Thursday, March 15, 2007

What are they smoking in Texas?

Perhaps you saw the videotape: Two boys, ages two and four, forced to smoke marijuana while their 17-year-old uncle who gave them the pot, and two other teenagers laughed – and recorded the entire scene. The uncle and the other teens are under arrest – and the children are in foster care.

Had the 17-year-old been the children’s father, and their only custodial parent, that would have been justified. The harm of foster care is likely to be less than the harm of leaving the children with someone who engages in calculated acts of cruelty.

But he was the children’s uncle -- and the children already had been made safe from him when he was arrested. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which seems to be ahead of everyone else on this part of the story, the boys’ mother says she was napping in another room when it happened, and was shocked at what her brother did.

One can imagine any number of reasons for the mother taking a nap, ranging from scenarios that would make her equally irresponsible to the possibility that she was sleeping because she worked a night-shift job to make ends meet and it never occurred to her that her 17-year-old brother would do something like this.

So what should be the “default” position while Texas authorities figure this out?

● We know that children of this age almost always love their mothers and are tremendously attached to them.

­● We know that when they are taken from their mothers there is no way to explain why; to them it might as well be a kidnapping.

● We know that they may well feel that they have done something wrong and now they are being punished.

● We know that they may recover from the trauma, or they may suffer from it forever.

● We know that Texas child protective services placed the children with total strangers, unable – or unwilling – immediately to find a relative to cushion the blow. (The agency says it’s looking for a relative now.)

We know all that harm is likely before we even get to little details like the likelihood the children will wind up bounced from foster home to foster home or the risk of abuse in foster care itself (probably about one in three nationally, one can only imagine the rate in Texas, which has been the scene of one scandal after another over abuse in foster care).

The risks on the other side:

● Even with her brother out of the house we don’t know if the children’s mother knew how irresponsible and cruel he was. So would she leave the children with some other unsuitable caretaker? Or did she really know what was going on and not care? Has this happened before?

No actual evidence has been produced to support any such speculation – but that’s still how CPS works.

So what alternative could CPS have used?

How about an Intensive Family Preservation Services (IFPS) intervention, in which a worker would be in that home several hours a day several days a week for up to six weeks? That doesn’t eliminate the alleged risks, but it significantly reduces them. These programs have a far better track record for safety than foster care. So then you need to weigh the relative risks: The well-known harm of foster care to the risk, even absent any known evidence, that the mother would be irresponsible when the IFPS worker wasn’t around.

In a rational system, the IFPS intervention should win hands down. In fact, for a child welfare agency to expose young children to all the known harm of foster care on these grounds, one has to ask: What are they smoking?

But, of course, this is the Texas system, one of the more chaotic in the nation, and one that is in the midst of its second foster-care panic since 1999. For details, see NCCPR’s report on Texas Child Welfare. (Although in fairness to Texas authorities, most systems would have the same take-the-child-and-run response to a high-profile case like this, not because it protects children, but because it protects the people who take away the children, who would have been painting targets on their backs had they done anything else).

But hey, at least the Texas Legislature has its priorities straight. On the same day this story was getting lots of play on cable news, Texas State Sen. Bob Durell was introducing a bill to restore the right of foster parents of severely emotionally disturbed children to keep guns in their homes. After all, it would be a tragedy if Dick Cheney were to retire to Texas only to discover he couldn’t be a foster parent.