Thursday, May 29, 2008

The kids win again

The Texas Supreme Court has upheld the appeals court ruling ordering at least some of the Eldorado children returned home. The most important single fact about this is that these children now will be safer than they have been for the past several weeks, as they languished in Texas foster care. But beyond that, there is a lot we still don't know.

● The Supreme Court upheld a ruling that, technically, applies only to some of the children. Obviously it should apply to all. But will Texas CPS act in good faith or stall the return of the remaining children?

● The ruling specifies no time frames. There may be ample opportunity for Texas CPS to stall.

● The ruling appears to almost invite CPS to impose a whole slew of conditions on these families once they are reunited. Force anyone to jump through enough hoops and sooner or later they'll miss one – and then CPS can move to take the children all over again. If CPS seeks to impose onerous conditions, each family will have to go back to court to fight it. And we've already seen how willing Texas judges are to rubber-stamp so called "service plans" that include no services.

● Although the children will be safer on the Ranch than in Texas foster care, no one can guarantee that all of the children will be safe. In any community of more than 500 people, there probably are some child abusers, though there is almost certainly less child abuse than in substitute care. And yes, it's going to be harder to catch them now than it would have been had Texas CPS done this right in the first place – investigating carefully before acting and proceeding case by case. You may be sure that if a child is abused on the YFZ ranch or if even one family does move to another state, the people at CPS will rush to their favorite journalists to wag their figures and proclaim "We told you so!"

So let's get this clear at the outset: If anyone on that ranch manages to get away with child abuse now, the blame rests with Texas Child Protective Services. Their blundering, and their hubris created this mess. No one should let them get away with shifting the blame to anyone else.

--Don't let anyone tell you "the system worked." Hundreds of children endured trauma from which some never will recover, and none of it was necessary. The only way the phrase "the system worked" would have been justified is if the original request to seize the children had been turned down.

● If anything good can come out of all the suffering endured by these 400+ children, it is that maybe the rest of the country got a wake-up call. Texas CPS kept saying it themselves: All this was standard operating procedure, it's how we treat all families. And in that respect, almost every state is Texas. Aside from the sheer size of the endeavor, and those first days at CPS' kiddie-Guantanamo, nothing happened to these families that doesn't happen to hundreds of thousands of families every year. (And, in fact, even the interning of children in "shelters" in the first days after placement is not unusual). But the families to whom this normally happens are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately minority. They rarely have good legal representation. And everything happens in secret. So nobody knows about it, and we can pretend it doesn't happen.

Maybe this case has stripped away the pretense and shown the nation how most CPS agencies work most of the time. Maybe people will start to question what's going on in the other 49 states, and demand real change.