February 24, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
In New Mexico, the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee has refused to vote on a bill that’s been called “Omaree’s Law.” That’s a good thing. The bill passed the House, but the legislative session ended without action on the bill by the Judiciary Committee and thus by the full Senate. Read about it here (KOB4, 2/20/14).
As I’ve said before, Omaree’s law, if enacted, would be a disaster for families. It would also be a disaster for the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department. And finally, it would be a disaster for the taxpayers of New Mexico. Here’s a summary of what the bill would have required:
The bill would have required the state's Children Youth and Families Department to take custody of children who showed specific signs of abuse, including burns, bruises, lacerations, broken bones and bites.
Under the proposed legislation, CYFD would hold children for 48 hours until their parents underwent a hearing.
Imagine a law that required CYFD authorities to take into foster care every child with a bruise, a cut or a broken bone. Think about your own childhood and try to tote up every time you’d have been in foster care. For me the times would have been too many to count even though my parents never abused me. The simple fact is that every child falls down, gets kicked playing soccer, crashes his/her bike, etc. The possibilities are endless as every parent knows. There is no sane argument that it is “protective” of children to remove them from their homes every time there’s a normal childhood mishap. Of course the opposite is true, given the fact that children are at far greater risk of abuse in foster care than in parental care. And that last is true even in homes in which the parents are known to be somewhat abusive.
The state is in our homes enough as it is. We don’t need to open the door even wider, which is precisely what Omaree’s Law would have done.
And speaking of the state, CYFD in New Mexico, like every other children’s protective agency in the country is dramatically underfunded and therefore understaffed. So Omaree’s Law would have required the hiring of an astonishing 4,000 new caseworkers to handle the huge volume of children being shuttled into and out of foster care to keep them away from the “danger” of playing front yard football. That’s according to legislative analysts who examined the likely impact of the bill. Pay each of those caseworkers $30,000 per year and you’ve added a cool $120 million to the budget of a small state.
But of course those 4,000 new caseworkers and that $120 million would be just part of the battle to keep up with the requirements of Omaree’s Law. What about foster families? With tens of thousands of new cases, each of them requiring the child to spend at least 48 hours away from his/her parents, how many more foster parents would need to be found, vetted for fitness and paid? Who can guess? But the number would be substantial, as would the increased tab for foster care.
Omaree’s Law was driven by hysteria about one admittedly horrible case in which a mother kicked her nine-year-old son to death. Unquestionably, it was a death that CYFD could have and should have prevented. The police fell down on the job too.
But the lesson we should learn from Omaree’s death is that it wouldn’t have been prevented by taking him into foster care for 48 hours. We know that because he’d been there before, but it didn’t prevent his death. No, tragedies like his won’t be prevented by placing every kid with a bump or bruise out of his/her house for two days. That’ll only happen when the state hires enough quality child welfare personnel and pays them enough to keep them on the job. And in New Mexico, it may require weeding out caseworkers who seem determined to keep children in the care of mothers who are known to be abusive.
And finally, caseworkers need to look to fathers as possible placements for children who are being abused or neglected. Omaree’s father was in prison at least for a while, so he may not have been an improvement over the boy’s mother. But that’s no excuse for not contacting him to find out whether he could be a better parent than the woman who was well-known to be abusive of Omaree, an illegal drug user and sometime prostitute. Until child welfare workers are trained to consider fathers before everyone else when a mother is found to be abusive or neglectful, horrors like what befell Omaree will continue to occur.
Until then, thanks to the New Mexico Senate Judiciary Committee for resisting the siren song that we hear every time a child is injured or killed by a parent. The song is the seductive one that encourages us to rely ever more on the state to care for our children. Before we do that, the state has to prove itself to be minimally competent at the job. It’s got a long way to go before it can do so.
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