In Maricopa County, Arizona, 63 percent of black children are investigated by the Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS) by the time they turn 18, according to a joint report published this month by ProPublica and NBC News. For white children, the number is only 33 percent.
One black mother was investigated by the Arizona DCS after she sought medical care when her daughter fell off a couch. Another woman had her children taken for over a year after she left them home alone for 20 minutes. Another was investigated after facing an unfounded accusation that she left her autistic child in the car while she went inside a store.
Of the dozens of parents ProPublica and NBC News interviewed, "almost all described a system so omnipresent among Black families that it has created a kind of communitywide dread… Many expressed disbelief that it was so easy for the state government to enter their family realm and potentially remove their kids from them."
The investigation found that between 2015 and 2019, Maricopa County had the highest rate of child safety investigations into black children among the 20 largest U.S. counties. But only 2 percent of Maricopa County kids whose families "were accused of child maltreatment from 2015 to 2019 were ultimately determined or suspected by caseworkers to be victims of any form of physical or sexual abuse following an investigation." While the national average for child protective services investigations is already high—one-third of all children are expected to be investigated by the time they reach adulthood nationwide—DCS investigations in Maricopa County disproportionately affect black children.
Arizona's DCS director argues that, since 2019, the department has successfully reduced its number of investigations statewide. Still, the report notes that such reductions have done little to help black families: "Although 7,400 fewer white children were the subject of investigations completed from the 2016 to 2020 fiscal years, the number of Black kids whose parents were investigated dropped by less than 100."
In all, the effect on those investigated can be devastating. ProPublica and NBC News interviewed one mother who, after two DCS investigations, "now feels intense dread when any of her children have even a minor injury or come down sick, fearing that DCS will show up again if she takes them to the doctor."
State and local government agencies that deploy overly broad definitions of abuse and neglect to police and break up families face little pushback due to the stigma parents feel about being investigated. But as one Phoenix-area principal and community organizer told ProPublica and NBC, hearing the DCS investigation rates are "like turning on the lights, and all of us are now standing in the room together saying, 'What? You too?'"
One of the main reasons for the staggering volume of investigations by child protective services is a wide-ranging definition of "neglect"—an accusation that often justifies state investigations of parents who, while not abusive, are simply poor and thus live in homes that are dirty, too small, or without adequate food. Allegations of neglect, not abuse, initiate 60 percent of child safety investigations across the country.
In Arizona, spending priorities have paved the way for the state's frequent and aggressive DCS investigations. Sixty-one percent of the state's welfare budget goes to the DCS department, while only 13 percent goes to actual welfare programs. Nationally, states send on average only 8 percent of their welfare budget to child protective services. These spending habits leave Arizona parents particularly vulnerable to investigations from an overfunded DCS department—a department that seemingly uses its extra funding to chase after nebulous "neglect" claims, which form the basis of 90 percent of Arizona DCS investigations.
Child protective services agencies often investigate families and seize children without proper cause or evidence. (In New York City, a third of seizures are overturned the same day they're actually reviewed by a judge.) But they also fail to intervene in cases of real abuse. For example, in 2012, an analysis of 30 states found that 8.5 percent of the estimated 1,640 children who died of abuse or neglect that year had families that received "family preservation services" from a child protection services department beforehand.
To protect more children and help more families, child protective services agencies around the country should narrow the definition of "neglect" to prevent poor but essentially good parents from having their children taken. Instead of seizing children who live in a house with insufficient food, or who have been left unsupervised while their parent works a nightshift job, child protective services should direct parents to resources designed to help.