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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

Houston children living in self-storage warehouse were taken by CPS last week.  The six children of Prince and Charlomane Leonard were taken by CPS caseworkers and placed in foster care with relatives.  Read about it here (ABC News, 7/6/11). I've written before about the difficulties of being an underpaid, undertrained, overworked CPS caseworker.  Those people have to make some of the toughest calls of anyone in any job anywhere. The question always is "can this parent care for his/her children properly or are the kids in danger?"  A wrong answer one way means taking the kids from a loving parent and placing them in foster care that's known to be overall more dangerous to kids than parental care.  A wrong answer the other way can result in a dead or injured child.  How'd you like to make those choices every day? And one of the trickiest ones is knowing the difference between poverty and neglect.  Was the child left home alone because the parent didn't care or didn't know that it was a problem, or because the parent didn't have the money for a sitter?  Not much food in the fridge?  Same question.  Etc., etc.; ad infinitum. Now, when I first heard that a Houston family had six children housed in a self-storage warehouse, I wasn't the least surprised that Child Protective Services had swooped down and gotten the children out of there.  Now I think differently. That's because the storage facility I'd imagined - maybe 10 feet by 30 feet - turns out to be vastly larger than my own house.
The northeast Houston storage unit that the Leonards call home has 10,000 square feet--plenty of room for the parents and their six kids to roam around. It has air conditioning, beds, a bath tub, a microwave oven and two computers--among other amenities.
What it doesn't have is running water.  But the Leonards get that there at the warehouses.
The Leonards believe they are guilty not of breaking a law, only of having fallen on hard times. "We have access to running water," insists the soft-spoken Charlomane. "We get it right here at the storage facility, in a five-gallon drum."
The article mentions nothing about sanitary facilities, but I assume the Leonards rely on the storage units for that too.
The Texas Family Code, says Mrs. Leonard, defines physical neglect as a parent's failure to provide a child with food, clothing or shelter necessary to sustain life and health. She and her husband, she maintains, have provided all those things, notwithstanding their choice of residence. "The law doesn't say you have to have a pretty little house."
Their children, she says, "were not removed due to the breaking of any laws, but because of someone's perception of where we should reside. We are not criminals, drug abusers or child abusers, just plain old loving parents who are working hard to secure a future for our children."
In fact, Texas law exempts from the definition of "neglect" the failure to provide the necessities of life that is caused by "financial inability."  In short, it requires CPS workers to distinguish between neglect and poverty. For their part, the Leonards are certainly on hard times financially, but that may change soon.  Prince is a certified welder and he and his wife think of their situation as temporary. But whether it is or not, they do raise some pithy issues that CPS needs to address.
She and her husband have worked hard, she says, to transform the storage space into a home--one far safer, she says, than the crime- and rat-ridden apartment buildings and motels where the family had lived before. Safer, too, in her opinion, than a homeless shelter.
So, running water or not, their choice of abode makes a certain sense.  A run-down apartment with rats, drug addicts and nightly gunfire, or a clean safe storage unit without a faucet inside?  I suppose I don't have to point out that families have raised healthy children for millennia without indoor plumbing.  Few people prefer that given the choice, but it certainly can be done. The owner of the storage units made that very point.
The place where he himself grew up, Hill says, had no running water. "My grandpa's property up in Livingston had no running water, just a well with a pump, and an outhouse." Growing up that way didn't do him any harm. The Leonard's housing solution, he says, "beats living on the street."
And then there's something even more pertinent - the health and well-being of the kids.  Are they happy, healthy, clean, well-fed, properly clothed?  They seem to be in the Leonard's case and, after all, isn't that the point of "child protective services?" The owner of the storage units says the kids are great.
"I have never seen a more happy group of children. Well-mannered. Well-kempt. Their manners are better than my kids. And I live in a rich neighborhood--just a bunch of spoiled brats here."
So if the kids are alright, what are they doing in foster care?  The answer to that is the classic bureaucratic one.
The family had been living happily in storage until a CPS investigator, responding to a tip, discovered the Leonards' solution to weathering the recession and determined it to be bad for kids. Mrs. Leonard quotes the investigator as having said, "My supervisor isn't going to like this at all."
That pinpoints something that seems to be a universal truth when it comes to government bureaucracies, the iron law of CYA.  The caseworker seems to have paid less attention to the realities of the children's wellfare than to the realities of keeping his/her job. And speaking of the children's welfare, the Leonard's youngest child was still nursing when CPS took him away from his mother and father.  Mrs. Leonard says "my son was forced to wean then and there."  Nice. Just to put a cherry on top, the children were taken away one day before Fathers Day. So it goes.

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