Sunday, August 4, 2019

Attn: ACLU: Child Protective Services does the “unimaginable” every day. When are you going to do something about it?

To it's credit, the ACLU is fighting for the rights of immigrant children to stay with their families.  But for decades, at the national level, when it comes to protecting the civil liberties of American children threatened with needless foster care, the ACLU has been AWOL. 

Sure, we're still tearing apart families at the border,
says Acting Homeland Security Secretary
Kevin McAleenan. But don't worry, he says:
“This is in the interest of the child.”

To its credit, the American Civil Liberties Union has been a leader in efforts to stop the Trump Administration from tearing apart families at the Mexican border.  Last week, the ACLU revealed that at least 900 children have been torn from their parents in spite of a court-order banning the practice.

How are they doing it?  In the name of “child safety” of course.  Or as acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan put it: “This is in the interest of the child.”

The separations are allowed when remaining with a parent truly would endanger the child.  So here’s what Trump is doing, according to ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, in an interview with NPR:

They’re separating [families] for the most minor crimes possible, traffic offenses, in one case a nonviolent theft for $5, disorderly conduct – just shocking, … [It’s] family separation by another name under the guise of supposedly protecting children from dangerous parents …
Can you imagine how many Americans would lose their children if a traffic offense or a disorderly conduct or a misdemeanor theft offense was a basis for taking away your child? 

Actually, yes. I can imagine it.  In fact, no imagination is required.  Because tens of thousands of children are torn from everyone they know and love for far less every year by U.S. child protective services agencies.  And all the while, the national ACLU has stood silent.

Some state affiliates get what the national office does not

There are state affiliates of the ACLU that get this, notably Illinois, South Dakota, and Pennsylvania (where the legal director is a member of NCCPR’s volunteer Board of Directors).

But for decades, at the national level, when it comes to protecting the civil liberties of children threatened with needless foster care, the ACLU has been AWOL.  

NCCPR’s founder, the late Betty Vorenberg, resigned from the National Board of the ACLU because of its longstanding failure to lift a finger to deal with the massive infringements of civil liberties perpetrated routinely by child protective services agencies – using the same rationale now being used by the Trump Administration at the border. 

Full details on the ACLU’s failure are in this earlier post.  But for the benefit of Mr. Gelernt and anyone else at the ACLU who genuinely doesn’t know how CPS agencies work, here are a few examples:

● When panhandling is a crime, it is no worse an offense than a traffic ticket or minor theft or disorderly conduct.  This man had his children taken away because of it. 

● Being homeless or living in substandard housing is not a crime.  But these children in Texas were thrown into foster care because of it.  So was this child in Philadelphia.  And this child in New York.  (And did you know, ACLU, that multiple studies have found that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their families had decent housing?)

● Not realizing that your small child had wandered out of the house while you took a bath is not a crime. But if you’re poor it’s reason enough to throw your child into foster care.

As one lawyer told The New York Times: “In another community, your kid’s found outside looking for you because you’re in the bathtub, it’s ‘Oh, my God’” — a story to tell later, he said. “In a poor community, it’s called endangering the welfare of your child.”  The lawyer does not work for the ACLU.

● In some places smoking marijuana is a crime.  But no more serious than the ones Mr. Gelernt described.  Yet that, too is reason enough to consign a child to the chaos of foster care. Even drinking marijuana tea to ease the pain of labor can lead to a child being confiscated at birth.

You may not be aware of all this, ACLU. But poor people know all about it. As a New York Times story from just last week makes clear, it’s a fear they live with every day.

I’m glad the ACLU is fighting for the rights of children taken from their parents by the Border Patrol.  But the tragedy is every bit as real when it is inflicted by child protective services. (The fact that CPS agencies usually mean well is no comfort to the children – they shed the same sorts of tears as the children taken at the border, for the same reasons).  

So, ACLU, When are you going to do something about it?

For more on the extent to which American child welfare systems trample on civil liberties, see NCCPR's Due Process Agenda, "Civil Liberties Without Exception."