When you see something, should you say something? According to the Office of Children and Family Services, it depends on the race of the victim.
New guidance released last month for New York City teachers offers some unusual bits of advice.
Rather than reporting suspected cases of abuse to the Administration for Children’s Services, teachers should actually remain quiet in instances where a family “just needs help, such as access to child care assistance, mental health counseling or concrete resources,” Commissioner Jess Dannhauser announced at a press conference in mid-October.
The revised educator training is part of a plan to lower the number of children who are reported to ACS and, in particular, the disproportionate number of those children who are black and Latino.
The need to reduce reporting numbers is clear: Anecdotal evidence suggests that too many kids are finding their way into the child welfare system.
Kids who, for instance, walk to the park by themselves or kids left alone in the car while a parent runs into the supermarket.
Not only are such children not in any actual danger, but calls like these waste valuable time of the hotline and social workers committed to keeping kids safe.
Still, the underlying assumption that students who come to class improperly clothed or washed or fed — or who live in homes without heat — are not the concern of the child welfare system is misguided.
True, the city’s social safety net may at times overreach, but there are significant public and private resources to help families in need — and parents with basic wherewithal should turn to them.
But not every parent can make such crucial decisions.
Some may need “mental health counseling” — to cite Dannhauser’s example — which makes a report to child welfare all the more important.
Indeed, parents dealing with mental health challenges or substance abuse issues may not even realize their child is suffering.
And this is where things go from bad to tragic, since most child maltreatment fatalities in the US result from neglect, not abuse.
Keeping kids safe is neither simple nor easy.
Part of the problem is the myriad players involved.
Well-meaning teachers may worry that a student is missing school, coming in late or arriving unkempt and hungry.
To them, the family may simply need some extra cash or a referral to standard support services.
But the teacher won’t know that the police have been to the home five times in the last month because of domestic violence or that the mother has a history of addiction.
And basic support service groups won’t have these details, either.
The solution, offered by Danhauser and the Office of Children and Family Services, is to simply suggest that teachers keep their mouths shut more often.
They will tell teachers about how traumatic child welfare investigations are.
Or impress upon teachers the consequences of “implicit bias” because child welfare investigations have a disproportionate impact on black families.
Teachers, they will say, should think twice (or more than that, ideally) before reporting a black child.
This would be a mistake.
For one thing, “there is no evidence that implicit bias or racial sensitivity trainings change behavior,” according to a recent article in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect.
One “review of almost 1,000 reports of interventions designed to reduce prejudice … found little consistent evidence of effectiveness . . . In fact, there is some indication…that compulsory diversity and racial sensitivity training efforts may . . . increase discrimination and bias.”
Black children are reported more frequently to child welfare, but there is no evidence that it is because of bias.
Indeed, it is often teachers (of the same race), as well as neighbors and family members who are doing the reporting.
Which makes sense.
Nationwide, Black children are twice as likely to be abused or neglected and three times as likely to be a victim of a maltreatment-related fatality.
A New York Times analysis of child homicides in New York City from 2016 to 2022 found that Black children “were killed by family members at about seven times the rate for white and Asian children and three times the rate for Hispanic children.”
But no, ACS says, teachers should feel free to ignore their instincts and not report the black child so the investigation numbers will fall even further.
The truth is that teachers are often the only adults who regularly see a child experiencing danger at home. Discouraging them from telling the authorities is not only illogical, it can be deadly.