Monday, July 11, 2011

Foster care in Houston: The “majestic equality” of Texas CPS

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
Anatole France, 1894

"You could live in a mansion and be in an unsafe living environment.  It's not the place as much as it was the circumstances."
 Gwen Carter, spokeswoman, Texas Child Protective Services, 2011.

Perhaps you’ve heard about the case in Texas, a case that captures perfectly the biggest single failing in American child welfare – the confusion of poverty with “neglect.”

KHOU-TV, to its credit, broke the story, but Anita Hassan of the Houston Chronicle told it best.  Here’s an excerpt:

Tucked behind an iron gate at the end of a long gravel driveway in east Houston sits a small storage shed.

Outside, the corrugated steel structure is identical to the 76 others next to it, but the inside holds more than someone's possessions.

It is a home.

Inside the 12-by-25-foot shed are hand-built shelves where children's clothes are folded neatly next to canned goods, boxes of cereal and a stack of family photos. On another shelf, beside two king-size beds, textbooks lie next to board games.

Despite the cramped conditions, it overflows with love, said Charlomane Leonard, 35, as she stood in front of the shed that she, her husband, Prince Leonard, and six children have called home for years.

"That's what makes it comfortable," she said. …

Prince Leonard built all the shelving and a makeshift loft. There's a refrigerator, an air conditioner and wood-burning heater. On land behind the storage units, the children and their mother plant a garden every summer, harvesting squash, tomatoes, okra and peppers.

We all know where this is going, right?

Yes, somebody called CPS.  The caller probably meant well.  Perhaps he or she had read one of the countless news stories in which CPS agencies tell us to report even the slightest suspicion and then let the “professionals”decide.

In this case the “professional” decided not to lift a finger to help the family get a better place to live.  The “professional” decided not to move the entire family to a motel.  Instead, the “professional” decided that the best thing to do was to confiscate the children on the spot and force them into foster care.  That was on June 17.  There was not even going to be a court hearing until mid-August until the case started getting media attention.

In addition to being terrible for the children, this appears to be a clear-cut case of violating federal law, which requires that CPS agencies make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together.  In this case CPS made no effort at all.

The good news: The children were placed with grandparents.  (If anyone needs a reminder of what Texas foster care with strangers can do to a child, it’s here.)

The bad news: Even when placement is with a relative, suddenly being uprooted by force from loving parents is an enormous emotional trauma for a child – the younger the child the greater the potential trauma.

More bad news: For no conceivable reason other than malice or idiocy the parents are only allowed to visit the children for an average of less than an hour a day.

Texas is a state where child advocates constantly are complaining about lack of money for child welfare and high caseloads for CPS workers.  They’re right.  But their solution was all wrong: In 2005, they pressured the Legislature into a child abuse investigator hiring binge.  But hiring more caseworkers only works when it’s part of a comprehensive reform plan that emphasizes curbing wrongful removal. In a report we released at the time, we said that hiring more caseworkers alone would simply widen the net of needless intervention into families and the state would wind up with the same lousy system only bigger. 

That is what happened, and the Leonard case is a prime example.  But children like the Leonard children aren’t the only ones to suffer.  All the time, money and effort wasted doing so much harm to the Leonard family and so many others like them is, in effect, being stolen from other children in real danger who really should be taken from their parents.  That, of course, is the real reason for the horror stories about child abuse deaths that make headlines.  And that is why the way Texas CPS is behaving in cases like this makes all children less safe.
It gets worse: Texas is the latest state to face a McLawsuit from the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights.  Lately their suits have tended to result in settlements requiring exactly the kind of hiring binge for child abuse investigators and foster care workers that’s already failed in Texas.   And since CR doesn’t care how such hiring is paid for, it’s likely to happen at the expense of programs to help poor people – such as, say, help with housing.

It goes without saying, of course, that there are no families like the Leonards among the named plaintiffs in CR’s suit – and not a word of concern expressed by CR about such cases.  On the contrary, the lawsuit falsely contends that all foster children in Texas were abused or neglected – adding insult to the emotional injuries (and sometimes worse) endured by the Leonard children and so many others.


And there are, indeed, many others.  There is nothing new about taking away children when family poverty is confused with neglect.  Three major studies have found that at least 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if the parents just had decent housing. (For citations see this NCCPR Issue Paper.) What’s unusual is for a newspaper to pay attention, especially in Texas.

In case anyone thinks this is some kind of aberration, Anita Hassan of the Chronicle also wrote a follow-up story, which included something almost never seen in a Texas newspaper, and certainly not the Houston Chronicle: The perspective of lawyers who defend parents in these cases.

Here’s the lead from that story:

As a family law attorney, Julie Ketterman has worked countless cases in which Child Protective Services took children away from parents for reasons that range from a family using an outhouse instead of indoor plumbing to keeping clothes in boxes instead of dressers.

Ketterman said CPS caseworkers deem those instances as unsafe and cramped living conditions, which is grounds for removal by the agency's standards.

"But to me, they are being picked up because they are poor," she said.

Legally, CPS cannot cite poverty as a reason to remove children from parental custody.

"But do they do it? Absolutely, all the time," said Ketterman, who has worked as a defense attorney in CPS cases in Houston for more than five years.

As noted at the top of this post, CPS says that of course they didn’t take away the children because they were poor.  CPS claims they took the children away because their living environment allegedly was unsafe.  Or, to paraphrase Anatole France, Texas CPS, in its majestic equality, prohibits rich and poor equally from living in storage sheds.

As for spokeswoman Gwen Carter’s claim that “You could live in a mansion and be in an unsafe living environment” of course she’s got a point.  After all, you never know when the water might get too hot in the Jacuzzi.

Now that the case has gotten media attention, things are following the usual pattern:

A community activist got someone to donate a house.  And CPS appears to be backing down – though not before exacting an additional price from the family: The Chronicle reports that they signed a “confidentiality” agreement.

Why, exactly would that suddenly be a top priority for CPS?

Fortunately, before the gag order was imposed the family talked again to KHOU and to KPRC and KUHF public radio in Houston.  So you can see the parents and see for yourself how the family lived.

But what about all the other children taken away because their families were poor – the ones who don’t get media attention?

Even the media attention that is likely to reunite the Leonard family comes with its own downside:  Now the parents will be under two microscopes.  CPS will watch them for months waiting for what foster parent Mary Callahan calls the “gotcha moment” – when the parent slips up and CPS can say “gotcha” – and, in this case “we told you so.”

And now, precisely because reporters have cast the parents in a favorable light, they’re going to have to live up to that image 24/7 – or else.  One slip up, one loss of temper, one bout of, say excessive drinking, or God forbid, one of them caves under the pressure and lashes out physically, and the media will turn on them in an instant.  Just ask a guy in Nebraska named Gary Staton.

The media find it hard to grasp that children generally do best with their own parents, even when they are not only poor, but also flawed, fallible, and human.