Thursday, March 4, 2010

Keeping your child out of foster care in Traverse City, Michigan: Ozzie and Harriet are safe; the rest of us? Not so much

The previous post to this blog discusses the ugly recent history of child welfare in Traverse City and surrounding Grand Traverse County, an affluent enclave in Michigan that sees relatively little poverty and has a Department of Human Services office that tends to confuse the poverty it sees with neglect. That helps explain why it takes away children at a rate that is double the state average, and more than triple the rate in metropolitan Detroit.

It also helps explain why Michigan DHS confiscated Shirley Vinson's child at birth and ultimately will almost certainly destroy her family. Her story is well-told in Northern Express, the alternative weekly in Traverse City.

I've often said that child welfare systems are arbitrary, capricious and cruel, routinely erring in all directions. The Vinson case is a good illustration.

Because the first thing to know about Ms. Vinson is that she, herself, should have been taken from her parents when she was growing up in Florida, much sooner than she was. Her parents were sadists and brutes. Odds are, the only reason hers was not one of those classic, headline-grabbing cases of a child left in her own home to die is the simple miracle that she survived.

She finally was placed in foster care at age 15, but by then she was too angry for her foster parents to handle by themselves. Instead of providing the foster parents with help, the state put Vinson in an institution. She survived that, too. But her very survival, and everything that happened afterwards, would be held against her by Grand Traverse DHS. And that's in spite of the second crucial thing to know about Ms. Vinson. She has never, ever been so much as accused of abusing or neglecting a child.


On the contrary, all her adult life, she has shown remarkable strength and resilience. Unlike her parents, she never has abused drugs. Her one mistake was making bad choices in men. But even then, she always put her children first. When a boyfriend abused her first child she fled with the child. When the boyfriend stalked her, she gave up her children for adoption. When she got pregnant again, her original plan was to give up this child as well. But with the help of a friend she got back on her feet, got a subsidized apartment and was able to live on her monthly disability check. She was taking parenting classes and working toward her GED. So she changed her mind.

Unfortunately, she'd already told one of Michigan's powerful private child welfare agencies that she wanted to give up her child. And the agency wasn't about to give up that rarest of commodities on the adoption market, a white infant who, they probably were convinced, would be so much "better off" with a middle-class family. So they reported Vinson to DHS. That's how it works in much of American child welfare: Step right up and take a poor person's child for your very own. (Indeed, Vinson's case bears a remarkable resemblance to a notorious case in Grand Rapids, discussed on Page 28 of NCCPR's first report on Michigan child welfare.)

In other states, the agency would have no grounds to report Vinson. She'd done absolutely nothing to even hint that she'd maltreat a child. But in Michigan, that doesn't matter. In Michigan, any mother who ever has lost parental rights for any reason, even voluntary surrender, automatically is subject to a child abuse investigation whenever she gives birth again. In theory, having lost parental rights before is not, in and of itself, supposed to be grounds for taking another child at birth. But, according to a landmark study of Michigan child welfare, many Michigan workers believe it is, and act accordingly. The study even has a term for it: "policy mythology."

In Grand Traverse County, DHS wrote off Shirley Vinson's remarkable strength, her resilience, and the fact that she always protected her own children. Instead, according to Northern Express,

one day after Vinson's baby was delivered by C-section, a DHS worker entered her hospital room and told her that if she did not immediately sign papers for adoption, the DHS would move to make the baby a state ward. Vinson's life of bad choices was this long, she said, and opened her arms wide, and she'd only gotten it right for this long, and narrowed her fingers to a few inches. Vinson has been in court ever since trying to get her baby back …

Odds are something else was at play as well. Few tenets of child welfare are more sacred than the "intergenerational cycle theory." Like much in child welfare there is a molehill of truth in it. Abused children are, indeed, more likely to become abusers. But contrary to the mountain of hype built upon this molehill, it is not true that every abused child is doomed to be an abuser. On the contrary, fully 70 to 80 percent of abused children break the so-called cycle – and Shirley Vinson already had proven herself to be among the 70 to 80 percent.

But given her background, her poverty, and the fact her infant was so eminently adoptable, confiscating the child at birth was irresistible.


But don't take my word for it. Listen to the person Northern Express found to defend the decision, former Grand Traverse DHS Director Mary Marois. According to Northern Express,

Marois said that area DHS workers have been intensively trained not to mistake poverty for neglect, as sometimes occurs in other counties. "The attitude of Grand Traverse/Leelanau is if the problem is money, then there's no problem. If you're thinking of removing kids because they don't have shelter, then we find a place for the family to live. If it's proper clothes, then let's get them clothes. So you would never remove kids because of a dirty house, unless it's a dangerous house with garbage and feces all over it. That would never happen in this community." said Marois.

How nice. Except that, during the same interview, in listing the reasons Shirley Vinson should lose her child forever, one of the first she mentions is "limited wages."

And almost all the others are issues that would be no problem at all if Vinson had money. As Northern Express explains:

When told of the case, Marois said there is more to parenting than having a safe apartment. Vinson has no spouse. Limited wages. No driver's license. A lower IQ. She has no family to support her and teach her how to parent. She subjected her toddler to scenes of violence and bouts of homelessness.

That last one is exceptionally cruel. What Marois means is that Vinson is a bad mother for, in effect, throwing her body into a boyfriend's fist in front of the child. In New York City it is illegal to take a child from a mother just because the mother has been beaten because it's so harmful to the child. But most of the country is not that advanced.

And while Marois dismisses the fact that Vinson now has safe housing, the fact that she couldn't do that in the past still counts against her. Of course, those "bouts of homelessness" must have had nothing to do with poverty, since Grand Traverse County never confuses poverty with neglect.

As for not having a family of her own to help, that's often a problem for poor people, particularly since they have no margin for error in their lives. But that's where programs like Michigan's pioneering Families First Intensive Family Preservation Services program and others are supposed to come in. They help weave the safety net that middle class families either already have – or can purchase. But, of course, these are the very programs Michigan is cutting in order to fund a foster care worker hiring binge and big increases for largely worthless residential treatment centers.

But there's more. Marois goes on to delineate what is required of any parent in order not to be deemed abusive or neglectful. She told Northern Express that, in the newspaper's words,

learning how to be a good parent isn't simple. It requires that a child watch for 18 years how a parent writes bills, handles conflicts, cooks dinners, schedules activities, and soothes tempers.

I wonder when DHS is going to send caseworkers into the mansions of Grosse Pointe to take away children of all the parents who are neglecting them by hiring people to pay the bills and do the cooking.

And I guess I'd better confess, too. Although the bills always were paid in my house when I was growing up, I can't actually say I remember seeing my parents write the checks and put them in the envelopes. Worse, as I pondered this grievous failing on the part of my parents, it occurred to me that I'm not sure my daughter, now about to graduate from college, ever saw me do it either.

Which means – oh, my God! – child maltreatment is intergenerational!