Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Profiles in cowardice: Terrified of demagogic politicians, family police agencies in two states prolong the agony of a five-year-old and his mother.

All of the love, compassion and common decency in this case came from people not employed by family police agencies.

Massachusetts "Child Advocate" Maria Mossaides was not involved in this
case. Had she been asked, she probably would have made the right call.
But, though it wasn't her intent, she's fomented a climate of fear
that helped prolong this child's agony. 

The New York Times published a deeply reported, deeply moving story Sunday about one immigrant mother’s desperate quest to find and reunite with her five-year-old son.  It is almost a miracle that she ultimately succeeded. 

Olga fled her abusive husband in Honduras, with her seven-year-old daughter.  Her son was cared for by his grandmother – until the husband took the child by force and also made his way to the United States. 

Olga settled with a relative in Florida.  The husband wound up in Massachusetts – and the boy, Ricardo, wound up in foster care – because the father was abusing him too. 

When Olga finally tracked Ricardo down, things should have been simple.  She was a fit parent with a steady job and a good home.  Massachusetts could have reunited mother and son immediately.  But then the ugly politics of two states got in the way. 

Climate of fear 

Let’s start with the ugliness in Massachusetts.  As the Times story explains, in that state 

the child protection system was at that very moment embroiled in a cross-border custody scandal. 

It involved a 5-year-old girl named Harmony Montgomery, a ward of the state whose father, a New Hampshire resident, had sought her custody. Abiding by its internal regulations, the Massachusetts [Department of Children and Families] asked New Hampshire to approve the move under a 62-year-old agreement called the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children. But the judge disagreed with this request, considering it an infringement on the father’s right to parent his child, and did not wait for New Hampshire to respond. 

The interstate compact was created primarily to govern cross-border foster care moves. Whether it applies to fit parents has been widely debated across the country, and high courts in at least a dozen states have said it does not. 

The National Association of Counsel for Children agrees. “Applying the compact to parents who simply live out of state, when there is no finding or even allegation of wrongdoing, is unconstitutional and harmful to children,” said Allison Green, its legal director. 

But in late 2019, two years after the Massachusetts judge awarded custody to Harmony Montgomery’s father, the authorities in New Hampshire revealed that the girl was missing and presumed to be dead. 

Her shadow hung over Ricardo’s case. Nobody in the Massachusetts child-welfare system wanted to take another potentially deadly risk involving the interstate compact. 

But that climate of fear didn’t create itself.  It’s been nurtured at every turn by the state’s foremost advocate for a take-the-child-and-run approach to “child welfare,” Maria Mossaides.  She runs the state’s “Office of the Child Advocate.”  Yes, the same Maria Mossaides whose own commission studying mandatory child abuse laws rebelled and refused to accept her recommendations after they realized she hadn’t told them the whole story about these laws and their consequences. 

Mossaides has taken every opportunity to exploit the tragic death of Harmony Montgomery to undermine efforts to keep families together – and even to try to effectively silence children in court.  (In fact, Harmony Montgomery almost certainly would be alive today had Massachusetts not rushed to take her from the one person in her life who truly loved her: her mother). 

Mossaides had no direct involvement in Ricardo’s case.  I suspect had she been asked even she would have urged that the family be reunited.  But, while it never was her intent to make things worse for Ricardo, or any child, she shares a lot of responsibility for the climate of fear in Massachusetts that prolonged this family’s agony and the agony of many others who have not caught the attention of the media.  Indeed, though Massachusetts media are doing a notably better job of covering these issues in general, year after year, they still give Mossaides a free pass. 

Florida fails, too 

With Massachusetts DCF too cowardly to do the right thing, they invoked the ICPC and sought direction from its equally execrable counterpart in Florida, also called the Department of Children and Families.  They too were too cowardly to do the right thing.  As the Times story explains: 

When Olga’s advocates phoned her caseworker’s supervisor, according to Nick Herbold, the boy’s first foster father, the woman told them: “Hey, we’re in Florida. She’s undocumented. There’s no concern about the home. There’s no concern about safety with the mother. It’s just the fact that politically we cannot sign off on it.” 

And where might that come from? Again, from the story: 

Asked whether it was now Florida’s policy to refuse custody based on immigration status, Miguel Nevarez, press secretary for the state’s Department of Children and Families, neither answered directly nor denied it. “Cases regarding one’s legal or illegal status wouldn’t exist if the federal government enforced our immigration laws,” he said. 

In Olga’s case, that line of thinking trickled down to South Florida from Tallahassee, where Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill last spring that he proudly called “the strongest anti-illegal-immigration legislation in the country.” 

The people who did the right thing 

The other key lesson in this story involves who did step up – time and time again.  

Had the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families set out to deliberately traumatize Ricardo,  it couldn’t have done better than it did, with decision after decision that would have undermined his stability.  He was saved from DCF’s lousy decisions by two truly extraordinary foster parents, his teachers and his school principal.  They showed the courage, tenacity and generosity that family police agencies in two states did not. 

Indeed, in the entire story, there is no hint of compassion, caring, or sacrifice from anyone within the family policing establishment.  Please think about that the next time anyone in that establishment blathers about children’s “well-being.”