Sunday, April 13, 2008

Winning trust, and betraying it

On Friday, a spokeswoman for the Texas child welfare agency said that workers with her agency are trying to win the trust of the 416 children they took from the compound of a fundamentalist Mormon sect.

But there are signs that whatever trust they may have gained already has been betrayed – with a bigger betrayal likely later this week.

If the children really were raped and beaten by men at the compound the betrayal of trust is even bigger than if the allegations are false. Indeed, the worse the abuse, the bigger the betrayal. Because when abused children have a parent who didn’t abuse them, there may be nothing more important for their well-being than the chance to remain with that parent. CPS in Texas already is denying this chance to some of the children, and may soon deny it to many more.

If the allegations are true, the mothers themselves were victimized by repeated rape in the name of “spiritual marriage” and held in isolated communities from which there was little chance of escape. It would be nice if just once, for the sake of the children, a child welfare agency could put aside the knee-jerk reaction of blaming the mother whenever someone else abuses a child. Because if the allegations are true, there is a good chance that keeping these children from their mothers will only lead them to blame themselves for the abuse and everything else that has happened to them. Short term, it will add unimaginable loneliness to their ordeal; long-term, it may shatter their best chance eventually to lead a normal life.

As noted previously on this Blog, expert after expert has said that taking children from non-offending parents in these situations is enormously traumatic. Testifying in a class-action lawsuit, one said that for the child it is “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”

But Texas CPS appears incapable of doing anything but jerking its knees in all the usual ways. And it looks like when they go to court on Thursday, their position may boil down to “please pass the salt.”

We’ve been told that 139 mothers voluntarily left the compound with their children, but CPS has been vague about what’s happened since. Are these mothers allowed regular, sustained contact with their children?

What we do know is disturbing. For starters, there is the matter of those mothers who were not at the compound during the raid. According to news accounts, including this one from Britain’s Sunday Times, they are being denied all contact with their children. According to the Times:

Outside the walls of Fort Concho, a former US cavalry station deep in the heart of Texas, a flock of slight young women were wailing and tearing at their long, pink and blue gingham dresses.
Inside the fort 400 children, removed last weekend from the nearby compound of a polygamy cult amid allegations of rape and child abuse, heard the commotion and cried out for the parents they had not seen for days.
Even for casehardened social workers flown in from Arizona and Utah to help soothe distraught children, ranging from infants to 17-year-olds, the scale of the distress was heartrending.

In this story CPS claims that they’re just waiting for DNA test results to confirm that the mothers really are the children’s mothers. But in other news accounts, a CPS spokeswoman offers a more chilling explanation for denying contact: “These children are with us because we believe they’ve been abused or neglected.” But, of course, every child taken into foster care is there because a CPS agency believes that. So by that logic, no child ever would be visited while in foster care. Which makes one wonder about the children whose mothers are supposed to be with them during their detention.

The “incident commander” at Fort Concho and the other huge facility where the children are being held paints a picture of life there as something between summer camp and a scout jamboree. But his Orwellian references to the children and their parents as “guests” are not reassuring. And some mothers who used their cell phones to call the Deseret News tell a different story. While some mothers are with their children, if the mothers happen to be in one shelter and the children is in another, there is no contact:

"I've been walking around and comforting crying, sick children," [one mother] said, adding that she also been helping overwhelmed mothers struggle to care for their children in their new environments. …
Dorothy described the anxiety many of the children feel being away from home, especially at night.
She said 25 young girls have mothers who are staying in another shelter, yet Child Protective Services workers have refused to even let them pass notes to each other. That means she has had to comfort many of them.
She said the children have told her, "Please come and sleep on my bed so they won't take me. I say, 'No, I will sleep by the door so I can watch all of you.'"
Dorothy said workers at the shelter will walk through the crowded room among the children at night, which makes it even more difficult for them to sleep. The cots, cribs and playpens are side by side.
"There's no separation," Paula, another mother, said. "When we're trying to bed down the children and a child is crying, we can't settle them down. It's hard to know how to help each child..."
One small girl, whose mother was not at the ranch during the raid and has not been allowed to join her children in the shelter, cries out for her mother daily.
"It's quite traumatic to her. She just cries and cries, missing her mother," Barbara said.
"When a child is crying, it affects the whole room. There's nowhere else to go."
Barbara said one child she's been caring for got sick and had to go to the hospital. Her mother had been away from the ranch when the raid took place and didn't accompany her daughter to the shelter.
After the little girl returned to the shelter after being hospitalized, a caseworker quizzed Barbara, "Where was her (the little girl's) mother? Why was she gone from the ranch (during the raid)? Where did she go?"
Barbara said she told the caseworker that the child's mother was outside the shelter waiting to see her daughter, to which the worker responded, "Well, she's with us now so that's how it is."
Children could be heard crying in the background during each of the phone interviews from the shelters. …
Kathleen believes some of the child welfare workers have used frightening tactics when interviewing the children. She said she heard one tell a child, "If you do not tell us these things, we will take you away from your mother and father and you will never see them again."

We have only Kathleen’s word for this, of course. (A tape of her telephone interview is on the Deseret News website.) But the claim eerily echoes tactics used by those who interviewed the children in the notorious McMartin Preschool case. Similarly, we know that the kind of stripsearches that accompany CPS medical examinations in these cases can be enormously traumatic for children. In this case, one of the mothers alleges,

"Some of the children have come out crying and screaming …They were touching their bodies in inappropriate ways."

But the worst betrayal still may lie ahead. I’ve suggested previously that these children, and the mothers who left the compound to join them, are like refugees – suddenly transported to what amounts to another planet. So they should be resettled like refugees, with mothers allowed to live with their children.

But there appears to be little or no talk of that, and much discussion of dispersing the children around the state, and possibly the nation, as foster children. Several Texas orphanages appear eager to take some of them.

That despite the fact that these children’s plight actually may be worse than that of refugees. In Britain’s Sunday Telegrph, Jill Mytton, principal lecturer in counseling psychology at London Metropolitan University, points out that at least refuges actually want to leave the place they’ve left. Lytton is herself a cult survivor. She strongly believes the raid on the Texas compound was necessary

But instead of putting the needs of the children first and doing everything possible to keep mothers and children together, CPS probably will seek to use the children as leverage to win “confessions” from the mothers of their own “wrongdoing,” force them to publicly “repent” and prove they’ve seen the light about the evil ways of the men in their lives, and get them to testify against the fathers. This would both satisfy the overarching need of many in CPS to get parents to “confess” and “redeem” themselves before they are “worthy” of having their children, and give them leverage to prosecute the fathers.

If the fathers did what they are accused of doing, then gaining more evidence to prosecute them is a worthy goal – but not at the expense of the emotional well-being of their children. And it would be a travesty if the people at CPS were allowed to let their “gotcha” mentality triumph over what these children need most.

The betrayals don’t end with emotional harm. Right after the CPS spokeswoman explained how the agency was trying to win the children’s trust, she added: "Even though they have not been safe before, they will be safe with us."

But no child welfare agency in America can deliver on that promise for every foster child, certainly not the one in Texas, which just paid a $4 million fine to the federal government for failing to meet standards for caseworker visits to foster children.

Of course most foster parents try to do the best they can for the children in their care, and many are true heroes. But academic studies repeatedly suggest that from one-quarter to one-third of foster children will be abused in foster care. Those estimates are conservative since they generally don’t include a major source of such abuse: foster children abusing each other. For citations see NCCPR’s Issue Paper #1 and our publication 80 Percent Failure. (The record of group homes and institutions is even worse.)

Now, consider the risks for children who know nothing of the wider world; children who, if the allegations are true, are trained to obey older adults and have sex with them. What happens if these children wind up in foster homes with unscrupulous foster parents and/or streetwise kids who had been removed from their own homes because of sexual abuse?

If Texas separates these children from their mothers and throws them into foster care with strangers, and if these children wind up stuck in foster care long enough, the odds are that for from 104 to 138 of them the promise of physical safety will be broken.

And speaking of broken promises, the San Jose Mercury News had a story Sunday about another isolated compound where children allegedly suffer repeated abuse, while the people running the compound deny anything is wrong. Except that, as in the overwhelming majority of cases in which widespread abuse is alleged at isolated institutions, in this case, it was the state that put the children there in the first place – proving once again the biggest tactical error made by those fundamentalist Mormons in Texas: They didn’t call their compound a “residential treatment center.”