Guest Opinion: Fixing child welfare requires listening to gut instinct — and doing the opposite

States and localities that have emphasized curbing poverty, high-quality family defense and other initiatives to reduce needless foster care have made children safer.


If you really want to fix a broken “child welfare” system you need to listen to your gut instinct — and do the opposite.

Gut instinct says: A mother is charged with torturing her children. The case file has more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day Parade, including a history of child abuse and neglect going back decades. So Richard Gehrman tells us the system is bending over backwards to preserve families at the expense of child safety.

But the data tell a different story. They tell the story of a state that, for decades, has been fanatical about tearing apart families, often when those families’ poverty is confused with “neglect.” In addition to doing enormous harm to children needlessly taken, this so overloads the system that workers don’t have time to investigate any case carefully. Rather than a fanatical desire to preserve families, it is Minnesota’s take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare that is making all children less safe.

In 2021, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, Minnesota took away children at a rate more than double the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in. That’s nothing new. Minnesota has been an extreme outlier for decades. And yet the tragedies haven’t stopped.

In 2014, after the death of Eric Dean, Gehrman made the same claims he’s making now. State officials listened. The number of children torn from their families, already extremely high, shot up more than 10% in a single year.


Yet now, Gehrman is back, pointing out how many children known to the system died between the time Minnesota did exactly as he demanded and now. Why should we repeat an approach that keeps failing so spectacularly?

It fails because of a misunderstanding of who is in the system and why.

In Minnesota, among children thrown into foster care, 84% were taken in cases that did not involve an allegation of sexual abuse or any form of physical abuse. Half did not even involve an allegation of drug use. More often, children are taken for a variety of reasons that boil down to “neglect.” Sometimes neglect can be extremely serious. More often it means a family is poor .

The problem with all this is not that it hurts parents, though of course, it does. The problem is the enormous harm to children.

Remember the anguished cries of children torn from their parents at the Mexican border? When caseworkers for Crow Wing County take away children there is a difference: Those workers have the best of intentions. But the children they take cry out the same way for the same reasons.

So it’s no wonder that multiple studies , including one from Minnesota , find that in typical cases, not the horror stories, children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

That harm occurs even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are. But the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than generally realized and far higher than in the general population. Independent studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes. The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.

But even that isn’t the worst of it. The more that workers are overwhelmed with false allegations, trivial cases and children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find children in real danger. So they make even more mistakes in all directions. That’s almost always the real reason for the horror stories about children left in dangerous homes.


Yes, of all the children who die, many were, in some way, “known to the system.” But that statistic omits crucial context.

In 2021, nearly 100,000 Minnesota children were, in some way, “known to the system.” That same year there were 22 child abuse deaths — both among those known to the system and those who were not. That means at most, of all children known to the system in Minnesota 99.9998% did not die of child abuse or neglect. Each of those 22 deaths is the worst imaginable tragedy; the only acceptable goal is zero. They also are needles in a haystack. But every time there’s a high-profile case, we hear cries to make the haystack even bigger. That will only make it harder to find those few children in time to save them.

No place in America has prevented every horrific tragedy. But from Alabama to New York City states and localities that have emphasized curbing poverty, high-quality family defense and other initiatives to reduce needless foster care have made children safer while forcing fewer children into foster care.

At long last Minnesota should follow their lead. Children’s lives depend on it.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

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