Will Schneider: My Path to Illinois

“I’ve come to know several undergraduates who went through the foster care system in Illinois and are now studying to become social workers themselves. Having students like these … adds so much to the classroom experience,” Schneider said.

Growing up in a family of social scientists in Brooklyn, New York, it may have been inevitable that I would spend my life exploring the mysteries of human behavior and misbehavior. My father is a psychology professor, and my older brother followed my mother into the sociology field, but I decided to buck tradition and get a doctorate in social work.

And luckily it was the right choice. After graduating from the University of Michigan, I worked for a few years at Princeton University and Columbia University on research projects related to parenting and child well-being, where I discovered a passion for child maltreatment prevention.

Child maltreatment is a pervasive problem in the United States. It cuts across racial and ethnic lines, and while the prevalence varies between states, nearly 1 in 100 children are affected – this is a staggering number of children.

After a postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University, I was thrilled to be offered a faculty position in the School of Social Work at Illinois. The school has been one of the pioneers in child welfare research, undertaking work that led to guardianship in foster care, and today provides training for the state’s child protective service workers.

I’ve come to know several undergraduates who went through the foster care system in Illinois and are now studying to become social workers themselves. Having students like these, and others who have experienced hardship, adds so much to the classroom experience.

People generally know that child maltreatment is bad, but few are aware of the lifelong effects it has on children – including mental health problems, cognitive difficulties and increased risk of criminal justice involvement.

Child abuse often is defined as an act of commission – or an intentional act by a parent or guardian that physically harms a child. Conversely, child neglect is an act of omission – or a failure to act that endangers a child or causes imminent harm.

Although the rates of abuse have declined drastically over the past 30 years,rates of neglect have remained high. My research has focused on this puzzle: Why has child abuse declined while child neglect has remained largely unchanged?

In 1974, the U.S. Congress passed the Child Abuse Protection and Treatment

Act, or CAPTA. The Act was premised on the idea that child maltreatment stems from parental psychopathology – from depression, stress, emotional problems and character defects – that could be treated by mental health interventions.

One possibility for why child abuse has declined but child neglect has not is because neglect may be more closely tied to poverty than mental health or parenting decisions.

And this is a problem, because nearly all the funding for maltreatment prevention stems from CAPTA, which – for largely political reasons – doesn’t acknowledge poverty as a potential determinant of neglect.

My colleagues and I have been investigating whether there is a causal connection between poverty and child maltreatment by drawing on a series of natural experiments where there is an outside economic shock to families.

Using survey data of low-income families, we examined how the Great Recession – measured by local unemployment rates and consumer confidence – influenced the risk for child maltreatment. We found that the recession was associated with dramatic increases in high-frequency spanking, as well as greater risks for abuse and neglect.

Analyzing child welfare data from about 75% of the counties in the U.S., we found that over the last decade increases in the minimum wage have been associated with decreases in the likelihood of physical neglect.

We also looked at what it means to grow up in a county with high or low economic mobility and found what we call the “power of hope.” That is, growing up in an area of high economic mobility is associated with a decrease in the likelihood of neglect.

But it turns out that it’s not just being disadvantaged that influences the risk for child maltreatment. Feeling disadvantaged or left behind plays an important role as well.

For white, but largely not black parents, feeling like you are doing worse than others was associated with the approval of spanking. This association was restricted to fathers, but being a labor union member entirely buffered this link.

Our findings point to the need to shift resources so that child welfare services are more closely linked with existing social welfare programs to reduce the flow of families who come in contact with child protective services for needs that are really income-based.

I’m optimistic about the ability of social work, research and society to take on this problem. Illinois has historically played a large role in shaping our understanding of child maltreatment, and I believe that we can alter the trajectory of generations of children to come.

Editor’s notes:

Will Schneider is a professor of social work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This is the text of a presentation he made to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees on March 11, 2020. His presentation was also videotaped.