Sunday, January 18, 2009

How the dominoes fall

    The first domino: There is a New York Times reporter who seems to believe everything she reads from the Manhattan Institute, an extremist "neocon" think tank that dominated New York City during the Giuliani Administration (where they did as much good for the children of New York as neocons have done for the children of Baghdad). This reporter takes the child abuse deaths that, tragically, occur in a huge city like New York every couple of weeks, and falsely labels them a "series." (It was a series, she would later say, "but not statistically.")

    The second domino: The same reporter starts blaming all the deaths in this non-existent series on efforts by the city to keep families together.

    The third domino: The particularly horrific case of Nixzmary Brown, occurring after the Times reporter already had begun her neocon crusade, dominates news coverage in every New York City daily. The tabloids play it straight in their news pages, but the Times, on the news side, (and the Daily News and the Post editorial pages) rush to scapegoat keeping families together.

    The fourth domino: The Administration for Children's Services, instead of fighting for its own reforms, panders to the neocons; feeding a little red meat to the News editorial board by claiming its own caseworkers were doing too much to keep families together, and letting the Times reporter watch a meeting where they get tough with caseworkers who aren't tough enough on families.

    The fifth domino: The message goes out from everyone from the Mayor on down, that every New Yorker should rush to report every suspicion, no matter how preposterous, to the state child abuse hotline. The pressure is particularly intense on schools.

    The sixth domino: When the city Department of Investigation issues an absurd report, generalizing about the overall quality of casework based on the eleven worst cases it could find, ACS does nothing to defend its workers, embraces the report, and rushes to waste scarce dollars hiring retired police officers, just as DOI told it to.

    The seventh domino: Every public message to frontline workers is the same: Take the child and run. You can take all the children you want and – while terrible things will happen to the children – your job is safe. But you'd better not have the next fatality on your caseload.

    The eighth domino: Just in case the message still hasn't gotten through, ACS announces a draconian new policy to confiscate at birth children born to parents who already have lost a child to foster care.

    The ninth domino: Workers do indeed get the message. The number of children taken from their parents, which was 4,800 in the year before the Times started pandering to the neocons, and ACS started giving in, reaches 7,000 per year.

    The tenth domino: All that time spent taking away all those children is stolen from children in real danger – deaths of children "known to the system" set a record. But the newspaper of record never puts that record in the newspaper.

    And when the dominoes come crashing down, the full weight of one of the largest child welfare agencies in the nation lands with full force on one little boy named Juan.

    Juan's mother, Lillian Lucas-Dixon, did not beat him, or torture him, or sell him on the streets for drugs. As the Daily News reports, her crime was working to raise her youngest child.

She needed to get to her job as a subway station attendant. So she'd leave Juan, age 7, home alone after school until his 23-year-old sister got off work and could get to their Co-op City apartment to watch Juan.

"My choice was, do I lose my job or stay home with my son?" Lucas-Dixon, told the Daily News.

    Juan mentioned this in his notebook at school. Poor Juan had no way of knowing that every school employee is on notice that their jobs are on the line if they don't call in absolutely everything to the hotline. So the school did. And, of course, Juan knows nothing about the "get tough" message caseworkers have been hearing for three years now, which explains why, instead of helping Juan's mother find after school care, they simply opted to take the child and run.

    So now Juan is in a foster home of a total stranger, far from where he lived. And in a throwback to one of the most regressive practices of bad child welfare agencies, visits often are scheduled during his mother's working hours.

As to whatever happened to "Team Decisionmaking" – in which everyone is supposed to meet within 72 hours to work out solutions in cases far tougher than this one – we may never know. ACS refuses to comment on the case, even though New York is one of the rare states where, under circumstances like this, child welfare agencies generally are free to tell their side of the story.

    As to the mother who is raising Juan, the Daily News reports that:

Her oldest eight have graduated or are in college or the military. The ninth is in high school. …

Her older children, now ages 15 through 29, say they always received Christmas presents, went on vacations, participated in sports and arts programs and that their mother knew the administrators and teachers at each of their schools.

"She does for 10 of us what some parents do for one," said Princess, Lucas-Dixon's 20-year-old daughter, a student at Sullivan County Community College. "I just don't get it."
Lucas-Dixon brags that none of her kids have criminal records, were pregnant as teens or abused drugs. "If I was dumb enough to have a large family, I owe it to myself and the world to produce responsible citizens," she said.
    In fact, there are millions of children like Juan, left home alone every day in America by single parents, usually mothers, who have no other choice. But Juan was in the wrong place, New York City, at the wrong time, a time when every ACS worker is running scared.