Friday, May 27, 2022

Power, privilege, and passing judgment in “child welfare”: The Massachusetts “Child Advocate” gets it wrong again

Massachusetts "Child Advocate" Maria Mossaides

Consider the relative positions and power of two women in Massachusetts. 

Crystal Sorey is the mother of Harmony Montgomery, a child who was taken from her because of her illness – drug use - and ultimately placed with her father.  Harmony was last seen toward the end of 2019.  We still might not even know that Harmony is missing were it not for her mother’s persistence in demanding answers. 

Sorey grew up in poverty. She has no power and no privilege in our society.  What she does have is a love for her daughter that prompted her to fight for that daughter when no one else would.  But the same biases that led to Crystal Sorey losing custody made her less credible to those with the power and privilege to act – so for a long, long time, they didn’t.  You can read about Ms. Sorey’s fight for her daughter in this excellent story from The Boston Globe. 

Maria Mossaides is a woman of enormous power and privilege.  She is the state’s “Child Advocate,” and before that ran a prestigious private agency specializing in adoption and foster care.  She has repeatedly misused her power and privilege.  Like most people in “child welfare” her intentions are good.  But she so misled a commission she chaired on mandatory child abuse reporting that commission members declared themselves “shocked” “surprised” and “taken aback” to learn that there is a vast body of scholarship holding that mandatory reporting backfires.  

Mossaides further misled the commission when she claimed that failure to comply with the mandatory reporting requirement in the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act would cost the state $400 million.  In fact, it might cost, at most, $1.5 million – and the state would save more than that in reducing needless investigations and foster care. 

Yet we live in a society where, somehow, people like Maria Mossaides are empowered effectively to sit in judgment of people like Crystal Sorey.  In a report on Harmony’s case, Mossaides exercises that judgment ruthlessly.  As she has before, she embraces the Big Lie of American child welfare – that child safety, or the even broader, more amorphous and biased standard of child “wellbeing” - and family preservation are opposites that need to be “balanced.”  And in a state that already tears apart families at a rate more than 60% above the national average, Mossaides issues recommendations that, if enacted, would further escalate needless removals and needless foster care – and increase the chances of more tragedies such as the disappearance of Harmony Montgomery. 

Ratcheting up the Big Lie 

Typically advocates of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare – the one that has dominated Massachusetts “child welfare” for decades and the one Mossaides still doesn’t think goes far enough – falsely frame the issue as a matter of “child safety” vs. “family preservation.” 

That is bad enough because it ignores the enormous emotional trauma of foster care placement and it ignores the high rate of abuse in foster care itself.  The Big Lie encourages massive needless removal of children – which overloads systems and leaves them less time to find the few children in real danger.  In short, it makes all vulnerable children less safe. 

But Mossaides makes clear she wants children torn from their families even when they are not in danger.  She wants them taken whenever their parents don’t live up to her determination of what will promote the child’s “wellbeing.” 

So Mossaides rushes to use this horror story to draw broad-brush conclusions declaring that if everyone in Massachusetts doesn’t accede to her demands 

the OCA fears that the errors in Harmony’s case will be repeated and children’s wellbeing will not be elevated to be on equal footing to the consideration parent’s current fitness. … The OCS is concerned that too often in Massachusetts legal practice parental rights are given significantly more weight than the child’s best interests or welfare 

The problem, of course, is that terms such as “wellbeing” and “best interests” mean whatever powerful people want them to mean  - and that means wellbeing is likely to mean: The parents are richer.  They live in a nicer neighborhood. They can send this child to better schools.  So really, let’s just take away all those poor kids – especially the ones whose parents can’t afford ritzy private treatment for their drug problems – and place them with people more like us – nice, middle-class strangers. 

There is, in fact, a place for government in assisting with children’s wellbeing. Government can provide voluntary help to their families, especially financial help for better housing and high-quality childcare.  When the issue is substance use that compromises the safety of a child, government can provide intensive in-home drug treatment.  When a child has special medical needs, as Harmony Montgomery does, government can be sure that families have the resources they need to provide for such needs.  (In contrast, Mossaides implies that an inability to provide for such needs in itself might be grounds to take away a child forever – the very approach for which Massachusetts recently was sanctioned by the federal government.)  

But government should never be allowed to become the Wellbeing Police.  That is an invitation to confiscate children who are poor, or who are nonwhite, or who don’t conform in some other way to a picture-postcard vision of white, affluent America.  (Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s persecution of transgender children is being done in the name of promoting their “wellbeing.”) Indeed, the case of Harmony Montgomery itself illustrates the pitfalls of Mossaides’ approach. 

Though there is much focus on the failings of Harmony’s father, very little is said about Crystal Sorey.  We are simply told that Harmony was torn from her, almost at birth, then reunited, then placed in foster care again, then reunited, then placed in foster care a third time. 

What can we conclude from this? Mossaides clearly wants us to write Crystal Sorey off as what the tabloids love to call a “druggie mom.”  Indeed, her report implies that any child who has a parent who relapses or is at risk of relapse should lose their parents forever.  According to her report: 

It appears the permanency goals for Harmony did not consider the recurring nature of substance use disorder.  … The challenges Harmony’s parents both faced with substance use disorder, and the possibility of relapse, were not balanced by the vulnerability of a very young child, with physical limitations, and her own increasing behavioral health needs. 

But we know nothing about why Crystal Sorey relapsed or what a competent agency (which the Massachusetts family police agency, known as the Department of Children and Families, clearly is not) could have done to prevent it.  Nor is there any discussion of other options during periods of relapse such as having friends or relatives step in to help the entire family.  And there’s certainly no mention of doing what rich parents do all the time: buy private drug treatment.  Had she been around at the time, can you imagine Maria Mossaides recommending that a drug addict like former First Lady Betty Ford have her children taken forever because of the risk of relapse? 

But since Crystal Sorey is not wealthy or powerful, Mossaides argues that DCF should have rushed to terminate parental rights, so Harmony could have been adopted by her foster parents, the strangers who cared for her each time she was removed from her mother.  She makes this case oblivious to the fact that her own report illustrates its fundamental flaw: The factor known as love. 

The same foster parents Mossaides portrays as saints, the ones who could have supposedly provided Harmony with a permanent, loving home, actually gave up on Harmony when the going got rough.   That’s not how Mossaides puts it – she sugarcoats it and, in effect, blames Crystal Sorey: 

While the foster parents provided exceptional care and were committed to Harmony, with each subsequent placement the scope and depth of her behavioral and emotional needs grew. The foster family felt that after Harmony had been removed from Ms. Sorey’s care for the last time, they were no longer able to provide for her increased needs. Several months into her third placement, Harmony’s foster parents determined that it was in Harmony’s best interest to be placed in a therapeutic foster home where she would receive the specialized and dedicated attention she needed. It is evident in the record this was an extraordinarily difficult decision for the foster parents as they consistently expressed their love for Harmony. 

And so, Mossaides concludes  

A decision to explore adoption for Harmony should have been pursued earlier. The delays in achieving Harmony’s permanency resulted in emotional trauma, which led to the disruption of her pre-adoptive foster placement. 

Strip away the treacle and what do you have: Strangers who loved Harmony when it was easy and gave up when it got hard.  And they did that even though they almost certainly possessed more material advantages than Crystal Sorey. 

This is a common pattern.  It’s why research shows that when foster care really is needed placements with relatives are more stable, and safer than placements with strangers.  Relatives also are less likely to demand that their kinship foster children be placed on potent psychiatric medication to make them easier to manage. 

Why? Because when you love someone you put up with stuff you might not tolerate from a stranger.  And keep in mind, Harmony’s foster parents weren’t dealing with a rebellious teen.  They decided to stop caring for Harmony when she was no more than five years old. 

This is, in fact, a splendid illustration of why imposing the Maria Mossaides “wellbeing” standard is
bad for children.  You can measure a dirty home.  You can count the number of relapses.  It’s a lot harder to measure love. 

And for anyone who says: How could Crystal Sorey love her children if she had a drug problem? Again, I have two words: Betty Ford. 

Of course, Mossaides assumes that the cause of Harmony’s behavior problems was the failure to get her mother out of her life sooner.  In fact, it may have been the fact that DCF kept taking her away from her mother. 

What Mossaides really is doing is exploiting a tragedy to take a position that boils down to: affluent white people with overactive rescue fantasies should be free to swoop into any home and tear the children from their parents whenever they think those children’s “wellbeing” would be better in some other home. 

Undermining children’s voice in court 

To understand the extent to which Mossaides proposes to undermine the rights of children – in the name of children’s rights – imagine the following scenario.  You are on trial for murder.  Your lawyer gets up to make an opening statement to the jury.  “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” she says, “my client maintains he is innocent and wants you to acquit him – but I think he’s guilty as sin and you should throw the book at him!” 

That’s probably not what you’d want to hear from your own lawyer.  But that’s what Mossaides wants the state to require lawyers for children in Massachusetts to do.  

Currently, lawyers in Massachusetts representing children old enough to express a rational preference are required to do what any other lawyer would do: Fight for what their client wants.  Of course, that’s not because children are always right.  But deciding what is right for a child in these circumstances is what judges are for.  And, as in any other legal proceeding, judges are most likely to make the right decision if all sides have lawyers fighting for what their clients want. 

But Mossaides said children should be stripped of this kind of vigorous advocacy whenever the lawyer happens to think that what the child wants is contrary to the child’s “wellbeing.”  Then lawyers should tell judges what their clients want – and why the lawyer personally thinks it’s a bad idea. 

Why does Mossaides want to do this?  Because at one key court hearing during the horror story case of Harmony Montgomery her lawyer followed Harmony’s wishes and advocated – successfully - for placing her with her father.  In Mossaides’ world, it seems, all public policy should be guided by horror stories. 

And even in Harmony’s case, there already was a lawyer advocating against placing Harmony with her father – the lawyer for the Department of Children and Families.  

Mossaides says that Harmony’s lawyer did a good job, while DCF’s lawyer did a bad job.  But instead of suggesting that, say, Massachusetts stop dragging so many families needlessly into court so DCF lawyers have more time to prepare carefully, she argues that every child’s own lawyer should undermine their own clients’ whenever the lawyer’s personal view is that the child should not be placed with a parent.  

Mossaides also has an alternative idea which would be as bad or worse. She supports a proposal by Gov. Charlie Baker to require that, in addition to a lawyer, a child be appointed a so-called guardian ad-litem.  The GAL’s job would be to do her or his own “investigation” and advocate for whatever s/he thinks would be best for the child’s wellbeing.  In other words, they’re like Court-Appointed Special Advocates but with salaries.  We’ve seen the result of that: Study after study makes clear that CASAs, overwhelmingly white and middle class, impose their biases on families who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite. Studies find that CASA actually prolongs foster care, increases the likelihood that children will “age out” of foster care with no home at all and reduces the chances of reunification.  The program has been aptly described as “an act of white supremacy.” 

So of course, Mossaides wants what amounts to CASA on steroids, so every child can have someone in the courtroom ready to ignore an impoverished mother’s love for a child in favor of those foster parents with their beautiful home in a good school district. 

Mossaides also appears unaware of an irony detailed in her own report.  It appears that one reason so many in the process, possibly including the judge, were so anxious to rush ahead with placing Harmony with her father was their fear that if they didn’t, she might wind up back with her mother – and, clearly, we wouldn’t want that!  The very stereotypes and biases about mothers with substance use issues that  Maria Mossaides reinforces in her report may have contributed to the tragedy she now deplores. 

Another stacked-deck commission 

After lamenting that her office has no authority to examine the performance of the judiciary – and proceeding to do so anyway – Mossaides suggests creation of a “working group” to examine her concerns and ratify her conclusions.  That’s not how she puts it, of course, but it’s pretty close. 

She wants the working group to “Map how a child’s welfare and best interest considerations are currently presented in Care and Protection cases and what changes may be needed to that a parent’s rights are appropriately balanced with a child’s needs.” 

Thus, from the get-go, the working group is to assume that “parents' rights” and “child’s needs” are at odds and inappropriately balanced – again, in a state that already tears apart families at a rate more than 60% above the national average.

The Massachusetts State Senate already has passed a bill to create such a group. 

In other words, Mossaides wants a repeat of the mandatory reporter commission, in which it was simply assumed at the outset that mandatory reporting should be expanded and the only question was how.  Fortunately, the members of the commission caught on and ultimately refused to let Mossaides mislead them. 

In a just world, a working group would be convened with a very different charge: It would be a truth commission, in which families destroyed needlessly by DCF – with the never-ending encouragement of Maria Mossaides – finally got a chance to be heard.  The children torn needlessly from everyone they knew and loved could speak out about what happened to them.  And, her good intentions notwithstanding, Maria Mossaides would finally be called to account for the harm the approach she advocates has done to children in the name of “saving” them. 

In short, in a just world people like Crystal Sorey finally would have the chance to judge people like Maria Mossaides.