Monday, June 6, 2022

The youth the Massachusetts Child Advocate wants to silence in court

It’s one of the most common knee-jerk assumptions in family policing, (AKA “child welfare”):  A parent with a drug problem can’t possibly raise a child – and any parent who relapses has “chosen” drugs over her children. 

The assumption doesn’t apply to every parent, of course.  If you’re wealthy enough and powerful enough, you can be praised to the skies for your courage in admitting you were addicted to booze and pills, and even establish a celebrity rehab center.  If you’re poor, however, then the tabloids will call you a “druggie mom,” powerful family policing agencies can tear your children from your arms and so-called “child advocates” will only complain when they think those agencies don’t do it often enough. 

That was the message that poisons the entire report of Massachusetts “Child Advocate” Maria Mossaides concerning the tragic disappearance of seven-year-old Harmony Montgomery.  As is discussed in detail in this previous post, Mossaides goes further, making recommendations that would effectively silence young people who know that their parents took good care of them in spite of drug problems, and who know that staying with those parents is a better option than foster care. 

We’ll hear from two such young people below, but first a brief recap: 

Harmony was taken from her mother, Crystal Sorey, almost at birth.  According to the Massachusetts family police agency, the Department of Children and Families (DCF), it was because of Ms. Sorey’s drug use.  Again, as DCF tells it, Harmony was returned twice then taken again twice after Ms. Sorey relapsed.  Then the foster parents, though portrayed by Mossaides as heroes, threw up their hands and gave up on Harmony when she was, at most, five years old. 

After that, it seemed, almost everyone, including a judge overseeing the case, was so horrified at the thought that Harmony might be returned to her mother that they rushed to place her with her father in New Hampshire – without much, if any checking, on his suitability.  Harmony herself apparently wanted to go there and Harmony’s lawyer did what he was supposed to do: fight for what his client wanted, even if it wasn’t what should have happened. This is known as “expressed wishes representation.” Then Harmony disappeared.  Month after month, the one and only person who took that disappearance seriously and begged authorities to listen was Crystal Sorey – the “bad” mother.  But, probably because of the same stereotypes in which Mossaides revels, no one would listen. 

Mossaides concludes from all this that DCF, which already tears apart families at a rate 60% above the national average, should be even more aggressive about tearing apart such families and giving up on parents who relapse – even though it was the foster parents, despite all their power and privilege, who actually gave up on Harmony. 

And Mossaides wants to deny children their own voice in court.  Instead of an advocate fighting for what they want, “their” lawyer would be charged with fighting for whatever the lawyer thought was best – even if that meant fighting against her or his client.  It’s called “best interests representation.” That is an invitation to inflict the whims and prejudices of overwhelmingly middle-class and disproportionately white professionals on children and families who are neither.  In many states that’s already what happens. 

It doesn’t work out well. 

Liberty Hamilton recently told her story to a committee of the Texas legislature.  KDFW-TV reports that Hamilton had been taken from her mother after a relapse even though her mother already had placed Liberty and her siblings in the safe home of a friend. 

"I know my mom struggled with addiction, but I was always in a clean home with clean clothes," she said. "I was never hungry, made good grades, involved in sports, and my mom never missed a game." 

Hamilton and her brothers are now back living with their mother. 

"She's doing amazing," she said. 

But what happened in between was not so amazing.  As KDFW reports: 

"I was placed in foster care until June 6, 2020. It was the most traumatic experience I ever had," she said. "She would always leave pipes lying around that she used to smoke." 

Hamilton said her foster mom would sometimes not feed her and her two little brothers’ dinner, and they would go to bed hungry. "She would party all night with loud music and random guys. She would say they were just business partners," she recalled. 

It was during the pandemic, so CPS only had virtual appointments. "She forced us to lie to CPS and stood outside our room when on private calls with our mom to make sure we did not tell her anything," Hamilton recalled. 

Reading Hamilton’s story I was reminded of a similar account, by Nico’Lee Biddle in Teen Vogue.  She writes: 

By all outward appearances, I grew up in a “normal” American family. My dad worked in construction and my mom was a registered nurse. We had a four-bedroom house, a large yard, and a dog. I was a cheerleader with straight-A grades in school. But my family also had problems—our worst being that both of my parents were addicted to heroin. … 

When I look back now on my family’s experiences, I realize that the child welfare system only saw our family’s trauma and hurt, our dysfunction and abnormalities. They didn’t see parents who raised me for fourteen years, who taught me the values of honesty, education, humor, and compassion. They didn’t see that my family had lost our two biggest supporters within the prior three years; including my grandmother, who died from Leukemia mere months before I was taken into the system. The system only saw a missed appointment, or a positive drug test, and seemed to assume the worst about our lives. The system removed me first, and provided services second — after the trust was broken and the damage was done. 

In Ms. Biddle’s case, there was no reunion.  The removal to foster care broke the family. 

My mom and dad made mistakes, but they were good parents who made me feel loved every day of my life. I miss them, and every day I wish things had been different. If they would have been offered treatment before I was removed, maybe they wouldn’t have ended up in jail, and would have been in treatment sooner. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to switch schools and become part of a statistic of teens in foster care. Maybe they would be alive today, and my father could have walked me down the aisle at my wedding. With better support for them before I was removed, maybe I wouldn’t have spent seven years in foster care. 

And maybe, had Ms. Biddle and Ms. Hamilton had lawyers required to fight for what they wanted – to remain in their own homes – all that could have happened and these tragedies could have been avoided. 

But Maria Mossaides wants to make it less likely that, youth like Ms. Biddle and Ms. Hamilton who live in Massachusetts will have someone in their corner fighting for them. 

Of course not every youth with lived experience has this kind of experience.  On the contrary, some young people are, indeed, horribly abused, and sometimes what they want most is to be removed from their homes – forever.  Sometimes children are taken from truly abusive, dangerous homes and placed with excellent foster parents. These young people also deserve to have someone fighting vigorously for what they want. 

None of this means young people always should get what they want.  But, as noted in my previous post about Mossaides’ report, deciding what’s “best” is what judges are for.  And judges have the best chance at figuring out what’s best if all sides have someone fighting, vigorously, for what they want.  

Two other points: 

● The job of a child’s lawyer isn’t just to fight for a particular outcome, but to make that outcome feasible.  So if, for example, a child wants to return to a home where drug abuse genuinely remains a danger, the lawyer’s job isn’t just to say “Your honor, send this child home,” it’s to say: “Your honor, send this child home and require that the family police agency  provide whatever it takes to make the home safe.” 

● The young people I quote above are, of course, older than Harmony Montgomery.  The age at which pure “expressed wishes representation” should begin is a topic for reasonable debate.  The American Bar Association has extensive resources on this.  Even for the youngest children, however, there is an alternative to simply letting an adult substitute his whims and prejudices. It’s a complex concept called “legal interests representation” – and you can read about it here

And remember: Mossaides recommendations make no age distinction – she wants to effectively silence youth of all ages. 

Mossaides would claim she’s not trying to silence anyone.  The lawyer who decides to advocate for what he thinks is best still would be obligated to tell the judge what the client wants, even as he fights against it. 

But, as I wrote previously, suppose 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!” 

If that wouldn’t be good enough for you then it shouldn’t be deemed good enough for children.