Friday, August 14, 2009

The everyday horrors of American child welfare

People in Los Angeles have been reading about a lot of child welfare horror stories. But this one never made it into the big daily papers. I first read about it a year and a half ago in the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, a legal publication. The information below comes not from a news account, but straight from a scathing ruling from an appellate court:

Gerardo R., as he is known to the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Eight, was a loving, caring father to his two sons. He saw them nearly every day. And when their mother lost her parental rights, Gerardo immediately sought custody.

Gerardo never beat the children, he did not torture them, he did not starve them. Indeed, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services did not accuse Gerardo of doing them the slightest harm. Yet not only did DCFS refuse to let the children live with Gerardo, they moved to terminate his parental rights, cutting him out of their lives completely.

Why? Because the single working father couldn't afford housing that DCFS deemed suitable.

That's not just my conclusion. That's the conclusion of the Court of Appeal, which, in February, 2008, unanimously reversed the juvenile court decision terminating Gerardo's parental rights.

According to the decision, Gerardo

" … has been involved with his sons throughout their lives, before and during this dependency proceeding. He always provided financial support, visited regularly, participated in the boys' schooling by helping with homework, and attending an [Individualized Education Plan] meeting and awards ceremony, and maintained contact with DCFS even when he lacked a place to live. The record strongly suggests the only reason Gerardo did not obtain custody of the boys was his inability to obtain suitable housing for financial reasons. But poverty alone, even abject poverty resulting in homelessness, is not a valid basis for assertion of juvenile court jurisdiction." [Emphasis on the word "only" is from the original, boldface is added.]

Quoting from an earlier decision, the court declared that:

"'Judges and social workers … have an obligation to guard against the influence of class and lifestyle biases.' DCFS abandoned its guard here."

And DCFS used some pretty sleazy tactics to hide the fact that it had abandoned its guard. It charged that Gerardo didn't really care about his sons because he didn't attend some early hearings. "What [DCFS] neglects to mention," the judges replied, "is that DCFS had failed to locate or give Gerardo notice of that action."

The appellate court also noted the perverse financial incentives that permeate child welfare, condemning the "absurdity" of terminating Gerardo's parental right because he couldn't afford housing

"[even as] the dependency system pays foster families to help defray the cost of children placed in their care, and subsidizes adoptive assistance payments until children reach majority. … It makes no sense for the government to subsidize the care of a child by relatives or strangers but not his presumed father, even though the sole impediment to placing the child in that parent's custody is the parent's dire financial condition." [Emphasis in original.]

After the ruling came down, there were no calls by members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for an investigation into how Gerardo's children could have been deprived of their father this way. There was no race to the television cameras to denounce DCFS for its nearly-successful destruction of this family. And no heads rolled.

Frontline workers know such consequences are reserved solely for cases in which they are accused of doing too much for families, not the many cases in which they do too little.

Which means that, contrary to what you so often hear, when it comes to taking away children caseworkers are not "damned if they do and damned if they don't." They're only damned if they don't.

The caseworkers know it. And they act accordingly.

Monday: Curbing the B.S. in L.A.