Sunday, July 12, 2009

Nebraska: The speed trap of child welfare

There are communities across the country that are notorious for speed traps. The speed limit is set absurdly low and the local police lie in wait for cars with out-of-state plates. The unwary don't get to leave town without paying a very stiff fine.

Nebraska is a little like a giant speed trap. Only instead of levying a fine, they take away your children.

Consider the case of Suwen Wang, a physicist, and his wife, Charlotte Fu, a paralegal, from Palo Alto, California. On June 6, they were traveling through Nebraska with their 12-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son when some sibling rivalry apparently got out of hand. The result: The children wound up trapped in foster care for more than a month - and Nebraska authorities were all set to force the daughter to miss a once-in-lifetime opportunity to travel to Korea where her award-winning art will be exhibited as part of an international competition. Things only began to look up when the case got some news coverage.

The daughter was the North American winner of a children's painting contest sponsored by the United Nations. The painting was on display at the Omaha Children's Museum, and the proud parents flew the family out to see it. But on the way back to the airport, the 12-year-old girl and her 13-year-old brother apparently started acting like, well, 12 and 13-year-olds, with the boy "needling his sister," according to the father's lawyer.

So Dad pulled over to the side of the road, and Mom got out to deal with the situation – not knowing that someone was watching from her front lawn. The witness told a local television station Mom hit the 13-year-old several times on the back. (Police reportedly said she hit him in the face, but the witness herself says otherwise.) Ms. Fu does not look like someone who could inflict much damage on a 13-year-old boy. The boy cursed at his mother, pushed her, and may have hit her - since, while the boy was entirely uninjured, mom was bleeding from a cut above her nose. At that point, Dad turned around from the front seat and allegedly hit the boy. Lawyers for the couple deny that either parent hit the children.

After 20 minutes, everyone apparently had calmed down enough for the family to resume the drive. But by then the witness had called the cops, and a Plattsmouth, Neb. Police officer pulled the family over.

Mom and dad were arrested and jailed for a weekend. The children's sentence has lasted a lot longer. As of July 9, they still were in foster care, though, thanks to the news coverage and the parents' middle-class status (which meant they could afford private attorneys), Nebraska made a deal to let Santa Clara County, California, authorities take over the case. (In California, individual counties run their own child welfare systems.) So the children probably will be released soon, if they're not back in California already. Were this family poor, odds are the children would be trapped in foster care for years.

Of course, things like this can, and do, happen anywhere. But they're more likely to happen in Nebraska, which, year after year, takes away children at one of the highest rates in the United States, by far. The Neanderthal state of child welfare in Nebraska was exposed to the nation during the state's Safe Haven debacle last year, when the then-head of the child welfare agency, Todd Landry, made jokes at the expense of desperate parents and otherwise belittled their problems.

Landry since has left, but his replacement, Todd Reckling, appears to be cut from the same cloth, blithely declaring that these things take time, even as the children were trapped thousands of miles from home.

In fact, as the Omaha World-Herald pointed out, when Nebraska was desperate to send out-of-state "safe haven" children home, they made it happen within days. Meanwhile, the parents even reported themselves to Santa Clara County child welfare authorities in the hope it would speed up the process.

Nebraska authorities also appear to be justifying their actions based on the fact that there has been one other incident involving the parents back in California. Mom and Dad got into a loud argument. Mom said she was leaving to stay in a hotel. Dad may, or may not, have grabbed her arm to restrain her. And he may, or may not, have gotten into a scuffle with police when they were called.

But this also is a family so well-known for their love of their children that more than a dozen friends flew thousands of miles to be with them at a court hearing in Nebraska and to protest outside the courthouse.

"This is an Orwellian nightmare," one friend, Larry Markosian, told the San Jose Mercury News. "Every family occasionally has difficulty raising kids, especially teenage boys. I don't know what happened. But we know they are a loving and kind family and we see no reason whatsoever to keep these kids in a foster home so far from the community they grew up in."
So yeah, it seems the folks in this family have tempers – like real, fallible human beings. A couple of times it may have gotten out-of-hand. Apparently, no one told them about the CPS-endorsed Oprah-fication of American family life. They hadn't heard that to be sure you stay out of trouble with CPS you should never, ever lose control and all differences are to be settled by saying "I'm not o.k. with that" and otherwise mumbling therapy-speak at each other.

Who knows? Maybe this family could use some of that "counseling" that CPS agencies always try to impose – though in this case it should be strictly voluntary. After all, it is possible to live together as a family with neither the phony harmony of therapy-speak nor ever raising a hand (as opposed to a voice) toward another in anger. The issue here, as almost always, is balance of harms. And one thing is clear: Whatever problems may have existed before, the Nebraska child welfare agency has made them worse by punishing the children with needless foster care.

"These kids are very much involved in the Palo Alto community, with Boy Scouts, art and Chinese lessons," Markosian, the family friend, told the Mercury News. "And they are being ripped away from not only their family but from their whole community."

He went on to read aloud from an e-mail sent by the 12-year-old girl to her parents: "Dear Mom and Dad," the e-mail said. "We love you a lot. Remember that. We know you're doing everything you can to bring us back home and we are very thankful. Love you a lot." The e-mail is signed with 10 exclamation points.
Part of the explanation for the behavior of Nebraska authorities is just bureaucratic inertia. Another part is the fanaticism about child removal that permeates the state. But there also is an undercurrent of racism running through the case.

Although the family are American citizens and the parents have lived in the United States for 17 years, the 12-year-old's "law guardian," who, in theory, is supposed to watch out for her "best interests," wanted to seize the family's passports – which would have made it impossible for the girl to go to South Korea for the award ceremony. (After all, what could be more suspicious, and pose more risk to a child, than an Asian-American family going to – Asia?) The law guardian reportedly explained that the art contest was irrelevant to the foster care case.

In addition, during visits, the family was forced to speak English, though they prefer Chinese – so the supervisors monitoring the visits could understand every word. I've seen no explanation concerning why the visits had to be monitored in the first place.

Such bias is certainly nothing new in Omaha. In 2002, authorities tore 10 Hmong children from their families after they confused marks left by a traditional Southeast Asian healing practice known as "coining" with child abuse. Even after the error was explained, authorities kept the children – until publicity and protest marches, which included one Asian youth singing "We Shall Overcome," won their freedom. I have two letters from the Omaha police chief proudly justifying the raids.

Would the caller in this most recent case, who has refused to back up her claims by disclosing her name, have made the same call, had the family been white?

Meanwhile, authorities in Santa Clara County haven't acquitted themselves all that well either. They have not promised to return the children even after they obtain legal custody and they've come up with an absurd list of hoops the parents are going to have to jump through – something almost guaranteed to increase the stress in the family (though it's possible they did that to appease Nebraska.)

In general, though Santa Clara does a far better job than Nebraska, that's a mighty low bar. The county has one of the highest rates of removal in California, as is documented in NCCPR's California Rate-of-Removal Index. And, as former Mercury News columnist Peter Delevett documented, child welfare authorities in Santa Clara may not treat Mexicans any better than their counterparts in Omaha treat Asians.

Back in Nebraska, the child welfare agency justified what it did to these children by saying their staff followed procedures. But that, of course, is a big part of the problem: the procedures stink.

Then, at the hearing where the agreement with Santa Clara County was reached, an attorney for the Nebraska child welfare agency, Susan Buettner, declared: "The most important thing has been lost: This is a case that involved alleged child abuse,"

No, Ms. Buettner, that fact hasn't been lost at all. But it was your agency that did the abusing.