It began as a story about poverty and homelessness. But, as so often happens, because family policing agencies prey on the poor, it also became an account of how the so-called child welfare system makes everything worse.
It began as a five-part newspaper series in The New York Times. Now it’s a book: Invisible Child, published today by Random House. It is a must-read for anyone concerned about race, poverty, and child welfare. Exhaustively reported and superbly written by Times reporter Andrea Elliott, Invisible Child is, in some ways, a de facto sequel to what I consider the best book ever written on the topic, Nina Bernstein’s masterpiece, The Lost Children of Wilder. (Even the book cover designers seemed similarly inspired.)
While not quite as ambitious as Lost Children, which told both a family story and the story of an entire system; page-by-page, Invisible Child reveals how so many “helping” systems, especially child protective services, have oppressed impoverished families, especially nonwhite families, for generations. The book tells the story through one such family and one child, Dasani.
In his review of the book for the Times, Matthew Desmond writes that “The family is a picture of chaos and love.” Readers will find plenty of both. The other central character in the book, Dasani’s mother, Chanel can be a source of frustration, especially for the white and the privileged, like me, who have never walked so much as a step, much less a mile in her shoes. Chanel desperately wants her daughter to succeed but part of her is afraid of that success.
A wise, nurturing community-run human services system, working with the whole family, easily could have dealt with that; there were those huge reserves of love to work with. Instead, the various “helping” systems repeatedly undermine family bonds and seem intent on doing things that magnify Chanel’s fears.
And yes, Chanel has a drug problem – the result of getting hooked on opioids after Oxycontin was legally prescribed for Chanel’s pulmonary tuberculosis – yes tuberculosis, probably a recurrence of an illness contracted in a homeless shelter. This generally does not happen to the white, middle-class people who, you may be sure, even now are wagging their fingers and heaping scorn on Chanel.
But there was nothing wrong in that family that, say, an annual income of $84,000 a year, tax free, couldn’t fix. (I’ll explain why I chose that number below.) Families with that much income and similar problems are successfully raising children without interference by the family police – and, of course, they are unlikely to contract tuberculosis.
Elliott punctures the “we made it, why can’t they” myth early on, as she tells the story of Dasani’s great grandfather – a war hero. He earned three Bronze Stars in World War II, but as Desmond explains in his review:
after the war ended, racism kept him from securing a union job or buying a home. The federal government effectively nullified his veteran’s mortgage by redlining his neighborhood. “The exclusion of African Americans from real estate,” Elliott writes, “laid the foundations of a lasting poverty that Dasani would inherit.”But everything from the poverty and racism to the fact that this was a real family with real problems made them even more vulnerable when the white saviors came calling.
Elliott adapted one portion of the book for the New York Times Magazine. But please don’t assume that if you’ve read the article you can skip the book – the book tells a vastly bigger story. Personally, I wish the Magazine has adapted sections closer to the end, which reveal the New York City family policing agency, the Administration for Children’s Services in all its wretched ugliness.
But since the Times chose the section dealing with one startling turn in Dasani’s life, I’ll focus on that as well. It’s also worth attention because those in the child welfare establishment who want to tear apart more families and institutionalize more children sometimes point to this place as proof that this is a great idea.
After all the attention from the Times stories, Dasani’s middle-school principal, who’d always been in her corner and wanted only the best for her, encouraged Chanel to apply to have Dasani admitted to the Milton Hershey School. The school was established in 1909 by the founder of the chocolate company. It’s located in the company town, Hershey Pa., about three miles from the Hersheypark theme park. It’s a boarding school for impoverished students – and boarding is required, even for students who live nearby. The school gets all the profits from all those chocolate bars – and that’s an incredible amount of money.The school has an endowment of $17 billion – yes billion. That’s more than the
annual Gross Domestic Product of at least 84 nations. Taken from extreme poverty, students suddenly are whisked away to a world where their every material need and comfort is taken care of – and then some.
Elliott writes that the school features:
eight tennis courts, three indoor pools, a 7,000-seat football stadium, an ice-skating rink. Hershey pays for braces, birthday presents, piano lessons, tutoring, therapy and other privileges known to families of means. The school has its own hair salon, clothing center and 24-hour health clinic with staff pediatricians.
No wonder at least two commenters on the Times story aptly called it “Hogwarts.”
Imagine what it was like for Dasani when she was first taken to the school’s Clothing Center. Elliott writes that it
… spans more than 17,000 square feet, with floor-to-ceiling shelves, two fitting rooms and an alterations department. Dasani’s eyes travel the room, seeing crisply folded shirts and sweaters in every size, followed by rows of blazers and suits. There is an entire wall devoted just to socks.
Dasani builds her school uniform, selecting polos in pink, orange, yellow and red, and a pair of khakis for each weekday. Formal clothes are next, as required for chapel: dress shirts and trousers, a pleated skirt and matching blazer. She completes the look with tights, flats and a charcoal coat with faux fur trim. For “leisure” time, she gets Levi’s jeans and sweatsuits, polka-dot shorts and shiny black Crocs. In the sleepwear section, she finds pajamas with a candy motif.
Dasani zips in and out of the dressing room. “That’s mine,” she says with each new item. “That’s mine! That’s mine!”
“Yes, it is,” [her “house parent”] Tabitha McQuiddy replies. “Yep. Yep.”
In all, Hershey spends, yes, $84,000 per year on each child. (A recent news story, discussed below, puts the figure even higher.) But as Elliott reveals, as she peels back the layers of Hershey, there’s actually a terrible price to be paid. Dasani must effectively turn against her own family.
No one explicitly tells her to do that, of course. But the message that she has been rescued from an inferior family and must learn to be someone else is loud and clear from day one.
For starters, children at Hershey are almost entirely cut off from their parents for the first month. Elliott writes:
Chanel is allowed one weekly phone call to Dasani, at a predesignated time. There are no visits for a month — a separation that is designed to help incoming students form new bonds, particularly with their house parents.
Why, exactly must old bonds be diminished to form new ones? Children are not cut off from things that those doing the cutting off think are good for the children – so the message to Dasani, and other Hershey students, is clear.
Dasani is taught the Hershey way to sit at the table, the Hershey way to eat, the Hershey way to speak. It’s all reinforced with an exhaustive code of picayune rules, rewards and punishments – and, as a recent expose by ProPublica, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Spotlight PA reveals, the system of carrot and stick extends beyond graduation all the way into college, sometimes with extremely harmful results. (That story also reveals the vital importance of the Hershey demand to tuck in your shirt.)
When Dasani finally is allowed a visit home, she starts correcting her siblings’ grammar the way Hershey constantly corrects hers. (It’s one thing to teach someone to code switch, it’s another to send the message that your own code is stupid and ugly. That is the inevitable, albeit unintentional effect of that constant correction.)
The siblings are resentful, and Dasani becomes increasingly torn.
And what of the siblings? Harry Potter was an only child. What does it do to family relationships when Hershey reaches down and makes one child the Chosen One and the others too inferior to bother with? How many families have been fractured this way? How many siblings lives were made worse because they were deemed too inferior to choose?
And why is a school that is so financially generous with the Chosen Ones, so stingy with their families. Consider Dasani’s graduation from middle school. It’s not in the Magazine story, but in the book, Elliott writes:
In a few more hours, Dasani will graduate from Hershey’s middle school. She tries not to think about all the parents who will come. Even Hershey’s cash-strapped families exist within a hierarchy. There are those who can afford the bus ticket to attend graduations. Chanel cannot.
$17 billion in the endowment and you can’t even spring for a bus ticket? Really?
Hershey picks and chooses whom to take, choosing impoverished students who appear most likely to succeed to begin with, and then claiming credit for their success. The numbers are further improved by the fact that if you don’t do things the Hershey way, if you can’t adapt, if you miss your family too much, if you feel you are betraying them – and as a result you lash out – The Milton Hershey School will spit you out as if you never existed.
That’s what happened to Dasani, in part because of the pressure of being the Chosen One and in part because, while she was away, ACS was inflicting more misery on her family.
I was impressed by how many commenters on the Times Magazine story saw that Hershey is a very rich, very expensive, plush, luxury version of an Indian Boarding School. (The comments as a whole were surprisingly good, and I’ve included excerpts from some at the end of this post. Indeed it was a commenter who pointed me and other readers to the ProPublica story.)
Of course there are differences: Children come to Hershey voluntarily (if you can call trading in your family for material comforts and a better chance at college voluntary – and, as the ProPublica/SpotlightPA/Inquirer story makes clear, many Hershey students and their families are explicitly and reluctantly making that tradeoff – it is the main reason some choose to attend). At Hershey, children live in luxury rather than facing starvation and physical and sexual abuse as happened in the boarding schools.
But what the commenters understood is that the underlying philosophy is the same.
The boarding schools were established, in order to, in the words of the founder of one of the most notorious, “kill the Indian to save the man.” Dasani felt that her culture and her family ties were being killed. She rebelled by getting into fights. So Hershey spat her out.
All children need unconditional love – children who have been in or near the clutches of the foster care system probably need it most. But Hershey’s “love” isn’t love at all. It has more “terms and conditions” than a software licensing agreement. Hershey isolates children from family when they first arrive in order to “bond” with the house parents – but Hershey feels free to break those bonds at will.
One of the most telling aspects of how Hershey treats its rejects – one of the clearest examples of how it dehumanizes anyone who won’t do things their way – is left out of the Times story, but it’s in the book:
Remember how thrilled Dasani was about getting all those new clothes? How she kept referring to them as “mine” and how the house parent assured her that was true? The house parent was mistaken. When Dasani was expelled, she had to give all those clothes back to the school with the $17 billion endowment.
Those clothes were never hers. They, and she, belonged to Hershey. And when Hershey didn’t want her anymore they almost literally stripped her of everything.
There is nothing to indicate that we have to do this to poor children so they will succeed. After being kicked out of Hershey, Dasani found a mentor in her plain old New York City public school, who guided her to graduation. She’s now in a community college that’s part of the City University of New York, which used to do what Hershey did, provide a free education – without requiring students to give up their families or their culture.
Had Dasani’s family had that $84,000 per year, she almost certainly would have thrived, and so would her siblings. Were our public schools given a tiny fraction of the resources of the Milton Hershey School thousands of Dasanis would be thriving.
In the book, the head of the Milton Hershey School lectures parents to the effect that sending their children to him is the most “selfless” thing they can do. But Hershey is the epitome of selfishness. They have a bottomless pit of money that they can use any way they please. But they do nothing to help students’ families. Not only won’t they even let a student keep her clothes when she leaves, they won’t even spend the pittance required to pay for parents to attend their children’s graduation. What kind of message does that send to the children about who really matters? Hershey demands huge sacrifices from impoverished families, while Hershey sacrifices nothing.
There are two theme parks in Hershey, Pa.: Hersheypark and Saviorland. In a just society, one of them wouldn’t exist.
INSIGHT FROM AN UNEXPECTED SOURCE
“While the intentions were good, I am not sure that the school really did her any favors. It certainly damaged her relationships with her family, and likely led to the destruction of the family unit. The school, in its totally comprehensive approach, sends the message that everything about where the student came from is bad, and that maintaining the bonds of family love and mutual support are just a drag on achieving the student's potential. When students come from abusive homes, perhaps jetissoning the past is best. But in Dasani's case she had a loving, if poor, family. And family ties are vital to our mental health. I also question the financial cost of this comprehensive program. Might not the money spent to feed, clothe, house, and educate her in that little utopia have achieved more for her and the people she loves if it had been spent on more generous section 8 housing, food stamps, childcare, and local schools?”
“For all the faults of Dasani's relatives, their care was never conditional. That is the one thing this young woman always had and always trusted. It seems to me that this school did her no favors.
“@Amv Agreed. And Hershey's policy of allowing the child no contact with family the first 30 days (except by phone) so the child can "bond" with house parents and housemates is antiquated and harmful to the child. This initial adjustment period is when they need family the most.”
“Yes, they gave Dasani educational opportunities but not actual support or a sense of belonging. The school has a paternalistic model and is clearly there to serve the emotional needs of its wealthy benefactors who love the stories of kids taken from the streets and cleaned up.”
“What would Dasani say if we asked her, now and in the future as she matures and has the benefit of hindsight, ‘What would have been the best way to help and support you to be successful when you were a child?’"