Saturday, December 25, 2021
Thursday, December 23, 2021
|Anybody see any ghosts around here?|
I don’t know how it happened. Maybe three ghosts paid a recent visit to some reporters and editors one night. But whatever the reason, after years of marching in lockstep with the Miami Herald – ignoring wrongful removal and sometimes fomenting foster-care panic -- the Tampa Bay Times has discovered that maybe all those children don’t need to be in foster care after all!
Of course, the discovery comes way too late for all the children whose lives were destroyed by needless foster care – and the story fails to acknowledge the Times’ own role in making the Tampa Bay area such an outlier. But it’s a start.
● The story calls out the hypocrisy of Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. She sheriff has launched a criminal investigation of the former “lead agency” overseeing foster care in the region, Eckerd Connects, because of appalling conditions in foster care. But all the while, Gualtieri’s office continues to shovel kids into those very conditions by tearing apart families at one of the highest rates in the state. Where have I heard that before?
● There’s a story, albeit buried toward the end, about children torn from their mother just because the mother was a victim of domestic violence. Where have I heard that before?
● And, again at the very end, there’s a good discussion of how the Broward County Sheriff’s office reformed to keep children safe while taking proportionately far fewer than Pinellas and Hillsborough. Broward used to be an outlier, too, taking many children needlessly. But then, according to the story,
In an unusual step, then-Broward Sheriff Scott Israel hired former Department of Children and Families deputy regional director Kim Gorsuch to run his child protective division. In Pinellas and Hillsborough, that position is handled by officers at the rank of major or captain.
Gorsuch found that investigators were too often equating poverty with neglect, they didn’t understand addiction and might remove a child because one household member was using drugs even when another relative in the home could care for the child.
She also found that Black children were disproportionately being removed from two high-poverty ZIP codes.
When investigators told her they were trying to keep children safe, she posed a simple question: Are Broward kids really more unsafe than kids in the rest of Florida?
The limits of miracles
Even miracles have their limits, though.
High up in the story, Robin Rosenberg of Florida Children First – a group which, itself, has long been a big part of the problem, is allowed to frame the issue as, in essence: Poverty makes those people bad parents who neglect their kids. She tells us, in effect: Well yes, the kids could remain home but only with lots of “social services” and “monitoring” – in other words, constant, onerous surveillance and pointless hoops to jump through. Only much farther down, in that section about Broward County, do we learn that poverty itself often is confused with neglect, and that is mentioned only in passing.
Then Rosenberg tells us the high rate of removal “is particularly frustrating in a region where millions are spent on child abuse prevention programs.” Because her mindset – that the parents may not be evil but they sure are sick, sick, sick! – runs so deep, it apparently never occurs to Rosenberg (or the Times) that the problem might be that a lot of prevention money goes to the wrong places: largely help that makes the helpers feel good, such as “counseling” and “parent education,” instead of concrete help to deal with poverty.
And while Gualtieri blames “inadequate social services,” for
why his office supposedly has to tear apart families at one of the highest
rates in the state, he is not asked why he doesn’t use some of his own budget
to provide those services. As we
pointed out in a previous post, Gualtieri
“You don’t whine about it. … You figure out a way to make it happen."
So why can’t the Pinellas County Sheriff’s office take some of its budget and use it for emergency cash assistance, and rent subsidies, and housing repairs, and childcare subsidies. Or at least follow the example of this police officer in Kansas City, Missouri.
Across the bay in Hillsborough County, their sheriff’s office blames high rates of removal on substance use. But only much farther down, again in that short section about Broward County, is there a hint that the knee-jerk response to substance use among poor people should not be to traumatize their children with needless foster care. (That is almost never the knee-jerk response to substance use among rich people).
We also don’t know if this story signals real change at the Tampa Bay Times – or if it’s more like: Oh alright, we’ll cover this angle once and then go back to business as usual.
We know only that it’s a start. And that it’s still not too late for three ghosts to drop in on some journalists at the Miami Herald. But, come to think of it, maybe that wouldn't be such a good idea. Knowing the Herald, they'd probably just write an editorial urging DCF to take away Tiny Tim because the Cratchits are so poor.
Wednesday, December 22, 2021
December is the month when editors rush to publish big projects, so they’ll be eligible for awards competitions. That helps explain why there’s so much this week – though probably not the first item:
● As we prepare for another surge in COVID cases, this seems a good time for a reminder of the massive amount of media malpractice that took place at the start of the pandemic, when almost every news organization in America accepted the myth that, in the absence of overwhelmingly middle class, disproportionately white “eyes” constantly on overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite kids, their parents would unleash upon them a “pandemic of child abuse.”
The latest to debunk this myth is the ultimate medical and child welfare establishment source: JAMA Pediatrics. Unfortunately, it’s one of those overpriced journal articles – but every reporter who bought into, and spread, the myth, has an obligation to pay up and read it. The title explains it all: "Child Physical Abuse Did Not Increase During the Pandemic."
● A handful of news organizations already had figured that out; but they were drowned out by those which, even in the midst of a racial justice reckoning, bought into a “master narrative” that is racist at its core. Still more evidence that there was no pandemic can be found in a landmark study from New York City by Prof. Anna Arons of New York University School of Law. She recently discussed her findings. There’s video and a summary on this blog.
● As we learn more about the horrors inflicted on Native American children in “boarding schools” it’s tempting to dismiss that as mere history. That will be a lot harder if you read this story from The Fuller Project and Mother Jones about the horrors family policing is inflicting on children right now. From the story:
The story zeroes in on the state with the worst record in the country – right now – for tearing apart Native families: Minnesota. As one expert put it:
“There’s such a weird disconnect in Minnesota between this progressive rhetoric and this really racist structural system. We’ve seen that with police brutality in Minnesota, but it’s also true in the child welfare system.”
Although Minnesota is worst, it’s far from alone. For some context, consider revisiting the outstanding NPR stories from 2011 on these same issues in South Dakota.
The next three stories have a common thread: If you do
not conform to the child welfare establishment’s straight, white, middle-class
version of exactly what a parent should be and how children should be raised,
then the family police are gunning for you.
● A mother tries to support her child as he explores his gender identity – just as experts suggest. She raises her children with love and care even though she is herself a victim of domestic violence. Then an anonymous caller turns her in to the family police. Roxanna Asgarian tells the story of what happened to the children in New York Magazine. I have a blog post about some of the key takeaways.
● And in New Jersey, NJ.com takes an in-depth look at racial and class bias in the New Jersey family policing system. (Though it’s billed as a subscriber exclusive, if you give them your email address, they’ll let you read it for free.)
● At least the children in the stories above are still alive. Tragically, things turned out differently in a case in Tennessee. As the Tennessee Tribune reports, the state’s family policing agency
forced itself into [the mother’s] home to “rescue” two toddlers and a ten-year-old who didn’t need their help at all. They suffered months of trauma; the youngest child died.
In this case the hospital involved got it right – but it didn’t matter, the family police took the child anyway. In another case, also reported by the Tennessee Tribune, the same hospital got it terribly wrong.
● It’s a Christmas miracle! After years of ignoring, and sometimes fomenting, foster-care panic, even the Tampa Bay Times admits a lot of children are being needlessly torn from everyone they know and love in that part of Florida.
● Alas, no ghosts have visited the journalists at the Miami Herald yet. I have a new column in Florida Today on what the foster-care panic started by the Herald (and encouraged by the Times, at least until now) has done to children in that state.
● How far there remains to go can be seen in the fact that, as The Imprint reports, a bill that simply would require the New York City family police agency to tell families their rights did not get a vote in the City Council – in large part because the family police in New York City don’t want families to know their rights. But, of course, if you don’t know your rights, you don’t have those rights – which is how the family police want it.
● Shortly before giving birth, one mother ate a poppyseed bagel; another a salad with poppyseed dressing. A hospital in Upstate New York drug tested them without their consent – and turned them in to the family police, which conducted traumatic investigations. Now, WTEN-TV reports, both mothers are suing, with the help of National Advocates for Pregnant Women and the New York Civil Liberties Union. According to the story:
“By drug testing me without my consent and reporting a false presumptive positive result to child welfare authorities,” one mother said, the hospital “turned what should have been the most meaningful moment of my life into the most traumatic one. …they treated me like an unfit mother, told me I wasn’t allowed to breastfeed, repeatedly denied my requests for a confirmatory test, and ensured my name would be on the [state central registry of alleged child abusers].”
● These kinds of policies are fueled whenever the hype and hysteria over drug use meets the hype and hysteria over child abuse. Though not touching directly on child welfare, this column by Jay Caspian Kang in The New York Times illustrates, once again, how desperate we are to find another Worst Drug Plague Ever so we can keep on blaming poverty on poor people.
● Remember those excellent NPR/Marshall Project stories about how family policing agencies grab foster children’s social security benefits to fund their agencies? No one should be surprised that Philadelphia is among the prime offenders. And now the Philadelphia Inquirer reports on how they do it, and what it does to families.
Tuesday, December 21, 2021
UPDATE: Nationwide confirmation for what happened in New York City can be found in this article, just published by the ultimate establishment source, JAMA Pediatrics. (Subscription or "rental" required.) The headline says it all: "Child Physical Abuse Did Not Increase During the Pandemic"
I began last week’s weekly
review of family preservation news and commentary with this video:
It’s from a panel on narrowing the front door to the family policing system. The focus was New York City, but it’s just as applicable anywhere else in America – indeed, in most places the harm done by family policing is even greater and even more widespread.
The centerpiece of the event was a presentation, starting at 17:54 on the video, by Prof. Anna Arons of New York University School of Law, in which she summarized her landmark study “An Unintended Abolition.” The study found that when COVID-19 forced the city’s family policing agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, to step back and community-run community-based mutual aid organizations stepped up, the trauma of needless investigation and foster care was significantly reduced, with no compromise of safety.
On the harm done by needless investigation:
These investigations even if they don't end up in family court are incredibly invasive and even if they don't result in a separation, we have an agent of the state who's entering families’ homes often unannounced in the middle of the night, demanding to see the child's nude body, demanding to look in every cabinet, and it's just a terrifying experience for any person to go through, even if that's the end of it. And for most families that is the end of it, in that 65% of reports, even before COVID were not substantiated. … This trauma is induced for this whole family, and then ACS finds no evidence to support the report whatsoever.
Who is most affected?
If we're looking back at the family regulation system at each stage from investigation through filing, 90% of reports received [in New York City] are about families who are Black or Latinx. They're hugely disproportionately in neighborhoods that are lower income. So even if we are going to control for poverty, there is still an overrepresentation of for black and Latinx families at every stage of the system.
What COVID changed – and the dogwhistling that followed
First was just the shutdown of in-person schooling, which reduced the contact between children and this army of mandated reporters. [Then we saw] reflected in the media at the time all of these narratives of children are going to be locked away at home, out of the eyes of mandated reporters. We can also see that as [the] dog whistle it is, for not all children are we concerned about - we were concerned about Black and Latinx kids who are being trapped at home with these parents who we in the predominant narrative are going to argue, have to be monitored in order to keep their children safe; they can’t be trusted to do that.
[NCCPR has more about this false narrative here.]
What the drop in foster care suggests
The drop outpaced the drop in reports alleging abuse and neglect. As Arons explains:
This significant drop in foster care seems to indicate first that ACS itself began assessing more rigorously whether it was in fact going to go to court and request a removal and it seems to have held off on filing cases where it might previously have sought removal … We also had judges at least initially granting fewer applications, even when ACS did request them, which would seem to indicate that judges were paying a bit more attention to this key factor for removal: whether there is harm or the risk of harm to the child that would be outweighed by the harm that was going to be enacted by removal itself …
And this to me seems to show that the ACS claim [and] the family court claim that it only had previously used removals as tools of last resort is just not true … That would seem to show that in past years we have a huge number of children … who were taken from their family, for no reason. [They] could have stayed at home with their family, and yet the city still removed them and judges still approved of those removals. …
By last summer ACS itself, through its commissioner … acknowledged at a city council hearing that he too had come to the conclusion that there had been no increase in child abuse or neglect, and it did not seem that this narrative of children being trapped at home with their abusive or neglectful parents had actually been borne out. …
And finally, looking forward … we also now can say that there has been no kind of observable rebound effect. Even now, as children are back in school, while the number of reports received creeps back up to what it was prior to COVID, there has not been any kind of bubble any increase in the number of reports as if teachers were reporting abuse or neglect that had gone unnoticed in the last year. …
What accounts for these results?
This is also a period where we have had more government assistance to families with fewer strings attached than essentially any other period since the New Deal. … [These programs] they do have the benefit of giving families the autonomy to receive funds and spend funds the way they would like to … fully outside the auspices of the family regulation system. So unlike something like preventive services where, if you're accepting aid from ACS … you're also accepting ACS into your home to monitor you and police you and to accept X, Y or Z condition that goes along with that. This is just families getting money to spend as they see fit, much like we already give to, for example, foster parents, when they are caring for children.
At the same time, we also have this huge growth in mutual aid projects … to a large degree able to take control of their own redistribution of wealth to some extent, and able to help their neighbors with everything from providing diapers, clothing and provisions like that to each other as well as services like counseling childcare, things like that.
The way forward
All of that to me feels like the path forward. How do we solve child neglect, how do we keep children safe in this country? We give families money. We give families money so they can keep their own family safe. And so, we are not requiring the government to come in and police them and say this is how you need to raise your children.
I think also we need to reconsider the role of mandated reporters and particularly the existence of mandated reporters in school in that I think that destroys the relationship between parents and their children school and seems to serve no real benefit.
And I think finally … as we creep back to the system as we saw before, I would just urge us all to kind of reject this notion that we need to return to business as usual. … If we are going to return to a world that looks more like the world that we were in before that doesn't mean accepting all of these abusive practices of policing that are still continuing to target Black families and poor families and Latinx families and police and surveil them. Instead, we need to move to a future and call for a future where those families are able to care for themselves the same way that all families should be able to.
Monday, December 20, 2021
Lesson from an appalling case in Michigan: If you don’t conform in EVERY way, the family police are gunning for you.
|It took the intervention of Michigan Attorney General|
Dana Nessel to undo some of the damage done
to the children at the center of this case.
This one is so bad that it’s getting national attention, thanks to some great reporting by Roxanna Asgarian, who wrote about the case for New York Magazine.
Here’s the story in a nutshell, though it no way does that do justice to the case, or the journalism:
The mother, Katee Churchill lived in small, rural, conservative Clare County, Michigan. She was in an abusive marriage – the father admitted to being violent and, at one point, Churchill took out a restraining order against him. Starting when one of her children was three years old, he said he wanted to wear dresses and, sometimes, he wanted to be known by a girl’s name. (The child is now 11 and currently identifies as male.) His mother consulted experts and followed their advice to allow him to express himself and not do anything to shame or stigmatize him.
But then an anonymous caller turned the family in to the Michigan family policing agency. (Since all states allow and often encourage anonymous reporting, whoever did this to the family will never be held accountable.)
All of the children were taken away. Two of them were placed with the abusive father.
And there is so much more:
● Like the psychiatrist who implied that Mom was to blame for being a victim of domestic violence. (He didn’t literally say “she was asking for it” but he came awfully close.) The children wound up placed with the abuser.
● Like the fact that, because states allow, even encourage, anonymous reports, (as opposed to confidential reports, in which the family policing agency itself must know who made the call) the person who initially did all this harm to the children by making such a call will never be held accountable.
● Like the fact that either this tiny Michigan county really is a cesspool of depravity, with proportionately nearly twice as much child abuse as Detroit – or they’re running around labeling poverty (yes, that also was an issue) being a domestic violence victim, supporting a child questioning gender identity and anything else they don’t happen to like as child abuse.
● How, after a judge returned the children, the family police brought new charges. And this time the prosecutor exploited a rarely-used demand for a jury trial to get the outcome she wanted.
● How it took the intervention of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel to stop things from getting even worse.
● How the mother is still barred from certain jobs – because she’s on Michigan’s registry of “child abusers.”
The story also makes clear that all parents of children questioning their gender identity have to expect that the family police are gunning for them and they need to be ready for it.
From the story:
Asaf Orr, the transgender youth project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights and one of the attorneys who represented Katee in her CPS case, said parents of trans kids are advised to compile a “safe folder” documenting their child’s transition with letters of support from pediatricians, pastors, and community members. “The whole purpose of the safe folder is to be able to show it to the CPS worker who knocks on your door because a teacher called CPS, or a community member or a parent of a friend,” Orr said, “to show the child-welfare systems you are not creating something in your child; this is you following your child’s lead.”
And though it’s not in the story, someone might want to ask the group that calls itself “Children’s Rights” something like this:
You have a consent decree (one of their worst, by the way) in Michigan. (They’ll say these sorts of issues are not covered by the consent decree, which, of course, is exactly the problem, but they still have enormous influence over the system.) In your endless fundraising emails you now claim that you actually care about keeping families together – though there is still no concrete evidence for this.
So, Children’s Rights – what are you going to do about this?
Friday, December 17, 2021
Think of it as the Cliffs Notes version.
From the column:
Year after year, the number of deaths of children “known to the system” remains constant. Some years it goes up a little, some years it goes down a little.
So all those children needlessly separated; all those taken from homes that were safe or could have been made safe with the right kinds of help only to be abused in foster care, suffered for nothing. They were victims of a “foster-care panic” — a sharp, sudden increase in removals of children from their homes that often follows high-profile child abuse deaths — especially when that coverage goes out of its way to scapegoat family preservation.
Wednesday, December 15, 2021
● Video is now available from last week’s presentations on narrowing the front door of the family policing system. I recommend in particular the 15-minute presentation of Prof. Anna Arons that starts at 17:54 in. She summarizes her findings about New York City’s “unintended abolition” in which COVID forced the family police to step back and community-based, community-run mutual aid organizations stepped up. Families also got direct cash assistance no-strings-attached through various federal programs. As even the head of the city’s family policing agency admits, all that led to far less trauma for families with no compromise of safety.
● Who says the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act hasn’t accomplished anything good? Well, OK, I do. But leaving that aside, this odious law has done one thing that’s worthwhile: It bridged America’s great political divide. Read why experts from Left and Right oppose it in this column from the Washington Examiner.
● ASFA has helped create a generation of legal orphans, with no ties to birth parents and no adoptive home either. Even when there’s an adoption, there’s no guarantee it will last. And even when it lasts, the reality is more complicated than the fairytale – especially for transracial adoptees. Some of them told their stories to The Washington Post, for a story that carried this quote as a headline: “‘I know my parents love me, but they don’t love my people.’”
● Speaking of dangerous delusions about adoption, check out Prof. Shanta Trivedi’s analysis, in Ms., of Amy Coney Barrett’s remarks during oral arguments in the Mississippi abortion case.
● The real story of COVID-19 and “child welfare” was not a “pandemic of child abuse” -- that never happened. The real story is how it made all the problems for families torn apart by family police worse. NYN Media has that story.
● Also in NYN Media, three members of New York’s Parent Legislative Action Network describe what family policing does to impoverished families and communities even without a pandemic:
Low-income communities are saturated with mandated reporters who are obligated to report any inkling of child maltreatment. That means that if a parent is thinking of asking for help, such as HeadStart child care, emergency housing, domestic violence support, substance abuse counseling, or Applied Behavior Analysis therapy funded by the state, they should be prepared to deal with [the city’s family police agency, the Administration for Children’s Services]. …
We need to stop equating safety with surveillance. Instead, we need to unlearn the notion that the government knows best. Families need real support from trustworthy service providers within their communities. But even more, families need cash. …
● One public official who gets that is Michael Tubbs, mayor of Stockton, California, who writes about the transformative power of cash for NBC News Think. (He’s not writing specifically about the family policing system; it just sounds that way):
We absolutely can implement bold policies on the local, state and federal levels that will dramatically change the trajectory of people’s lives, eliminate poverty and improve the nation’s productivity. But we can only achieve that kind of change if we disrupt and replace the current narrative on poverty based on racist, classist, sexist and xenophobic stereotypes. It’s a narrative that blames people for their struggles — labeling them as lazy, corrupt, unintelligent or worse — and deems them undeserving of our trust, our investment or even their own dignity.
● Remember when KING-TV reported that foster youth were being held under conditions that international human rights organizations recognize as torture in order to make them more docile and compliant when caseworkers tried to stash them in offices and cruddy group homes or institutions? The state’s child welfare “ombuds” investigated and found that KING got it right. From the story:
Some workers and teens reported … that office stays were used as a punishment for refusing placement. … “You either get a cot, the floor, or the couch,” the youth said, according to the ombuds report. “They are all uncomfortable, even the cot. Sometimes you get a blanket. They are treating us like the trash that we are.”
Needless to say the “solutions” offered up by the agency omit the only one that would actually work: not taking away so many kids needlessly.
● You would think if a family policing agency was going to march into school and demand that a child be produced on-the-spot for what the school would later call an “emergency extraction” they’d at least check to be sure they had the right student. Or perhaps, knowing how family policing agencies work, you’d be wise enough to make no such assumption.
● And in Utah, KUTV reports on the alarming amount of personal information the state health department requires just so the parent of a newborn can get a birth certificate for the child. The health department is about to merge with the department that runs family policing in Utah. And if you want to know what that might mean, just look at Allegheny County, Pa.
Wednesday, December 8, 2021
We begin with two big events:
● TODAY (Dec. 8) at 10:00 a.m. ET: “Narrowing the Front Door to NYC’s Child Welfare System: COVID-19 Lessons Learned and Charting a Path Forward.”
From the description:
In New York City, the COVID-19 shutdown forced a temporary but radical reduction in the child welfare system—halving the number of reports, investigations, and family separations, reducing surveillance of families in their schools and in their homes, and restricting support of voluntary preventive services. Early indications seem to suggest that this shutdown did not endanger children. Rates of substantiated abuse did not rise and, in fact, may have dipped; rates of substantiated neglect remained unchanged; and children stayed with their families and in their communities. We would like to take a look at this data together and see what solutions emerge.
Unlike a previous event from the same organizers, this time, when it comes to participants, the deck isn’t stacked – and the chat function will be enabled. Though geared to New York City, the lessons are likely to be applicable anywhere.
● Then on Friday, Dec. 10 at 7:00 p.m. ET: from the National Welfare Rights Union: Take Our Poverty, Not Our Children: A Human Rights Day Truth Commission.
In the news:
● Florida Politics cuts through the b.s. and gets to the heart of the problems plaguing the “child welfare” system in the Tampa Bay area – and statewide. You can probably guess what the story pointed out.
● From the “yeah, we already knew that” file: Contrary to the propaganda from the “residential treatment” industry, a meta-analysis (a study of the studies) found that for children with serious mental health problems Wraparouund services are a better option than tearing apart families and forcing the children into “residential treatment centers.” Wraparound also costs less. And this part is new: “Wraparound may hold the potential for reducing disparities in outcomes for youth of color.” To get a sense of how Wraparound works, check out this video:
● What happens when ageism meets ableism: Children are kept from a loving father and his aunt, possibly forever, thanks to an appalling court decision in Pennsylvania. I have a blog post about it.
● In that Pennsylvania case the aunt was dismissed as “elderly.” She’s 68. It’s one more example of the bias relatives can face, even though kinship foster care is clearly the least harmful form of foster care. Vivek Sankaran, in The Imprint, has some ideas about what can be done about it.
● Anna Ramirez writes in The Imprint about the trauma of losing her family – twice:
After being taken out of my birth mother’s placement at 13, my world was crushed. Not only did I lose my birth mother, whom I admire most in life, but I also lost all five of my siblings. It took me years to cope with the trauma. However, I was soon reunited with my two younger siblings. We were eventually placed with a foster family who we thought would be our new, permanent family.
The sad truth was that we were placed into a family that was neither ready for nor interested in extending their family circle. They were more interested in the benefits of having three foster children in their home and being applauded for taking on big responsibilities. These responsibilities included basic things, such as making foster children feel welcome in the home, as well as providing necessities for them.
● Wisconsin Watch is still on the case: Documenting still more examples of the enormous harm done to children by a “child abuse pediatrician.”
● And finally I’m going to steal from The Daily Show and leave you with a Moment of Zen. As you watch consider what would have happened to a Black or Native American mother who posted a video like this:
Monday, December 6, 2021
UPDATED: A Pennsylvania case illustrates again why, for children, “best interests of the child” is among the most dangerous phrases in the “child welfare” lexicon
UPDATE, DECEMBER 15, 2021: The York Daily Record has an excellent story about this case.
Two young children are taken from their mother. Their father is eager to take them in, but at the time of the removal he’s in the hospital. That’s because after he was hit by a drunk driver and confined to a wheelchair it led to medical complications that sometimes require hospitalization.
But once home from the hospital, the children still are left in foster care – with foster parents who are eager to adopt. Dad must jump through the usual hoops, but, as is so often the case, it’s never enough.
Sure, the usual “bonding evaluation” says, the children are excited to see Dad during visits. But the court focuses on the part where the evaluator complains that the children have to be the ones to initiate contact with Dad because of Dad’s “compromised mobility.”
Then there’s the matter of how long it would take Dad to get upstairs, even with a wheelchair lift in the home. Three or four minutes – that could be too late in an emergency. And while it’s true Dad’s aunt is living in the home, the court is worried because she is, to use the judge’s word “elderly.” She’s 68.
So the county wants the children taken from their father forever. They move to change the case goal for the children from reunification to adoption. The judge rubber-stamps the change with enthusiasm. An appellate court agrees. Next stop, presumably: Termination of parental rights, after which the children, now ages five and three may never see their loving father again.
But even in a system as riven with every bias under the sun this wouldn’t really happen, right? Well no* – and yes. Because, except for that one small detail, it did just happen, in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania.
Here’s the detail: Dad’s mobility isn’t compromised because he’s confined to a wheelchair. It’s compromised because of his weight. At least partly because of hypothyroidism, he weighs over 400 pounds. It was complications from his obesity that landed him in the hospital, there was no auto accident. And, of course, there’s no wheelchair. It’s the obesity that slows him down going up stairs.
Everything else, though is straight from the appellate court decision – including the children’s love for their father, and the fact that the trial court judge wrote off the 68-year-old aunt as “elderly.” I changed the one detail because so many people view obesity as both repugnant and a moral failing – apparently including the trial court judge, whose decision includes finger-wagging comments suggesting the problem is that dad lacked the willpower to embrace a healthy diet.
Even were that so, however, that still wouldn’t be grounds to keep this man’s children from him forever – or even for one day.● For starters, there’s another caretaker in the home. Apparently, as noted above, she’s ruled out because at age 68 she’s “elderly.” Presumably this also would rule out a large proportion of those providing kinship foster care, since they tend to be grandparents.
The appellate court had no problem with this. In fact, in one way the appellate court decision may be even worse. In a footnote, the judges write that
“While Father complains that the ‘Agency offered no evidence that the aunt is a threat to the children and nothing more than a helping hand[,]” Father has not offered any evidence that his aunt was an appropriate, substitute caregiver.”
But why should it be up to a father who never has himself been accused of abusing or neglecting the children, and an aunt who faces no such accusation either, to prove the aunt is suitable? Shouldn’t it be up to the family policing agency to prove she isn’t suitable? By this court’s logic, every family that decides to have grandma babysit while they go on vacation should have to go to court and get approval first – with the burden of proof on them to show grandma is “suitable.”
● Even if there were no aunt
available, the decision still is wrong.
requires that states make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together. This case is one more illustration of the fact that the law is routinely ignored. In this case, home health care should have been enough to alleviate all of the family policing agency’s concerns. And if they were still obsessing over Dad’s ability to climb stairs, how about finding the family a place to live that doesn’t have stairs? This is what affluent families do in such situations. That’s one reason why, you may be sure, rich parents don’t lose their children because of obesity.
The case also illustrates bigger problems.
● The fundamental fact of American “child welfare” is that if you’re not white and affluent the system will discriminate against you. (That’s not unique to “child welfare” of course, but the field seems to be “in denial” about it to an extraordinary degree.) Usually we see this in the form of discrimination based on race and class. But discrimination against families with physical or mental disabilities gets far less attention, even though it is just as widespread.
As Prof. Robyn Powell of Stetson University College of Law has written:
The disproportionate rate of child welfare system involvement in families headed by parents with disabilities is striking. Although children of parents with disabilities comprise only 9 percent of the nation’s youth, they make up 19 percent of the children in foster care.
The National Council on Disability—an independent federal agency that advises the President and U.S. Congress on disability policy—described the child welfare system’s bias against parents with disabilities as “persistent, systemic, and pervasive.”
Similarly, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have stated that the child welfare system’s discriminatory policies and practices toward parents with disabilities are “long-standing and widespread.”
Indeed, those two departments demanded reform from Massachusetts family policing officials for violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. They eventually reached a settlement. Similar issues have arisen in Oregon.
But the ADA rarely is raised in family policing cases. UPDATE, DEC 15, 2021: Though it is not always clear when it applies in cases involving obesity, Prof. Powell told the York Daily Record it does apply in this case. According to the story:
Under the Americans with Disability Act, the father in this case would likely be considered a person with a disability, Powell said after reading the court document.
"It seems to me that they’re discriminating against him because of the disability and not recognizing the in-home support he has," she said.
Why “best interests of the child” isn’t in the best interests of the child
This case also illustrates why one of the most common and most revered phrases in the child welfare lexicon is, for children, one of the most dangerous. The phrase, of course, is “best interests of the child.” It is an invitation for family policing agencies and courts to inflict their own biases, whether based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, disability – or weight, on a family and then confiscate and transfer children at will.
You can’t say you’re doing that, of course, but that is the practical effect or such broad, vague language in a system with no real checks and balances.
That’s always been true in American family policing, but it was made worse with the passage of the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act. The appellate court appears almost gleeful when it cites ASFA, even putting the last sentence in this paragraph in bold:
Placement of and custody issues pertaining to dependent children are controlled by the [Pennsylvania] Juvenile Act, which was amended in 1998 to conform to the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (“ASFA”) The policy underlying these statutes is to prevent children from languishing indefinitely in foster care, with its inherent lack of permanency, normalcy, and long-term parental commitment. Consistent with this underlying policy, the 1998 amendments to the Juvenile Act, as required by the ASFA, place the focus of dependency proceedings, including change of goal proceedings, on the child. Safety, permanency, and well-being of the child must take precedence over all other considerations, including the rights of the parents. [Emphasis in original, citations omitted.]
That is why, in theory, courts are not supposed to reach the issue of “best interests” until after determining birth parents are unfit. The one good thing about this decision is that it reveals what judges really do.
Even if we were to accept the judges’ reasoning, and even if we were to accept that ASFA was necessary for any of these goals – and, on the contrary, it impedes them -- in this case there was no safety issue that couldn’t be remedied with “reasonable efforts” – and possibly no issue at all. There should have been no issue of the children languishing in foster care because there was no need for them to be in foster care once the father was out of the hospital. That takes care of “permanence.” And there is nothing to indicate that tearing these children from their father forever would improve their “well-being.”
Strip away the legalese and the decision of the trial court judge in this case, in its entirely can be boiled down to: “Eeewwwww, he’s so fat. I’ll just give the kids to the people I like better.” The decision of the appellate court boils down to “We have no problem with that.”
Come to think of it, substitute “Black,” “Brown,” “Native American” “LGBTQ” or “poor” for “fat” and you have a huge body of “child welfare” caselaw.
*-That “no” might be overly optimistic. I’m not aware of a case in which children were taken from a parent forever because the parent was confined to a wheelchair, but sadly, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s happened. This post may yet be updated.
Wednesday, December 1, 2021
● WXYZ-TV in Detroit has a story about relatives who took in a one-year-old child as a kinship foster care placement, only to have the child taken with them to be placed – forever – with strangers. The story asks:
Under the law in Michigan, family members have priority to adopt their relatives. So why is the state saying the Mihailoff family can’t do that? And why was [the child] found at the home of one of the adoption agency’s employees?
You don’t suppose the second question helps answer the first?
● Think Michigan is a fluke? Then consider this strikingly similar story from the Tennessee Tribune.
● Also in Tennessee: Three children were taken from their mother because they witnessed domestic violence. Taking children on those grounds actually worsens the trauma for the children. Now, WTVC-TV in Chattanooga reports, one of the children is dead – allegedly killed by his foster mother, who subsequently committed suicide. The surviving siblings are still in foster care.
● Illinois used to be different. There was a time when that state took away children at among the lowest rates in the nation – and independent court monitors found child safety improved. A foster-care panic has wiped out much of that progress. As I explain on this Blog:
Bottom line Illinois pols and DCFS: you trashed a system that once was, relatively speaking, a leader. You vastly increased the number of children subjected to the enormous emotional trauma of needless separation – in fact, when it comes to needless family separation you vastly outperformed Donald Trump. You subjected all these children to the high risk of abuse in foster care itself. You’ve even got children sleeping in offices again.
And all that did nothing – nothing – to prevent the very sorts of tragedies that prompted you to start this foster-care panic in the first place.
● Things may be about to change for the better in Arkansas. The Imprint reports that the former leadership team at the federal Children’s Bureau – probably the most progressive team in its history, is about to step in and guide a transformation.
● Still another harrowing story of abuse – by so-called “child abuse pediatricians.” In one of the cases documented by Wisconsin Watch an obsession with child abuse, to the exclusion of the real cause of the problem, may have put a child’s life in danger.