked. The low pay, long hours, and emotional difficulties associated with the job mean that it doesn’t attract the best and the brightest. Its information systems are antiquated. There is a high turnover rate. But it is the safety net of last resort for kids who are suffering. And campaigns to abolish it—which rose up alongside plans to defund the police—have had a terrible effect on morale. And constant calls of racism have led workers to leave children in unsafe situations.

But there is Pryce, leading the chorus, with her false statistics and her focus on the victimizer rather than the victim. She says of her early career, “I wanted to help children and keep them safe.… As I continued in my work… it became clear that the measures that we used were alienating, isolating, punitive and misguided.” Is the implication that keeping kids safe is no longer a priority for Pryce? It’s not merely an implication. It is the be-all and end-all of her disgusting work.

Photo: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

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