Thursday, September 2, 2010

UPDATED SEPT. 2: Foster care and family preservation: Breaking down the barriers between “us” and “them”


This originally ran on a Friday, when this Blog doesn't get as many hits as earlier in the week, so I've reposted it now, and added some new material at the end.

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 last week 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?

(That last example bears a striking resemblance to an incident described in this heartbreaking story from Britain  in today's Daily Mail. The case illustrates that the instinct to impose middle-class prejudices on poor families apparently is universal. It also illustrates that when a country imports bad American ideas about child welfare – like giving local government's bounties for boosting adoptions – they are likely to get the same bad results.)


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 I thought I'd start sharing some of my favorites. Over the next few days, I'll be posting what amount to a series of "guest blogs" by reprinting some of my favorite responses to Gottlieb's essay. This first one also is the one selected for highlighting by Times editors:


August 26th, 2010
3:57 pm
Late one evening after an argument with my husband, I walked one minute across the street from the apartment complex to the food mart to buy a snack and give myself a chance to cool off. Our toddler was asleep in her bed, and my husband was at his computer. It turns out that he assumed I went to bed and also walked across the street to purchase cigarettes. As soon as we saw each other, we rushed home (30 second run at the most). This has never happened before and will never happen again. It was a miscommunication and a terrible mistake that we are deeply embarrassed by and ashamed of.
However, the police cruiser parked at the store followed us assuming something was wrong. When they learned of the accident, they made us wake our sleeping daughter and carry her outside so they can inspect her welfare, and then interrogated us for over 30 minutes in the parking lot with their lights flashing as the neighbors peered out their window. They insisted upon inspecting the home, and expressed concern over piles of laundry sitting out that were sorted and waiting to be washed.
We had an open case with social services for weeks with two follow-up visits with a social workers. We were required to supply references from both sides of the family and our friends, all of whom they called. The case was closed but we were warned if another complaint was made our child would be taken into custody.
And yes, we are Hispanic and live in a low-income apartment complex. We are also college students who work hard to make a better life for our family.
Does this matter seem like it should be the government's concern?