Monday, April 23, 2007

A long, long trail of double standards in Georgia

I don’t generally indulge in celebrity gossip on this blog, but, as it happens, there are some lessons in the story of Alec Baldwin and the tirade he left on his daughter’s cell phone voice mail. It turns out to be the starting point on a long trail of double standards.

Baldwin is involved in a messy custody fight and his two-and-a-half-minute obscenity-laced tirade against his eleven-year-old daughter may cost him visitation for a while. But so far, no one has called child protective services – and he certainly hasn’t been hauled off to jail.

It was a somewhat different story for a grandmother in Georgia a few years ago. She, too, was caught yelling some really awful stuff at one of her grandchildren, a 13-year-old. But there never was any allegation that she had physically abused any of her grandchildren.

The grandmother’s mistake was screaming while she was on hold with a radio station, while the radio station was recording the conversation. The radio station called the authorities, who sprung into action. Grandma wound up jailed for 19 days, and ultimately put on probation for six years.

Worse, the grandchildren were taken away for a year. Fortunately, an aunt was available; but still, it was one more trauma for children already taken from their parents. So while it is quite likely that these kinds of tirades do emotional harm to children, in the case of the grandmother, authorities responded by doing even more harm, instead of responding by providing some help to grandma to ease the stress that led to the shouting, and help her to find better ways to cope in the future.

But this case is only the beginning of a long trail of double standards in Georgia.

On the very day that this grandmother was sentenced, another case was making news. This time it involved a mother who, after returning home late from a trip, suddenly realized she’d left a suitcase at the airport. She rushed back to the airport knowing her four-year-old daughter was alone, but sound asleep.

But the little girl woke up. She got out of the house and was found by police walking by herself in the middle of the night near a busy intersection.

Mom did not serve even a minute in jail. And, fortunately, the little girl did not have to serve any time in foster care. That probably had something to do with who the mother was - at the time she was the Chief Juvenile Court Judge in Fulton County. Her mistake forced her to resign from her judgeship, but nothing more.

And, in fact, the child welfare agency did the right thing.

Taking the judge’s daughter away only would have punished the child for her mother’s mistake, a mistake that, from all available evidence, was an aberration. Indeed, the child might well have believed that she was being punished for wandering out of her house by being taken away and placed with someone else. At a minimum, she would have faced far more danger to her psyche in foster care than any danger she would face left with a mother who is unlikely to leave the girl alone ever again.

So the agency was right, though possibly for the wrong reasons.

Because even all “home alone” cases don’t get the same treatment in Georgia.

That’s the lesson from a third case -- the case of a mother with a very similar situation who lacked the clout of a judge, or even of a foster parent.

Early in January, this mother’s two-year-old son managed to get out of the family home and wander down the street. Fortunately a neighbor spotted the boy before he got too far.

But this time, the child welfare agency took away all four of this mother’s children and put them in foster care. They were returned after six weeks, but that’s more than enough time to do serious emotional harm to a two-year-old. It also raises a question: If everything wrong could be fixed in six weeks, was it really necessary to remove the children at all?

But that’s only part of the story. It turns out that this little boy apparently is quite skilled at getting out of houses. He did exactly the same thing while in foster care, this time in the middle of the night in 43-degree weather.

Naturally, the child welfare agency reacted identically - removing all children from the foster home.

Just kidding.

According to Atlanta television station WXIA-TV: “…the Department of Human Resources, who oversee [the state child welfare agency] said that officials ‘immediately looked into it, and determined foster parents had taken reasonable security precautions. Measures were taken so it could not happen again. It was an unfortunate but unusual situation.’"

DHR said the foster mother involved in the case won't face any sort of disciplinary action. Again, probably the right call. But no one has said why the birth mother wasn’t afforded the same opportunity to take “reasonable security precautions.”

Maybe it’s because she’s never been a juvenile court judge.

The real lesson in all of these cases is this: Sometimes, parents do things that are really, really dumb. Once they realize this, they usually don’t do it again. Sometimes they need some help to be sure they don’t do it again. To ignore that option in favor of the trauma of foster care is dumber than anything done by the judge, the mother, the grandmother - or even Alec Baldwin.