Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Failure to protect" - from the Diocese of Fairbanks

There was a story on NPR yesterday about rampant sexual abuse in isolated compounds, perpetrated by religious leaders. Although there were relatively few offenders, the number of victims is staggering. The “compounds” are Native Alaskan villages. The abusers were priests and lay volunteers supervised by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks in the 1960s.

“It’s practically genocidal in some villages,” a lawyer who won a series of civil suits on behalf of the victims told the reporter for public radio station KUAC. “There are some villages where I can walk down the street and not see an adult who wasn’t molested as a child.”

But what about the parents? In the jargon of child protective services agencies they “failed to protect” their children. Yet no one was cruel enough – or stupid enough – to suggest that, on top of everything else they suffered, the children should lose their parents, too.

The parents “failed to protect” because either they never knew about the abuse, (something CPS agencies sometimes say is no excuse) or never knew they could do anything about it. There were no police in these “isolated compounds” no lawyers, no counselors, not even many telephones. And for many of those who lived there, English was their second language. Said the lawyer: “They didn’t understand the difference between church and state. They didn’t realize there was a government they could go to that might investigate, might prosecute.”

Similarly, as I’ve noted before, when refugees fled in boats from Southeast Asia 30 years ago, some of the boats were attacked by pirates who raped women and children. But when the survivors reached America no one was so cruel or so stupid as to suggest that the children be taken from the mothers who “failed to protect” them.

Yet now, as Texas CPS keeps coming up with new reasons to keep the children of the YFZ ranch away from their mothers, it appears the latest excuse is “failure to protect.” Yes, there are differences. Some of the parents in Alaska didn’t know what was going on; to the extent that there really was abuse at the ranch, the mothers may well have known. But they probably did not know that underage forced marriages are abusive. Indeed one mother testified she didn’t know what is abusive and what is not. These mothers also probably have little if any concept of the difference between church and state.

One can dispute how much danger these children really were in at the ranch, and whether the danger applied to all the children or some. But it should be beyond dispute that now that the children are out of the ranch, they are away from the danger. So there is no danger to the children in resettling mothers and children together, and having CPS offer intensive help to the families – including teaching the mothers what is abusive and what is not. (On second thought, that particular task probably should be subcontracted.) In contrast, there is enormous danger to the children – both emotionally and in terms of risk of abuse – in placing the children in foster care.

But if this case ever was about protecting children, it isn’t anymore. It’s about punishing “bad mothers.” Texas CPS will never say that, of course. They probably can’t even admit it to themselves. Instead, we’ll get the usual mumbo jumbo about “we have to make sure the mothers comply with their ‘service plans’” and “we just want to be sure the children will be safe with their mothers.” But there is no way to be absolutely sure that any child is safe with any mother, or father, or anyone else. You have to balance the risks. And for these children, the risk of harm is far greater in foster care than with their mothers.

Sadly, the behavior of Texas CPS is not unusual. It took a class-action lawsuit to curb similar practices in New York City. (See “When Children Witness Domestic Violence” on our website, for excerpts from the court decision). And, as it happens, Alaska takes children at one of the highest rates in the country. So one does have to wonder: If those Native Alaskans had realized that “there was a government they could go to that might investigate, might prosecute” and if they had called that government, would that government have done the right thing? Or would that government simply have increased the suffering of the Alaskan children by taking them away on grounds of “failure to protect”?