Following a recent Star Tribune exposé about how children in Minnesota are falling through child protection cracks — more than 50 times to their deaths over the last decade — Gov. Mark Dayton charged a task force with investigating why this has been happening and recommending ways of stopping it from happening again. I’m guessing members of the group will cover a lot of ground over the next few months and then write a report containing more than a few pointed words.
But what do you think the odds are that they’ll acknowledge any evidence and data like the following? My own guess: pretty slim.
• As reported by W. Bradford Wilcox and Jeffrey Dew of the University of Virginia, a study in Missouri found that preschool children living in a cohabiting household with an unrelated male were “nearly 50 times more likely to be killed than children living in a home with both biological parents.”
• Although boyfriends contribute less than 2 percent of nonparental care, they are “responsible for half of all reported child abuse by nonparents.”
• Or framing matters positively, children who grow up in an “intact, married household with their fathers are significantly less likely overall to experience neglect or abuse than are children who spend some time apart from their fathers.”
Excepting sexual abuse, mothers are actually more likely than fathers to abuse or neglect their children. While this might surprise, it makes sense given how mothers generally spend much more time with them, often severely stressed time in tight quarters. True, the Star Tribune story igniting the current controversy (“The boy they couldn’t save,” Aug. 31) dealt with how a 4-year-old boy in northwestern Minnesota, Eric Dean, died at the hands not of his birth mother but rather his stepmother. But Eric had been living with the latter along with his father, because he had been maltreated when previously living with his birth mother and her boyfriend.
No, this is not easy to follow, but in a follow-up story about another high-profile case, this time a more perversely conventional one, the Star Tribune in October recalled how another 4-year-old boy, Key’Ontay Miller-Peterson, had been beaten to death in 2012 over an extended period by his mother’s boyfriend.
In each instance, child protection systems failed completely, downplaying and ignoring warning after warning, mostly because social workers and other officials were determined to remedy situations that were beyond repair instead of rescuing children who needed nothing less.
Why the unlikelihood of Dayton’s task force saying much of anything about how living under the same roof with two married parents is decidedly the safest place, on average, for children to grow up? And why is there often excessive determination on the part of child protection officials (particularly in Minnesota, for some reason) to therapeutically “assess” and seek to fix culpable parents rather than to investigate and punish them?
The answer to the first question is simple enough: It’s just not politically OK to publicly favor one kind of family over another. Writer Heather Mac Donald felicitously substituted the word “valorize” for “favor” in a recent book of mine. To expect a task force appointed by a Democratic governor in a state like Minnesota to declare in print that children tend to be less safe in single-parent homes is to expect quite a bit.
As for the second question about assessing and fixing, let’s start with how keeping government out of the lives of families is usually a good rule to live by. Generally speaking, it’s also poorly appreciated how traumatic removal can be for children even when they’re removed from terrible situations. And even though my wife and I have been angered several times over the last two decades by the system’s unwillingness or inability to do much of anything in protecting vulnerable children we know well, I’m still quick to recognize how dreadfully difficult child protection jobs are — making ungodly consequential judgments while weighed down by too many cases and too little time.
But let me suggest a key reason why working to responsibly remove endangered children from their parents — or frequently from just one parent, as the other is AWOL — is a fundamentally treacherous course and why Minnesota, perhaps more than other states, because of its political and social culture, is unlikely to take on much more of it.
The hard truth is that boys and girls of color comprise disproportionately large numbers of children in need of protection. It would be politically problematic if measurably larger numbers of African-American and other minority parents wound up in court fighting to keep their kids. At least in the Twin Cities area, where most Minnesotans of color live, it’s hard to see child protection officials substantially loosening the criteria by which, in association with police and prosecutors, they petition courts to send more children to foster care or terminate parental rights entirely. More likely, child protection workers would continue focusing, probably more heavily than their counterparts in other states, on reconstructing families and households — or, in many cases, constructing healthy situations for the first healthy time.
If this is to be, one can only hope.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment. His newest book, “Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future,” was released in August.