Wednesday, June 22, 2011

UPDATED, JULY 3: Foster care in Texas: The issue in the spanking case isn’t spanking

See the update at the end of this post

            Now making its way up the media food chain, via multiple blogs, is the story of the mother in Corpus Christi, Texas, sentenced to five years probation for spanking her child.  Unfortunately, much of the discussion has been simply a rehash of the tired debate over spanking.

            The real issues are consigning children to foster care over a spanking, and a judge who went well beyond so-called judicial activism all the way to judicial vigilantism.

            The original news story is anything but clear about all aspects of this case.  But according to that story:

            ●Last December, a mother named Rosalina Gonzales spanked her nearly-two-year-old daughter, apparently with an open hand on the child’s buttocks. 

            ●The spanking left red marks, so the child’s paternal grandmother took the child to the local children’s hospital to be examined.  The hospital reported Gonzales to authorities.

            ●It was apparently at this point that the child was taken away and placed with the grandmother.  Gonzales does not have custody of her two other children either, but it is not clear if those children were taken away at the same time.

            ●Gonzales also was arrested and charged with a felony.

            This all came to light on June 15, when she accepted a plea deal and was sentenced. 

She was sentenced to five years probation.  She also will have to jump through every hoop imposed by Texas Child Protective Services, take a parenting class (of course) and, just to add a little extra insult to all the injury, pay $50 (which she almost certainly can’t afford)  to the local “children's advocacy center.”

Cameras are allowed in Texas criminal courts.  The news story shows Gonzales stepping forward to be lectured by Judge Jose Longoria.  It is at this point, that the judge rewrote Texas law, declaring that:

You don't spank children today.  In the old days, maybe we got spanked, but there was a different quarrel. You don't spank children. You understand?

Gonzales meekly replies: "Yes, sir."

In fact, Texas law does not prohibit all spanking.  No state bans all spanking.  Judge Longoria was simply making it up as he went along – something one might have thought Gonzales’ lawyer would have pointed out.  But then, if she could afford a lawyer who would point that out, she’d almost certainly never have been standing in that courtroom at all.  Middle-class parents don’t get arrested for spanking their children on the rear with an open hand.  That’s part of the special justice system we reserve for poor people.


I would hope even those against all spanking would acknowledge that there are worse things one can do to children – and high on that list is taking the children away and consigning them to foster care.  Even removal to another relative, as in this case, is a severe emotional blow. 

Opponents of spanking often say it “sends the wrong message” to children.  Well, here’s the message a young child is likely to get from being taken from her or his mother in a case like this: “I must have done something wrong.  That’s why I’m being punished by having my mom taken away from me.”  Great message.

It’s that kind of emotional trauma that helps explain things like those massive studies involving more than 15,000 typical cases, which found that children left in their own homes fared better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care. 

That doesn’t mean no child ever should be removed from the home.  But it does mean the threshold should be a lot higher than it apparently was in this case.  And it should be a lot higher than it is for the thousands of poor families who lose their children when family poverty is confused with neglect, as described in this excellent New York Times essay, which I’ve highlighted before on this Blog.  The essay raises the same issue as this case: turning personal child-rearing preferences into law and then imposing that law on poor people.

Of course Texas CPS is almost certain to say there were other reasons for taking the children. But their track record, as seen in this previous post to this Blog, does not inspire one to take them at their word.

The other issue, of course, is the judge making up his own law and imposing it on someone who couldn’t fight back.  Those who think spanking should be illegal should be working to persuade their legislators to change the law, not acting as vigilantes from the bench.

UPDATE, JULY 3: The Corpus Cristi Caller Times reports that CPS claims the child had suffered abuse significantly more serious than a spanking and the mother had a prior record of physical abuse.

Let’s assume that CPS is right (while also noting how, somehow, all those concerns about “confidentiality” evaporate when disclosure is in the agency’s interest). That still doesn’t deal with the heart of the problem: a judge who issued a decree that any and all spanking is illegal in any case.

Had the judge said to the mother: “Yes, it is legal to spank children in Texas, but what you did goes far beyond a spanking and far beyond what is permitted by law” there would be no issue, no story, no controversy.

But he didn’t.  What he said was: “You don't spank children today.  In the old days, maybe we got spanked, but there was a different quarrel. You don't spank children. You understand?

That’s just as wrong now as it was when he said it.