Don’t Count on Big Tech to Fix the Bay Area’s Housing Crisis

Recently, Apple joined Facebook, Google, and a number of other tech companies pledging to make investments in increasing housing affordability in the Bay Area. Tech giant Amazon is also funding construction of a shelter for people experiencing homelessness in Seattle, with a number of bathrooms that may rival those in Jeff Bezos’ 27,000 square foot D.C. residence.

These moves, in communities in which tech companies have extracted special tax treatment and other benefits for decades, are supposedly meant to increase “affordable” housing stock. But for many area workers, including those at tech companies, the new housing will remain out of reach.

Apple’s plan calls for $2.5 billion in spending, including $1 billion in an affordable housing investment fund and $1 billion in first-time buyer mortgage assistance. It is the most generous of recent rollouts. Facebook committed $1 billion to the construction of 20,000 units, use of land owned by the company, and construction of housing for “essential workers” like teachers and firefighters. Google similarly offered $1 billion, primarily in the form of land. Meanwhile, philanthropic ventures such as The Bay’s Future, driven by tech company executives, are also pledging to wade in to the fight for affordable housing in the Golden State.

“It’s a good thing these companies stepped forward,” said Jeffrey Buchanan of Silicon Valley Rising, a coalition campaign that includes unions and local advocacy groups. “There’s a huge need for financing” of the type that these commitments will provide.

But the problem of housing in the region isn’t just one of money, he explained. It also involves policy, better wages, and responsibility on the part of companies rapidly building up their campuses without adding complementary housing to prevent displacement — and ensure their own workers are housed.

Research indicates California needs 3 million new housing units by 2025; the Bay Area alone needs at least 187,000 units across all income levels according to the most recent state projection. 41.5 percent of households in the Bay Area are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing. 25,000 workers a day endure “super-commutes” of more than 90 minutes as they struggle to get from affordable communities to work in Silicon Valley.

In its recent “Out of Reach” report, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition found that the Bay Area’s housing wage — the amount of money you need to afford a two-bedroom apartment — ranges from $41 to $91 per hour. Statewide, workers need to work 116 hours a week at minimum wage to afford housing.

Meanwhile, a deeper look at many of the tech companies’ proposals furnishes vague details, though much talk of “affordable housing.” Many of the plans explicitly state the intent to produce mixed-income housing, rather than 100 percent affordable developments, something developers argue is usually necessary to make a development viable, especially in areas with high construction costs.

The definition of “affordable housing” in the Bay Area may surprise those who aren’t California residents. Low-income housing, defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as 80 percent of the area’s median income of $136,800, is still $129,150 for a family of four, and households making $80,600 are considered “very low-income.” “Extremely low-income” is $48,350.

The percentage of set-asides for affordable units varies; Facebook recently pledged 225 of 1,500, or 15 percent, of a planned Menlo Park development’s units for “affordable” housing. Notably, inclusionary zoning requirements in some Bay Area cities, like San Francisco, already force developers to include a set number of affordable units or pay in-lieu fees, and developers also benefit from incentive programs for constructing affordable housing. Thanks to state and federal policy, noted Buchanan, these units will eventually expire, with pricing jumping up to market rate.

While housing affordability for those outside the tech industry who feel squeezed by mounting costs driven by high tech company income is a significant issue, it’s a problem within the industry too, where all tech workers are not created equal. For employees in technical roles — such as developers, site reliability engineers, and more — it’s possible to afford to buy or rent housing units. Likewise for those in high-level non-technical roles, including attorneys, marketing executives, and some managerial positions.

But for the workers in the non-technical pipeline, including assistants, operations personnel, researchers, and customer service representatives, there’s a tremendous pay disparity — one that is exacerbated for contract workers, who are becoming a growing part of the tech workforce because of their low cost and shielded liability. Those workers are sleeping in their cars in the parking lots of their employers because they cannot afford housing, cleaning toilets, cooking food, driving buses, and providing security at marginal pay. When they’re not at companies like Facebook and Google, some are taking up shifts elsewhere, driving for ride shares, and hustling to pay the rent.

Research indicates California needs 3 million new housing units by 2025.

The tech companies’ plans lean heavily in to the popular argument that the affordability crisis in the Bay Area is one of availability; building housing, at any price point, is supposed to relieve this pressure. Advocates across the state are also pushing for rollbacks of density restrictions that limit the height and number of units that can be built, and promoting the of accessory dwelling units — also known as in-laws or granny units — to rapidly increase access to housing. Buchanan notes a growing interest in the use of co-housing — community living that integrates public and private spaces in a planned development — as well as community land trusts, which steward land to promote affordable housing, retaining ownership of the land while encouraging affordable development that gives residents a stake in their homes.

Not all advocates are convinced that this approach, known as filtering or trickle-down housing, is effective. Some raise concerns about the risks of displacement and gentrification, describing this as “a problem of equity and access,” not simply a question of housing units by the numbers. “YIMBYs,” wrote a collective from the LA Tenants Union, referring to boosters who push for filtering, “do not support empowering and protecting tenants through policies like right to legal counsel, just-cause eviction, and rent control. They overwhelmingly ignore the possibility of increasing supply with public or social housing.”

The policy struggles over housing highlight that simply building more isn’t always an option, speaking to deeper systemic problems that make it hard for people to find safe, sanitary, affordable housing in their communities. And even if building more housing is possible, say community organizations, that’s only one part of the solution to a complex problem.

Companies like Facebook and Apple are pledging to collaborate closely in public-private partnerships with policy-forward solutions, while still implying that privatizing public services is the only way to fix them. As long as tech companies dodge taxes, accept handouts and incentives, and receive preferential treatment, while relying on large philanthropic gestures to distract from their business practices, it’s hard to determine how much they can truly contribute to local economies.



You Can’t Eat Your Dreams. Hollywood Expects Assistants to Do Just That.

As the film and television industry posts record profits and there are more TV shows on the air than ever, many Hollywood assistants are still making less than $15 an hour. Those assistants are saying it’s time to #PayUpHollywood.

#PayUpHollywood is an initiative spearheaded by Writers Guild of America (WGA) board member (and former Hollywood assistant) Liz Alper and Dierdre Mangan, supported by a number of my IATSE 871 union sisters, including Amy Thurlow, Debbie Ezer, Jessica Kivnik, and Olga Lexell. The hashtag has sparked a discussion of the low pay and long hours that assistants have long endured as “paying their dues.”

#PayUpHollywood has made a lot of noise on social media, exposing widespread workplace issues that plague Hollywood assistants. In addition to stagnant wages, assistants are discussing working unpaid holidays, being pressured not to report overtime, paying for staff lunch overages out of pocket, eating personal computer and software costs, struggling with student loan debt, a lack of sick leave, and other egregious workplace problems.

When you set about breaking into Hollywood, you usually take a job as a production assistant. From there, you specialize, becoming a wardrobe assistant, camera assistant, casting assistant, or, like me, a writers’ assistant. Behind every red-carpet gala, behind every award-winning close-up, behind every pulse-pounding action sequence, there is an army of us.

All have a couple things in common: We desperately want to make it in our chosen trades and we don’t make very much money. Television writers’ assistants make $14.57 an hour for a job that functionally requires a college degree. As Thurlow told Variety, “The issue really is that wages have been stagnant for so long that the gains we’ve made just aren’t enough in the face of cost-of-living increases.”

Writers’ assistants are the court stenographers of the TV world, responsible for capturing everything discussed on a daily basis and filtering it into notes that can become an outline that can become a television episode. Script coordinators are paid a couple bucks more ($16.63/hour) for the herculean task of ensuring that every version of every script is formatted correctly, typo free, and contains no names or brands that it shouldn’t.

If the writers’ assistant is the stenographer, the script coordinator is the on-call nurse. I say on-call because it is not unusual for them to be compelled to their computer at 3 a.m. after a new draft has been prepared on set in Toronto, Budapest, or Dubrovnik.

For decades, the expectation has been that people will toil away at these jobs for years as they build up the experience and connections necessary to become a writer. In theory, that may sound like a nice apprenticeship for a bright-eyed post-collegiate. In reality, this means that people in their late-twenties and thirties are making near minimum wage as they have children and put down roots in one of the most expensive cities in the world. A one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles costs an average of $1,360 per month.

These jobs require 60 hours a week or so for writers’ assistants and usually more for script coordinators. You are expected to develop your own writing in your spare time or you “must not really want it.” Many assistants work additional jobs, supplementing their income as Uber drivers and Starbucks baristas, along with 13 million other Americans.

Then there is the schmoozing that is required to rise up the ranks, which often involves a few craft cocktails a couple nights a week. After all, if you don’t have access to the influential alumni networks of Harvard or USC, you’ll have to cobble together your own group of allies if you ever want to make it in this town. Remember, it’s all about who you know.

While you’re at it, you might want to take some classes at UCB or UCLA Extension or enter your script into some contests to up your odds. That will cost you too. Oh, and have you thought about making a short film and submitting to festivals?

Women on #PayUpHollywood are discussing additional financial challenges they face in the chic world of Tinseltown. Thurlow told me: “I would also say needing to look cute and trendy, especially as a woman, is also a barrier. Everyone talks about how casual the industry is but there’s still a certain expectation. One job I had, my boss shamed me for using a tote bag instead of a proper work bag.

Breaking into Hollywood, it turns out, is very expensive.

Hollywood is set up to prevent the poor from breaking in.

There is a perception that this “dues paying” creates an environment where the hardest working and most talented rise to the top. The reality is that those who have the financial privilege to work a low wage job for years without being forced out by economic circumstances are more likely to get the elusive rewards. The  dirty open secret of Hollywood is that a lot of the survivors make it through the well-kept gates thanks to financial subsidies from their parents or well-off partners.

Caroline Hylton, a script coordinator, told me, “Most of the people who can afford to hang on are the ones whose parents are helping out, or footing the entire bill — and that’s rarely minorities, and certainly not anyone from a low-income background. Income inequality is where this problem starts. Diverse voices can’t all be the offspring of the privileged.”

Hollywood is set up to prevent the poor from breaking in. While Hollywood has been focusing on diversity fellowship initiatives (which, for what it’s worth, are great), the best way to change the look of white male Hollywood would be to remove the financial barriers to entry. Any study of poverty will tell you that it disproportionately impacts women and people of color.

One of the best ways to lower these financial barriers is unionization. For example, 75 percent of the members of my union — IATSE (The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) Local 871 — are women, but only 36 percent of staffed TV writers are women.

Not only do union members make more money than their non-union counterparts, but expanded benefits like health care can make the difference between keeping our head above water and drowning in debt. Writers’ assistants and script coordinators recently received some much needed relief. Last year, both crafts joined IATSE (The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) Local 871. Under our first contract, we won modest wage increases and many assistants got quality health care for the first time. More importantly, these assistants now have a safe space to discuss workplace issues and strategize improving working conditions.

Though 871 and other IATSE locals represent thousands of assistants in various departments, there are thousands more in need of union protection.

Of course, it is my hope that IATSE will organize every one of these workers, but American labor laws are stacked against workers who want to form a union. Corporations often stamp out unionization efforts through legal means — such as forcing workers to attend anti-union meetings with their boss — and even illegally firing workers for supporting a union. Moreover, Donald Trump’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — the agency that enforces U.S. labor laws — is making it harder for the workers to join together in unions and bargain for a fair contract.

High industry turnover makes organizing production assistants even more difficult since these workers jump on and off of productions, switch departments, get promotions, or simply leave the industry. But, hopefully, as more assistants unionize, we can fight for protections for the most vulnerable and precarious entertainment workers.

Though there is still a long way to go, we are making strides. The most valuable thing a union does is bring workers together. When we come together, workers see that what they’re experiencing isn’t specific to them. You aren’t a bad worker; you are in a bad system. You aren’t worthless; the system makes everyone feel that way. Once you get a taste of what solidarity looks like, you aren’t afraid to ask for more.

The expectation is that overworked and underpaid assistants will be adequately nourished by the promise of future success. But you can’t eat your dreams.



Student-Athletes Make Billions for the NCAA. They Deserve A Seat On Its Board.

Last month, the Board of Governors of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) made headlines when it announced it would finally permit student-athletes to profit from their name, image, or likeness. While the decision prompted praise for the association, it also demonstrated an unsettling fact about college athletics – student-athletes often have little control over the association-wide policies that govern their own academic, economic, and bodily wellbeing. That needs to change.

The NCAA’s Board of Governors is the main body charged with developing and overseeing the policies that regulate more than 460,000 student-athletes across 1,200 institutions. The board is comprised of 25 (mostly male) college and university presidents, athletic directors, and other professionals, such as former White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough and billionaire businessman Kenneth Chennault. While the board’s decisions often directly affect the lives of student-athletes, student-athletes do not have a say in the selection of board members or a vote in association-wide matters. As a result, they must depend entirely on individual board members having their best interests at heart. But evidence suggests that may not always be the case.

Student-athletes work tirelessly to perform at the highest levels of athletic competition while simultaneously endeavoring to graduate on time and prepare for future careers. Their efforts generated more than $1 billion for the NCAA and its member institutions in the 2016-17 school year alone. But while many coaches and commissioners took home seven- and even eight-figure salaries, student-athletes did not receive a penny of compensation beyond their scholarships, which do not always cover the full expenses associated with attending college.

The exploitation of student-athletes also produces serious adverse health outcomes, including debilitating knee and ankle injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. Many student-athletes, especially Black student-athletes who are often concentrated in high-profile, revenue-generating sports, such as football and basketball, also struggle to graduate on time. It does not need to be this way.

In an ideal world, the NCAA would empower student-athletes to unionize and bargain collectively for safer working conditions, better health care benefits, improved academic and professional opportunities, and even compensation. But given the NCAA’s recent history of union busting and refusal to recognize student-athletes as employees, it appears unlikely that the organization would take such a step voluntarily. However, they can and should still provide student-athletes with a formal voice in their association-wide decision-making process by expanding the Board of Governors to include current student-athletes.

Reserving seats for student-athletes on the Board of Governors would guarantee the NCAA considers their concerns and perspectives at the highest levels of governance.

Their bodies, futures, and even their lives are on the line.

Expanding the Board of Governors is not unprecedented. In the wake of the 2017 NCAA corruption scandal, in which the federal government brought fraud and bribery charges against multiple college basketball coaches, the association added five independent voting members to its board to bolster public trust, increase the diversity of perspectives, and “help ensure the future health and well-being” of its student-athletes. These additions included Grant Hill, who played basketball at Duke 25 years ago and now owns the Atlanta Hawks.

Some could argue current student-athletes may have fresh ideas on how to ensure the health and wellbeing of student-athletes, but they were conspicuously absent from the list of new members.

Providing student-athletes with decision-making authority is not unprecedented. As recently as 2015, the NCAA yielded to pressure from student-athletes by providing them with limited voting powers on the divisional level. Today, they play an important role in Division I, Division II, and Division III governance, including decisions about championship administration, sport oversight, and strategic planning. Student-athletes also serve on several association-wide advisory committees. But they are excluded from the Board of Governors, which approves and monitors the NCAA’s budget, initiates and settles litigation, and establishes policies that affect the entire association.

The Board of Governors reluctantly took an important step towards ending rampant exploitation in college athletics when it voted to allow student-athletes to profit from their own name, image, or likeness. But the vote was long overdue and could easily have gone the other direction. This decision came in the wake of mounting public pressure, including statewide legislation in California and pending legislation in the U.S. congress. Student-athletes have a personal stake in association-wide matters. Their bodies, futures, and even their lives are on the line – they deserve a voice in the decision making process. It’s time to end their systematic disenfranchisement.



For D.C. Parents, School Chaperoning Is Pay to Play

If you’re a parent with a student in Washington D.C.’s public schools and you want to chaperone your child’s field trips or volunteer in their classroom, be prepared to invest hours and dollars before you arrive. DCPS’s volunteer policy is intensive, and requires any prospective volunteer — including primary caregivers — to provide, at their own expense, a criminal background check, tuberculosis test, and fingerprints.

Some parents and members of the State Board of Education have expressed concerns about how the process puts up barriers for low-income families, families with limited transportation, and immigrant families that are already on high alert under the Trump administration.

In a Twitter thread, Julie Lawson, a parent of a third grader in the district and PTA president of her son’s school, described roadblocks in the volunteer clearance process. The TB test costs $60 and is not covered by insurance. The single location that offers fingerprinting services for the district is located downtown and is only open during normal business hours, when working parents may have to take time off to go. “All of this is a major access barrier for a parent who wants to chaperone their kid’s field trip,” she said.

A traditional TB test takes 48 hours and requires two separate visits — one to take the test and the other to have results read. Lawson has spent a lot of time reminding parents of the cost, where to go, and how to coordinate and communicate with health care providers — some of whom don’t want to give the test to their patients without risk factors present.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends TB screening for those who have been in close contact with TB, those who have traveled to countries with a high prevalence of the disease, people who live or work in high risk settings, health care workers, and children who have been exposed to adults with TB. According to the CDC website, “TB tests are generally not needed for people with a low risk of infection with TB bacteria.”

So, why does DCPS require it for volunteers? Jessica Sutter, a member of the State Board of Education, who has fielded concerns from parents about the policy, and who asked the district directly, says she’s still unsure. She says the district told her that they were operating on a Department of Health directive that required proof of a negative TB test of all DCPS employees, volunteers, and contractors.

Further, Sutter says, the district told her that free TB tests were going to be provided at the Tuberculosis and Chest Clinic, a clinic that provides diagnostic and medical management of persons who have been diagnosed with or are suspected of having TB. But after visiting their website, which states that they do not perform routine TB screening, such as those for job or school admission, Sutter says that does not appear to be the case.

“At DC Public Schools (DCPS), the safety and security of our students is our top priority. Fingerprint-based FBI background checks are required by law, and as of this time, proof of a negative Tuberculosis (TB) test is required of all DCPS employees, volunteers, and contractors per guidance from the DC Department of Health,” said DCPS in a statement. “Balancing the safety, health and security of our students with the need to create a welcoming environment for all families in our school buildings as partners in their child’s success is critically important. DCPS is reviewing the TB and fingerprinting policy for parent volunteers to seek out opportunities to provide more flexibility and partnership with family members whenever possible.”

Different school districts around the country have different approaches to volunteer clearance. Some districts do require all of the same components as DCPS, but they also offer vouchers for free testing at local clinics or a tiered process, where the clearance requirements are commensurate with the level of involvement. Many districts require only a background check or a background check and fingerprinting.

This is more than an inconvenience, it's an equity issue.
– Emily Gasoi

School districts need a clear understanding of who is volunteering, of course, but without putting up barriers to family engagement. While Becky Reina, founding chair of the Ward 1 Education Council, a volunteer organization that advocates for public schools in the ward, describes the fingerprinting as easy, with a short wait, she’s quick to acknowledge that entering a government building that requires signing in with a government issued ID is something that could cause anxiety for some parents. “Given the hostile immigration environment parents are living with under the Trump administration, no amount of reassurance will satisfy much of D.C.’s immigrant community,” she said.

Emily Gasoi, a State Board of Education member, representing families in Ward 1, said the fingerprinting piece is driving a lot of the fear among some families. She first became aware of parental concerns about the DCPS policy through school and PTO meeting visits, where she repeatedly heard from constituents that the process, while onerous for everyone, presented a particular deterrent for families with insecure immigration statuses and those unable to afford the costs associated with the process.

“This is more than an inconvenience, it’s an equity issue,” said Gasoi. While Gasoi understands the need for a clearance process that keeps students safe, she suggests there could be more equitable ways of clearing volunteers and that the district consider different policies for different levels of volunteers.

For her part, Lawson spent dozens of hours coordinating with a handful of nearby schools to have a fingerprinting unit stationed in the schools’ neighborhood for a day. In order for the district to send the unit, though, a minimum number of applicants who had already completed the online background check and TB test had to sign up.

In the end, only 16 applicants out of 40 who initiated the process completed fingerprinting. While some parents said they completed the fingerprinting on their own time, Lawson said that for most, she couldn’t confirm an appointment because she never received a TB result.

The benefits of having a child’s primary caregiver involved at their school are numerous. Research shows family engagement results in improved student achievement, reduced absenteeism, and better grades, test scores, and behavior. Sutter says, “We absolutely want every child in the care of our schools to be kept safe, but whose responsibility is that, financially? And how do we make this accessible rather than burdensome in such a way that it will discourage especially low-income families from participating?”

This piece has been updated to add a statement from DCPS.



First Person

In the Child Welfare System, Somebody’s Always Watching You

When you become involved in the child welfare system, you learn one lesson quickly: All eyes and ears are on you. Even those relationships that are supposed to be therapeutic, such as counseling, transform into something else. Providers must earn your honesty, and even once they do, that dynamic can become instantly dashed with one report to your caseworker.

I learned this early on in my case, which began in April 2018. The services required for me to reunify with my daughters included trauma-based individual therapy, a psychological assessment, substance use treatment, and parenting classes. I remember going to the first of these, my psychological assessment, and spending 20 minutes in the office arguing over paperwork.

In order to complete the mandatory assessment, I had to sign a consent form that would allow the assessors to send their findings to child services. But when I asked what their “findings” included, it was not simply a diagnosis or treatment recommendations. Instead, it could be the full readout of the evaluation.

Everything I said during this invasive and highly personal evaluation would be sent to my caseworker, his boss, the state attorney, the guardian ad litem and her attorney, my attorney, my husband’s attorney (and by proxy my husband), and the judge. Any time my caseworker was changed, which had happened once already and would happen two more times, the new stranger would also be privy to the contents of my psychological evaluation.

But the service was mandated. Without this evaluation, I was not allowed to engage in therapy, substance use treatment, or parenting classes. So I had to do it.

This is standard fare for families involved with the child welfare system. It focuses on the collection of parents’ information, and control over what those parents do and how they behave, not, as proponents of the system fervently claim, on ensuring the safety of children. Like probation and parole, child welfare involvement becomes one more way for the government to keep tabs on people.

As it would turn out, the report would not be a transcript of my evaluation. Rather, it was an interpretation, in which the evaluator handpicked which details to include. She described me as eccentrically dressed. (I had worn a floral dress and flats, but have visible tattoos and a facial piercing that can’t be removed.) She detailed that sometimes I answered questions right away, and sometimes I paused to answer them, which sounds normal enough but seemed sinister and awkward when inserted in the context of the psychological evaluation. She wrote that I suffered from insomnia, even though I’d repeatedly told her I was tired on that day specifically because I was worried about my husband, who had been hospitalized earlier that week. She generalized my history with drug use to make it appear that I had been addicted to heroin since I was a teenager, which is not the case.

In the end, the recommendations didn’t include anything besides the talk therapy I’d already been mandated to take — but the inclusion of all her other highly subjective details handed my opposition a slew of quotes they could use to describe me as eccentric, erratic, and ill-equipped to handle the daily realities of parenting.

It was an evaluation I had no choice but to attend, which should have been a doorway to resources and help for my PTSD. Instead, it served as an intelligence-gathering exercise for the people separating me from my two young daughters.

Other parents have experienced similar issues with the services that are supposedly in place to help them. Kim, a mother in Alabama who asked that her last name not be shared, has been involved with child services since January 2019. Kim’s case was triggered by her arrest when she failed to appear for a court date, but she says the crime she is accused of was actually committed by her abusive partner, who forced her to take the blame by threatening her life.

When her caseworker learned Kim was experiencing domestic violence, she told Kim to move into a shelter. Which she did, but only for about a month. She said the shelter had stringent rules, which included nightly curfews and that she report her whereabouts when she left the grounds.

Kim was never told by the shelter that this information was shared with her caseworker, but she figured it out when her caseworker suddenly knew details only the shelter had. “She knew my comings and goings there. Knew when I met with the therapist, left for work; all of it,” Kim said.

“The sheer fact and status of having a child places you in a situation where you can no longer openly and honestly express what’s happening in your life to mandated reporters because you’re facing family dissolution, or, at minimum, family surveillance,” said Erin Miles-Cloud, a former parent defense attorney in New York who is now the co-founder for Movement for Family Power, a parent advocacy group. Exactly who falls under the category “mandated reporter” varies by state, but they are typically frontline workers such as nurses, doctors, therapists, and teachers, who are required by law to report any suspicions of child maltreatment. She specifically cites shelters, hospitals, and schools as some of the “biggest offenders” when it comes to reporting parents who are seeking care to child services.

While speaking with me for a story I wrote for Filter Mag about the way child services targets parents who use drugs, a nurse named Tracy Longbreak told me about her experience with the “mandatory” aspect of mandated reporting. When a mother came into her emergency department with her baby while smelling of marijuana but appearing prepared, competent, and tidy, Longbreak was told by her superiors that she had to call in the report or risk her job.

She knew my comings and goings there. Knew when I met with the therapist, left for work; all of it.

Ultimately, the best she could do was include her perceptions of the mother in her report and hope that her positive remarks would offset the accusation of neglect via marijuana intoxication (which was not yet legal in the state of Oregon, but is now).

“In North Carolina, the mandatory reporting law is around any abuse that may have taken place by the caregiver,” said Julie Owens, a survivor of domestic violence who now consults with organizations around the country advocating better practices for people who have experienced violence in the home. “The protective parents who go into domestic violence shelters—primarily mothers—are not the abuser, but unfortunately they are reported as or regarded as abusers because they haven’t reported the abuse that their children have been experiencing, and they often end up being punished or deprived of their children as a result of this.”

Put together, this all means that service providers can be forced to act as eyes and ears for child services, even when they don’t want to. But more reports doesn’t equal more child safety. In Philadelphia, for example, mandated reporting laws were drastically expanded after the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. In an article published in Pediatrics in 2017, Mical Raz wrote that “there is no indication that the increase in reporting has improved the safety of Philadelphia’s children, and there is reason to believe it may detract.” Some of these detractions included increased hotline calls resulting in an overburdened system less able to make accurate safety assessments, and a heightened risk of family separation for low-income families. Later Raz noted that “fear of reporting may prevent families from seeking help, whereas assurance of confidentiality has been shown to increase help-seeking behaviors.”

The majority of substantiated maltreatment charges in the child welfare system are for neglect, which typically means issues like lack of food, child care, or weather-appropriate clothing – things that could be fixed with better social supports or a little more money. Creating a system that encourages families to seek help should be the goal for any agency in pursuit of children’s health and safety.

But forcing more and more providers and even laypeople to report on parents whether they want to or not achieves the exact opposite of that goal. Instead, it creates a cyclical, hypocritical system in which parents are afraid to seek assistance for fear of being punished because of the issue for which they need help, then punished for not seeking that help on their own. It also harbors distrust in therapeutic situations, which renders impossible any kind of genuine recovery.

The network of surveillance that child welfare-involved parents become trapped inside will continue to harm families like mine until it is lifted and parents are allowed to seek help and engage with services without simultaneously leaking the most intimate details of their lives.