Monday, December 13, 2010

Foster care in New York: Will ACS apply “the Madoff standard” to poor people?

            Imagine for a moment that a son of someone who was once America’s most notorious drug dealers kills himself.  The drug dealer-father is serving a long, long jail term.  The son may have learned in the past week that he might have been facing criminal charges himself. His own son, age 2, is sleeping in the next room.  His wife is a thousand miles away.

            Another close relative finds the body.  Because the little boy had been left alone for a time, the police say they will notify the child protective services agency.

            But then what?

            One can be reasonably sure that, in such a situation, the child would be hauled off to foster care at least for a few days.  After all, no one is going to just hand over a little boy to a relative of one of America’s most notorious criminals without at least doing a “background check” right?  And certainly the child welfare agency would send someone to the home to make sure this relative truly was a suitable caretaker, wouldn’t it?  And when the boy’s mother got back home, no one would just hand the boy back to the daughter-in-law of America’s most notorious drug dealer, would they?

            And if, by chance, the mother did get the child back, you can bet there’d be a period of “supervision” and court hearings before the child welfare agency was out of the family’s life.

            But relatives of some kinds of criminals, and, in particular, innocent children born into such families, get very different treatment.

            Just substitute swindler for drug dealer and you have the facts, as known so far, in the suicide of Mark Madoff, son of Bernie Madoff, in New York City on Saturday.  The little boy is Bernie Madoff’s grandson.

            And yet, police handed Mark Madoff’s little boy to his other grandfather – the mother’s father – no-questions-asked.  And you can bet that just as soon as the boy’s mother gets back to New York, she will be reunited with her son – if that hasn’t happened already.

            All of which is exactly as it should be. 

            You can bet that the New York City Administration for Children’s Services – the same agency that opposed subsidized guardianship for relatives of impoverished children in part because the agency wouldn’t be able to stay in those families’ lives – will do either nothing at all, or only the most perfunctory checks on the mother and grandfather of the Madoff boy.

            Again, exactly as it should be.

            The problem isn’t what was done in this case.  Rather, much as in the case of a high-powered Scarsdale lawyer discussed on this blog last year, the problem is all those other cases in which the family has a different skin color, and a vastly different income, from the Madoff family.

            So here’s a suggestion for ACS and its counterparts around the country.  From now on, when you encounter a family tragedy and there is a relative for whom there is no reason for any suspicion ready and willing to care for that child – get out of the way and leave the family alone, except to provide the family whatever help they may need in a time of tragedy.  In short, try applying the Madoff standard to poor people.