Friday, August 27, 2010

Foster care and family preservation: Breaking down the barriers between “us” and “them”


I've often noted how much more attention media pay to false allegations of child maltreatment and wrongful removal of children in the relatively rare cases where the family is, like most journalists, white and middle class. The much more common affronts to poor, minority families get far less attention. This previous post cites a case in point, though I'm pleased to report that the news organization on which I focused, NPR, has gotten a bit better in the succeeding years.

Even more frustrating than the refusal to tell poor people's stories is the common refusal, on the part of both journalists and their audience, even to make the connection between what occasionally happens to "us" and so often happens to "them."

I first learned this decades ago when, one after another, the cases of alleged "mass molestation" at day care centers – sometimes complete with insane allegations of abuse by Satanic cults – started falling apart, and it became clear that that much of the American child welfare establishment had fueled a latter-day witch-hunt. Then, when it reached the point that the next dangerous fad, "recovered memory" was being satirized in Doonesbury, I was sure people would make the connection. I was sure people would realize that the same authorities who so easily believed there were Satanic Cults in the basements of day care centers and secret tunnels under the McMartin Preschool – cases which touched the middle-class – must be wreaking far more havoc in the lives of poor people, and shouldn't have so much power over their lives.

But few people made the connection.

Even now, I sometimes get calls or e-mails from people who've been ill-treated by child protective services who rush to reassure me about how different they are. "We're an educated, middle-class family" they'll say – meaning, unlike those poor people who deserved whatever CPS did to them.

Perhaps it takes someone who has had some kind of personal experience with both kinds of affront can break down those barriers.

Someone like Chris Gottlieb. She co-directs (with NCCPR's President, Martin Guggenheim) the Family Defense Clinic at the New York University School of Law. She wrote a guest essay published yesterday on the New York Times Motherlode Blog. Here's an excerpt:

A woman approached on the subway to tell me that looking at newsprint up close could cause eyestrain. I quickly learned she was not worried about me; she was concerned about my baby's eyes because I was carrying him face out, where he was about six inches from the newspaper I was reading. An elderly man chastised me because my baby's legs were not covered. A saleswoman was more worried about his arms, but didn't stop at commenting — she reached out to pull down his sleeves. …

[O]ver and over, I have seen caseworkers who investigate parents and judges who oversee intervention in family life hold parenting up for assessment and inevitably find that the parents fall short. Why? Because the standards imposed are as idiosyncratic and impossibly high as the standards of the people I hear from on the subway. The caseworkers and the judges, however, have the guns to back up their glares. …

I have heard caseworkers criticize mothers for everything from giving their children Chinese takeout food or Kool-Aid (the mother told me orange juice was too expensive for her) to having beer in the house to letting a child get wet under a sprinkler. A judge ordered one of my clients to take her child to the park every day. Every day! How can that level of micromanagement of parenting by the government make sense?

One indication of how successful Gottlieb was at breaking down the barriers between "us" and "them": The response in the comments section was far more favorable than the Blog owner, Lisa Belkin, seemed to expect. In fact, this may be the first time I've finished skimming more than 30 comments on a newspaper website and actually felt better about human nature than when I started.

So, please stop reading this Blog (for now) and check out Chris Gottlieb's essay on Motherlode.