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Child Welfare’s Ideological Enforcer

City Journal

July 3, 2023

University of Houston professor Alan Dettlaff is the founder of upEND, a movement dedicated to abolishing child protective services and foster care because of their alleged systemic racism. Dettlaff is active on social media, where he spends his time attacking rigorous academic research, encouraging social media mobs to insult others in the field, and even demanding that journals stop publishing work with which he disagrees. This activity may have something to do with the University of Houston’s decision to remove Dettlaff from his position as dean of the Graduate College of Social Work late last year.

His demotion apparently has not made Dettlaff any less of an ideological enforcer in child-welfare scholarship. Most recently, he has attacked a re-analysis by several researchers of a paper called “Poverty or Racism?: Determinants of Disproportionality and Disparity for African American/Black Children in Child Welfare.” The paper, principally authored by Harold Briggs of the University of Georgia, found that in child welfare cases, even when comparing children from families at the same income level, black children were “disproportionately overrepresented and [white] children underrepresented compared to their proportion of the U.S. child population at each decision point.” The Briggs paper concluded that “racism” is to blame.

Researchers led by Brett Drake of Washington University found several problems with the data used in Briggs’s analysis. They noted that the reliance on the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) created some of the problems. “NCANDS variables used are invalid at the national level,” wrote Drake and his colleagues. They also found “concerning issues in analytic strategy and analysis as well, many stemming from a failure to account for the serious underreporting of services in NCANDS, and the wide variability in data quality and consistency across states,” as well as “issues with their statistical analysis.”

Papers pointing out methodological flaws in child welfare studies don’t typically get much attention. But these days, anything that calls into question racism as a cause of some social ill is likely to stir the pot. Dettlaff, whose entire academic bailiwick relies on the idea that child welfare agencies are systemically racist, cannot brook this kind of dissent, especially now that citations of the Briggs paper are spreading like wildfire throughout the field. So, he took to social media: “This is what happens when White Rage and White Fragility take over any sense of reason,” he wrote. “This group will stop at nothing to prove that anti-Black Racism does not exist in Child Protective Services.”

In fact, the Drake paper says nothing of the sort. Nor, I suspect, do the Drake paper’s authors believe that. In fact, a statement released by the American Enterprise Institute two years ago (which several of the Drake authors signed) begins, “The legacy of racial injustice is evident in all aspects of our society, including rates of child abuse and neglect.”

Dettlaff also retweeted a message from an activist accusing another of the Drake researchers—UNC’s Emily Putnam-Hornstein—of being “violently racist.” Others piled on.

Then Dettlaff concluded his message with a warning to the journal that published the paper: “It’s also important to note the complicity of Sage Journals and the journal reviewers who thought it was acceptable for this kind of racism to be published. Perhaps they don’t understand the harm and trauma this paper will cause, but that’s no longer a valid excuse. They need to understand this if they’re going to be the gatekeepers of what is published.”

In other words, it’s no longer acceptable for academic journals to publish anything questioning the current orthodoxy in child welfare. This stance has taken hold in other fields, too, from climate change to gender interventions. Already, far too much research in child welfare is based on bad data or no data—just “lived experience.” Now Dettlaff and his followers are trying to run any remaining rigorous scholars out of the profession, or at least ensure that their work can’t find a publisher.

If they succeed, arrant nonsense will increasingly replace legitimate research. For example, Dettlaff recently recommended an article from the new journal Abolitionist Perspectives in Social Work, called “When ‘Good Intentions’ Backfire: A Case for Non-Transracial Legal Guardianship Rather Than Adoption and Why Transracial Adoption Is Not Trauma Informed.”

Another way to ensure more research with an ideological slant is to fund it—and that’s what the federal government is doing. The Administration for Children and Families, for instance, is offering a grant for a “Field-Initiated Approach to Addressing Racial Bias and Inequity in Child Welfare.” The thesis that racial bias plagues child welfare agencies is the unquestioned starting point: “This funding opportunity will enable communities to design and lead targeted solutions to local issues of systemic disproportionality.” The assumption is that any racial disproportionality is in itself evidence of racial bias; no research showing otherwise will be funded. Applicants need to develop an “equity impact statement” that should be “data-driven (including qualitative input from experts, such as those with lived experience, or other anecdotal community data).” In other words, not really data-driven.

Academic activists like Dettlaff started off on the fringes of child welfare policy. His upEND movement started only three years ago. But already, he and his followers have gained enough of a following that their ranting on social media can influence the funding flows and intellectual trajectory of the field. It will take some brave researchers, editors, and policymakers to steer child welfare policy away from their nonsense.

About the Author

Naomi Schaefer Riley