Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Shock and outrage as child welfare agency treats people like US the way they usually treat people like THEM

UPDATE, AUGUST 28: Now there's even MORE shock and outrage: WCVB-TV has done a third story about this case. They even asked the governor about it.  The station also reports that, according to the state Department of Children and Families "the social worker who initiated the investigation is no longer employed with the agency."

Amazing how much media and political response you get when something like this happens to middle-class white people.

           Massachusetts State Rep. Shaunna O’Connell is furious at the state child welfare agency, the Department of Children and Families. She is shocked - shocked! - about how DCF treated a family.

          According to the investigative unit of Boston  television station WCVB it all began with a report to the state child abuse hotline of small bruises on one of the children. Then, according to the story, “…young children were strip-searched and emotionally scarred by state investigators who showed up at their home late at night.” 
According to the investigative reporting unit of Boston
Mass. State Rep. Shaunna O'Connell

            The next morning, the father said, “my four-year-old asked my wife, ‘Is DCF going to take us forever?’”

            Said Rep. O’Connell: “You can’t just barge into someone’s house like that when clearly there’s not evidence for it, scare their kids, scare their family …” she said. “As a mom, I can’t imagine that happening to my kids.”

            Of course you say you can’t, Rep. O’Connell.  And of course you can’t either, outraged journalists. Because this was one of those incredibly rare cases in which the victimized parents were white, middle-class foster parents.  The original report alleging abuse was made by a caseworker who noticed the small bruises on a foster child.  The foster child was immediately moved to another home. The family’s birth children were stripsearched and traumatized.

            As for Rep. O’Connell’s claim that you can’t do things like this to families with no evidence, what she must have meant was, you can’t do this to white, middle class families without evidence. CPS agencies can and do behave this way in poor neighborhoods routinely.

            In fact it’s so routine that a searing account of how such agencies really work, just published in The New Yorker began this way:
 What should you do if child-protective services comes to your house? You will hear a knock on the door, often late at night. You don’t have to open it, but if you don’t the caseworker outside may come back with the police. The caseworker will tell you you’re being investigated for abusing or neglecting your children. She will tell you to wake them up and tell them to take clothes off so she can check their bodies for bruises and marks. [Emphasis added].

In Massachusetts, this kind of needless strip-searching has been routine for decades. Long ago, when I interviewed Massachusetts caseworkers for my book, Wounded Innocents, one of their complaints was pressure from higher-ups to keep expanding the number of cases for which stripsearches are required.  And it continues today. As Massachusetts attorney Andrew Hoffman told me.

I have had numerous cases involving allegations of physical abuse in which DCF demands that parents allow the removal of the child's clothing to view relevant body parts, under threat of legal action.  I have also had cases in which this occurred at day care or school, without the parent present, and DCF instructs the school personnel or daycare provider that it is necessary.

It could have been so much worse

The foster family is right to be outraged at what happened to their children. Rep. O'Connell is right to be outraged as well. But keep in mind that a late-night knock at the door and a stripsearch is about the least amount of harm a child protective services agency can do.  Had the allegation been sexual abuse, the children would have faced an exam far more intrusive than a stripsearch.  And, of course, the children were never, for even a moment, taken from the home.

The fact that even this much harm happened to this particular family is roughly the equivalent of a police car pulling up alongside a middle class white man walking down a suburban street, the officers getting out and then, for no particular reason, throwing the man up against the nearest white picket fence and frisking him.  I’ve never heard of that happening to a middle-class white guy - but if it does, it will cause the kind of outrage among the middle class and the politically-powerful that routine stop-and-frisk in poor communities does not.

And stop-and-frisk is an apt analogy for another reason: According to a recent study, a majority of Black children will be forced to endure a child abuse investigation before they turn 18. (The study did not break down the data by income level, so we can only imagine how common this kind of experience is for poor people of color.)  Oh, and in most of those cases there is no allegation of any bruise at all. It’s usually an allegation of neglect.

The reason Rep. O’Connell says she can’t imagine it happening to her kids is because, in fact, she finally can imagine it – because, on this very rare occasion, it actually happened to kids of the same status and the same color as her kids. When it happens day after day after day to poor families of color, lawmakers either never hear about it or choose to ignore it.

Unfortunately, with rare exceptions such as the New Yorker story, the New York Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow” and a few others, journalists ignore it, too.

In an interview with WCVB, the father whose children were stripsearched, John DeMalia, summed up his reaction this way: “Fear they were about to take my kids,” he told WCVB. The story continues:
  "You're opening your home to help these other children and now they're threatening to take away your own." That's why the family has decided to close their licensed foster home, a blow -- albeit a small one -- to a child welfare system that doesn’t have enough foster homes for the number of children in the system.

Or, as DeMalia put it:
 We can't help these children anymore because of what [DCF] put our kids through, my children have to come first and I can't expose them to this again.
 But there is one thing DeMalia didn’t say; or if he did, it never got into the story.  It’s something aggrieved foster parents almost never say.

While what the DeMalia family went through is rare, other problems, such as arbitrary treatment, lack of information, and general disrespect of foster parents are more common – even though child welfare systems urgently need good foster parents.  Occasionally, someone such as former foster parent Mary Callahan will draw the obvious conclusion.  But she’s the exception. Whenever I read stories about the legitimate grievances of foster parents, I keep waiting for just one of them to say something like this:

“I never used to believe the things birth parents told me about how they were treated. But they really need me, and if this is how they treat me, how are they treating birth parents?”