Sunday, November 26, 2017

Arizona child welfare’s obsession: Making things worse for battered mothers – and their children

When a child’s parent, usually the mother, is beaten by another parent, usually the father, one of the worst things you can do to the child is to remove the child from the home – instead of removing the abuser.  One expert called it “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”

In Arizona, child welfare policy boils down to “please pass the salt.”

First of two parts; read part two here.

To understand one of the worst features of child welfare in Arizona, it’s best to start in New York City  -- with a courageous woman named Sharwline Nicholson.

Nicholson decided to break off a relationship with her daughter’s father because he lived far away in South Carolina. When she told him, he became enraged. “He started hitting on me, pounding me, kicking me…”

But even as she was bleeding profusely, suffering from a broken arm, broken ribs, and gashes to her head, as she called 911 and waited for an ambulance to take her to a hospital, she arranged for a neighbor to care for her children.

But that wasn’t enough for New York City’s child protective services agency, the Administration for Children’s Services. As Nicholson lay in her hospital bed, the child welfare agency took the children from the babysitter and threw them into foster care with strangers.  Nicholson was charged with “engaging in domestic violence” in front of the children.

“It reached the point where I said ‘Oh, why did I call 911,’” Nicholson said.

Nicholson could not even visit her children for eight days, and then only with supervision at a foster care agency.  As the judge wrote in his decision, “Ms. Nicholson was able to locate her nine-month-old daughter within the building by following the sounds of her crying.” 

She found her “sitting on a chair by herself with tears running down.” She had a rash on her face, yellow pus running from her nose, and she seemed to have scratched herself.  Her son had a swollen eye.  He said the foster mother had slapped his face.  When another foster mother was assigned to take him away, he asked the new foster mother: “You’re not going to hit me, are you?”

Long after being reunited, the harm ACS did to her children remains.  Once, when her son heard police were in the building he froze and said “Oh no, they’re going to take me.”

Nicholson became the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit demanding that New York City stop tearing apart families just because the mother had been beaten. . (NCCPR’s Vice President, Carolyn Kubitschek, was co-counsel for the plaintiffs.)

In a scathing decision, a federal judge ordered the practice stopped. It took him four pages just to sum up the research on how harmful this practice is to children.  Yes, witnessing domestic violence can harm children, the judge found. But taking the children away from the victim harms them far more. One expert said that doing this to a child is “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”

Ultimately the city settled the suit.  A decision by New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals had the effect of extending the ban statewide.

Arizona’s track record

Unfortunately, as is discussed in this column for Youth Today, the practice remains common in much of the country. And nowhere, it seems, is the child welfare establishment more fanatical about inflicting this trauma on women and children than in Arizona.

● As we discuss in our 2007 report on Arizona child welfare, more than a decade ago, a defender – and funder – of one of the worst forms of “care” first stop parking place “shelters” – attacked NCCPR for siding with mothers like Shawrline Nicholson and their children because, she felt, the children should be warehoused in shelters instead.

● Earlier this year a report from the Morrison Institute for Public Policy found that, in Arizona, witnessing domestic violence was given as a reason for taking away the children in nearly one-quarter of all removals for “neglect.”

● And this month, the state Court of Appeals overturned a decision to terminate parental rights where the central issue was a mother’s alleged “failure to protect” a child from the father’s abuse.

It’s easy enough to see what happened in this case. The child’s father was abusive to the mother and at least one of the children.  Though Mom clearly was afraid of him, there also is evidence that she stood up to him. Here’s what the judges wrote:

…[A]fter Mother discovered the severity of I.R.’s injuries, Mother and Father argued because Father would not allow Mother to take I.R. to the hospital. Father then left the house for a few hours, but Mother failed to take I.R. to the hospital while he was away.
The next morning, Mother asked her sister and cousin to take I.R. to the hospital while she was at work. Her sister asked Father if she could take I.R. to Chuck E. Cheese. Father agreed. Mother’s sister and cousin then took I.R. to the hospital.

The court concluded that termination of parental rights

…cannot stand on a record that shows only that [the mother]was the victim of domestic violence at the hands of the person who abused the children — a person who is no longer present in the children’s lives. To hold otherwise would be to punish the victim for the behavior of the abuser. [Emphasis in original].
It is true that Mother failed to take I.R. to the hospital immediately when she discovered his injuries, but her resort to artifice so that her relatives could take him the next day hardly reveals complicity in the abuse. …

This does not mean that child protective services agencies need to do nothing in these sorts of cases.  But there exists a relatively simple and far better alternative to removing the children: Remove the abuser. We already have a mechanism for that.  It’s called arrest.  We even have a “placement” for such people.  It’s called jail.

The reason child protective services agencies don’t do this is because they’re not really about protecting children, they’re about punishing “bad parents” – especially “bad mothers.”

Perhaps, at long last, Arizona’s child welfare agency will figure out that when it takes a swing at those “bad mothers” the blow almost always lands on the children.

The Court of Appeals decision goes on to tear apart the rest of the state’s case against this mother, citing sloppy casework, a crappy “psych eval” and false assumptions about drug abuse. Unfortunately, that makes this case a pretty typical example of how child welfare agencies operate all over the country.  Those issues are discussed here.