Tuesday, May 20, 2008

How child abusers gain from the FLDS “service plans”

What is most striking about the cookie-cutter "service plans" issued to mothers of the children of Eldorado is not the fact that they are, in fact, non plans that offer no services. That's actually the norm with child welfare agencies, something I'll return to below.

A copy of the plan has been made available by The Deseret News. What truly is striking is who benefits most from these documents: Child abusers. In particular an especially odious sub-species - husbands/boyfriends who beat and terrorize both their wives/girlfriends, and their children. The language in these plans is one more weapon for these abusers to use against the women and children in their lives.

I refer specifically to this language:

"A parent is also responsible if they allow anyone, including their husband or wife, to abuse the child, or if they otherwise fail to act and it results in abuse or neglect of the child. Thus, not stopping someone from abusing your child is as bad as abusing the child yourself."

Now, imagine a woman who has been beaten repeatedly by her husband/boyfriend. Imagine that the husband/boyfriend also is beating their children. Any expert on domestic violence will tell you that the most dangerous time for such a woman is when she actually tries to escape. But now there is one more reason for her to stay. If she threatens to call the police and seek protection for herself and the children, the abuser can waive this document in her face and say: "Go right ahead; call the cops. They'll just call CPS and take away the kids – 'cause you're just as responsible for their beatings as I am!"

Similarly, a mother who has been planning a clandestine escape in the middle of the night, with her children, is bound to have second thoughts when she hears that CPS deems her equally responsible for the abuse of her child.

This is exactly what the battered women's movement has had to fight for decades. And if mom calls the cops and they do indeed call CPS and CPS does indeed take the children – as they probably will – that removal will be a double blow for the child. Because all the usual trauma of removal will be compounded by terrible guilt: A small child will believe that she must be responsible for her abuse and the abuse of her mother – why else is she now being punished by being taken from her mother?

This is precisely why a successful class-action lawsuit stopped New York City's child welfare agency from taking children of battered mothers who "allowed" their children to "witness domestic violence." As one expert said during his testimony, taking children in such cases is, for the children, "tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound." (The section of the decision summarizing the expert testimony is available on our website here.)

Similarly, since this case began, I've suggested that the right response in Texas would have been to treat the mothers and the children as refugees, like the Vietnamese boat people who fled Southeast Asia 30 years ago. Some boats were attacked by pirates who raped the women and children. But when these refugees finally reached our shores, no one was so unspeakably cruel as to suggest that the children should be traumatized by being taken from their mothers because those women could not stop them from being raped.

But look at the language in the "service plan" again: "not stopping someone from abusing your child is as bad as abusing the child yourself." No exceptions. No case-by-case examination of the circumstances. By that standard, some of the boat people would indeed have been labeled child abusers and had their children taken.

In the specific case of the women on the YFZ ranch, for starters, in a great many cases we have no evidence that they did, in fact, tolerate coerced marriage and rape (and at any age, forcing a woman to have sex against her will is rape). And where that may have happened, the women either may not have known the practices were abusive, or were powerless to stop it.

In all of these cases, far more harm is done by separating the children from the mothers. Yet that smug, sanctimonious declaration that "not stopping someone from abusing your child is as bad as abusing the child yourself" takes account of none of this. Acting on that statement in the way Texas CPS has done is, in itself, an act of mass child abuse.

No services in the "service plans"

There has been much discussion of the fact that the so-called "service plans" are just cookie cutter documents which don't take into account the needs of individual families – and provide no actual services, just a list of hoops the families have to jump through.

So what else is new?

I've never seen a Texas service plan before, but news accounts about "service plans" from all over the country indicate that they almost never are individualized and almost never provide actual services. For example, even when what a family needs most is concrete help like day care or housing assistance, that's almost never offered. Instead the family is simply told to find housing and child care on their own, even as they are sent on a forced march through often meaningless "counseling" and "parent education."

None other than Scott McCown, a former judge and the state's leading advocate of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, says the plans are typical – and he has no problem with that.

Notice in particular the grid setting out who is obligated to do what. Notice how the child welfare agency is obligated to do absolutely nothing – except hand out referral slips. Over and over and over, the only obligation the agency imposes on itself is "make referrals" "make referrals" "make referrals." There is no obligation to actually get the service into the hands of the family. There's no obligation even to know if the referral slip leads to an actual service or a waiting list. And of course, nothing to indicate that the service bears any relation to what the family actually might need. Like most families in this situation, the mothers are, in effect, thrown into the deep end of the pool and told to sink or swim.

And when it comes to what the families are likely to need most, concrete help, DFPS doesn't even obligate itself to hand out a referral slip – it says it will do so where such services are "appropriate and available."

The real purpose of these non-plans seems to be to set the families up to fail, the necessary precursor to either taking permanent guardianship of the children or termination of parental rights.

Texas CPS says it will add specifics later. But that means only that the judges who rubber-stamped the plans in 40 separate cases Monday approved them without actually knowing what's going to be in them.

Confiscating a child's Bible

One area where I've agreed with CPS is when the agency says the issue isn't religion. I've said several times, the issue is rape – but none of the mothers has even been accused of that, and there is no reason the children can't live with their mothers while the charges are investigated. But, in at least one case, CPS apparently has infringed on the religious rights of at least one child – by confiscating his copy of the Book of Mormon, a book that all Mormons, not just fundamentalists, consider a third testament of the Bible. It may have happened in more than one case. And it appears that the reason for this is that the Bibles contained pictures of Warren Jeffs, the leader of the FLDS and a convicted sex offender.

Being a convicted sex offender is certainly a good reason to keep Warren Jeffs himself away from children. But his picture? Unless the photo is itself pornographic, which seems unlikely, it's hard to see how the picture would harm a child.

And since polygamy also is a crime, and some of the families, though not all, are polygamous, does that mean any family photos the children managed to take with them also must be confiscated?

But give Texas credit for this much

I've yet to see a news account that remarks on the fact that we actually know far more about what CPS is doing to these children than we would in many other states. Yes, CPS was able to keep everyone away from the giant isolated compounds where the children were held in the first days after the raid – if not for the courage of the mental health professionals who felt compelled to tell the world what they saw, (see The Mental health professionals in their own words and The Iraqi dictator, the "Queen of Mean" and the Incident Commander)we'd never know how badly the children were treated. And yes, the children are out of sight now, and we are forced to take the word of CPS and the various institutions holding them that they are "doing well." And yes, virtually every document in the case is likely to be secret.

But at least the court hearings are open. Today's papers are filled with accounts of what actually happened in five courtrooms in San Angelo. In most states, we would not know even that much. Because Texas is one of the relatively few states that routinely holds open hearings in these cases.