Thursday, April 8, 2010

Foster care in Cleveland: The latest danger to children of battered mothers - Plain Dealer editorials

Perhaps the most common child welfare story in American newspapers is the story of the death of a child "known to the system." But all such cases are not alike.

In some cases, the failure of the child welfare agency to act is stark and obvious. These are the cases in which the file reveals more "red flags" than a Soviet May Day parade. Other cases are more ambiguous. Perhaps still another visit to the home would have revealed the danger, maybe some extra phone calls. But caseworkers are so overloaded with false allegations and trivial cases that they usually don't have time for that. I would argue that the tragic deaths of the children of Banita Jacks in Washington D.C. fit this category.

And then there are the cases in which the child welfare agency would have to be psychic to predict the tragedy. Based on the information made public so far, it appears that the case of Arshon Baker of Cleveland is one of those.

But such distinctions are of no interest to the editorial writers at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. They're on a righteous-indignation high right now, too busy reveling in their own fury to notice that, in their quest to scapegoat family preservation, they distorted the facts of the case - as reported by the Plain Dealer's own news staff. In the process they've heightened the risk to some of Cuyahoga County's most vulnerable children – those whose mothers have themselves been victims of domestic violence.


Compare how the editorial writers describe the case to what the Plain Dealer's own reporter found – keeping in mind that the editorial writers say they relied on the news story. Here's the editorial page version:

[Angel] Glass, Arshon's mother, was last in contact with the county child welfare department in October 2008. She subsequently lost her two part-time jobs, went off her medication and became so depressed she couldn't get out of bed in the morning.

But since her case was closed after she agreed to take a parenting class -- she had called the agency after her boyfriend slapped Arshon's sibling -- she was no longer on the department's radar screen as her life spiraled out of control.

Now compare that to the facts of the case, as reported by the same newspaper. (I've put some key points in bold):

Children and Family Services began helping her in June 2007, a year after her release [from prison on an assault charge].
It wasn't because she'd done anything to harm Arshon or his sister, who's 18 months older. Child welfare workers showed up after Glass called police to report that her boyfriend, Larry Wanzo, had slapped her 4-year-old daughter in the face. The little girl was trying to stop the drunken, 6-foot, 5-inch, 210-pound man from hurting her mother, according to the police report.
Glass was doing the right thing, [Cuyahoga County DCFS Director Deborah] Forkas said.

"She was trying to protect the child."

An investigation found no need for action against her. Because she was in a violent relationship, a case worker suggested that Glass enroll in weekly parenting classes and counseling sessions and agree to monthly visits from Children and Family Services.

Glass welcomed the help.

"She was very, very cooperative," Forkas said. "She could've said, 'no.' It was not a forced case plan."
Glass continued the classes and counseling until October 2008. Because she successfully completed the program, Children and Family Services closed her case.

"The professionals that were treating her really felt she had made a tremendous amount of progress," Forkas said. "She was completely stable."

Her office offered Glass ongoing counseling, paid for by Medicaid. Glass, she said, continued the sessions. But because Children and Family Services was no longer supervising her case, workers don't know for how long. [Emphasis added].

Glass also had an outstanding warrant for an assault charge – that occurred a year before she ever contacted DCFS. But the warrant never was served and DCFS never knew about it.


So for starters the Plain Dealer editorial writers are simply flat wrong when they claim the case was closed after Glass agreed to take parenting classes. The case stayed open far longer.

More generally, what do the facts actually show: A mother with a criminal record – before she ever reached out to DCFS - but no record of child abuse. A mother who did nothing to harm her child, and never was accused of doing so. A mother who reached out to protect both children, and accepted help when she was under no obligation to do so.

What, besides psychic powers, would have allowed DCFS to know that long after the case was closed she would lose her jobs, go off her medication and allegedly kill her child? How would DCFS know this case was different from all the other cases of poor people who lose their jobs in a recession, become depressed – and don't harm their children?

Unless, of course, the Plain Dealer is taking the position that DCFS should confiscate the children of any battered mother who reaches out for help – or any mother who reaches out for help when her boyfriend hits a child.

In fact, the trauma to a child of separation from a loving mother actually is heightened if that mother is, herself, a victim of domestic violence. One expert calls it "tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound." (Is the Plain Dealer now advocating a policy that amounts to "please pass the salt?") That's why a class-action lawsuit led to banning this pernicious practice in New York City (NCCPR's Vice President was co-counsel for the plaintiffs). Such removals are of sufficient concern in Ohio for the Ohio Domestic Violence Network to have filed a "friend of the court" brief in the case.

Even if this is not literally what the Plain Dealer wants, consider the message the editorial writers are sending to other women like Glass – if the newspaper gets its way, and pressures DCFS into taking a take-the-child-and-run approach in these kinds of cases.

If there's one thing we know about men who abuse their partners and their children it's that they can be highly manipulative. So what happens to the next mother in Glass' position who wants to seek help because a boyfriend has beaten her child, or her? Why shouldn't we expect the boyfriend to say: "Go ahead. Call the cops. They'll just call DCFS and they'll take away your kids. I read it in the Plain Dealer."