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Political Affiliation Has Limited Impact on Public’s Perceptions of Child Welfare

There is widespread concern (amongst those in the field, those who study the issue, those who advocate…) that the historically bipartisan nature of child welfare policymaking has been negatively affected by political polarization. Learning how different groups of society see the role of the child welfare system will allow policymakers and advocates to respond to public sentiment in this space and build on consensus where it can be found. This blog examines how political differences between Republicans and Democrats shape the public’s view of the child welfare system.

As we look at the polling data, a few general observations:

  1. Broad bipartisan consensus on most aspects of the child welfare system: Polling shows few differences between how Republicans and Democrats think about the causes of child abuse and the ways that the child welfare system should respond. However, areas with significant public consensus may not be aligned with the views of system leaders.
  2. Small but meaningful differentiation on who is at fault when child abuse occurs: While not large, there are meaningful differences on questions surrounding who is at fault when child abuse occurs. Republicans generally are more likely to say that child abuse is the parents’ fault.
  3. Small but meaningful differences in the child welfare system’s purpose: Democrats are more likely to say that the child welfare system should strengthen families, whereas Republicans believe that the child welfare system should prioritize protecting children.

Why Child Neglect and Abuse Occur

Republicans and Democrats both believe that the most significant causes of child abuse are the ill-intent or desire of parents to harm their children; parents who use drugs or alcohol; generational trauma or patterns; and untreated mental health issues. Democrats and Republicans are less likely to believe that material hardship—such as lack of financial resources, lack of access to child care, or lack of access to affordable housing—are reasons why child abuse occurs.

Questions on why child neglect occurs shows a similar pattern of agreement but provides different causes. Americans continue to believe that drug or alcohol abuse is an important factor in child neglect. Yet they are more likely to also believe that some parents are uninterested in caring for their children or that there is a lack of financial resources or knowledge in parenting by families where child neglect occurs.

The consensus here is striking, not only because there is a strong level of agreement, but also because this view is at odds with what many child welfare leaders believe. While many public agencies and nonprofits have suggested in recent years that more material supports for struggling families could reduce investigations into families and removals to foster care, across the political spectrum the public seems to see causes other than poverty as the main drivers of child maltreatment. The public’s focus on the influence of substance abuse and mental illness suggests that child welfare leaders and policymakers may want to pay closer attention to the connection between these factors and involvement with the child welfare system.  It is important to note that more than a third of those responding to the poll had some direct experience with the child welfare system.

Important political differences also show up in our polling. Democrats are more likely to believe that neglectful parents can provide safe and needed care when they receive proper supports and that child neglect and abuse aren’t usually the parents’ ill intent but rather a product of unfortunate circumstances or parental incapacity. A majority of both parties believe that neglectful parents can provide safe and needed care when they receive proper support whereas only a minority of both Republicans and Democrats believe the same when abuse is included.

What the Ideal Child Welfare System Looks Like

A majority of Republicans and independents believe that when balancing the government’s interest in the well-being of children and parental authority that parental authority should be favored while a majority of Democrats believe the opposite.

These significant differences are also reflected within the parties. While some who identify as Republican—including more religious and libertarian respondents—lean more toward parental rights because of a skepticism of government intervention, so do a number of progressive Democrats, who in recent years have argued that the child welfare system is structurally racist and the government cannot be trusted to treat families fairly across racial lines. Recent public debates about “parents’ rights” in the context of education, vaccination, and transgender surgeries for minors have influenced the way that Americans of all stripes see the balance between parental and governmental authority.

On several issues, Republicans and Democrats share similar views. A majority of Republicans and Democrats believe they would need to see some evidence of harm to make a report and that the child welfare system should err on the side of investigating reports. More than four-fifths of Republicans and Democrats favor an investigation if a newborn shows signs of drug exposure during pregnancy. Similar percentages favor investigation if parents show signs of substance abuse. In a legal and cultural environment that has become more permissive of drug use, Americans across the political spectrum still express deep concern about the effect of drug use by parents on infants and children. Even as policymakers and child welfare advocates have moved away from testing mothers and newborns and forgoing investigations in favor of offering voluntary services, the American public clearly expects strong involvement from the child welfare system.

Similarly, Republicans and Democrats believe the system should favor keeping families together when possible, but they also agree that parents who maltreat their children should not be able to do so indefinitely. Indeed, more than 80% of Republicans and Democrats say that giving parents 15 months (as the current law suggests) to address issues that interfere with their ability to parent is either the right amount or too much time. While many policymakers and child welfare leaders have been pushing to extend these timelines or eliminate them altogether, it is striking to see the level of bipartisan support for maintaining them.

How the System Currently Functions

Americans have similar levels of knowledge and interaction with the child welfare system. And Americans have an overall positive view of the child welfare system, though they also view the system as broken. Nevertheless, significant political differences do exist.

Democrats are much more likely to believe that the system is biased when making decisions, especially as it relates to race. While a majority of Republicans believe that socio-economic status biases system decisions, only a minority of Republicans believe that racial biases influence decisions. Democrats, however, see both socioeconomic status and racial biases influencing decisions. Finally, 61% of Democrats believe that the child welfare system perpetuates the oppression of marginalized people, but only 48% of Republicans believe the same thing.

Conclusion

There is broad, bipartisan agreement amongst the American people on most aspects of the child welfare system. Differences tend to be small, but meaningful. Policymakers and advocates should recognize that there may be a gap between how Americans view the child welfare system and how its leaders see it, but there is a clear foundation to develop bipartisan consensus on a number of issues impacting our nation’s children and families.

Note: Naomi Schaefer Riley is one of BPC’s expert advisors to its Child Welfare Initiative and a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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