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August 6, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

My last couple of posts have touched on issues relating to children’s welfare and safety, and the issue of what role child protective agencies should play in that. Here’s another fine piece by Conor Friedersdorf, although in truth, it’s less his work than that of the three people he called on to comment on their experiences with CPS (The Atlantic, 7/24/14). Sometimes it’s best to just allow others to speak and listen to them when they do and, to Friedersdorf’s credit, he does just that in a sensible and balanced way. A former CPS worker, a woman who credits CPS for her removal from her family and a father who was abused by the child protection system were Friedersdorf’s choices to speak out about what to do when children may, or may not be, at risk.

The first is a woman who used to work for Child Protective Services in Ohio. The key words in that last sentence may be “used to.” Her piece is so sensible and so frank that I wonder if she’d have said the same things if she were still employed by CPS. We’ve read the dubious words written by child protection workers before, and they’re not encouraging. To a person, they adopt the defensive “us versus them” attitude that finds every criticism of CPS, regardless of how well-founded, to be that of those who “just don’t understand.”

Friedersdorf’s former CPS worker is not one of those, and indeed, that insular, “Fort CPS” attitude bespeaks a culture of defensiveness that I’ve criticized before and Friedersdorf’s writer does too. Indeed, she makes a number of points I’ve made repeatedly.

Opinions usually fell into one of two predictable camps: as a CPS worker you were either accused of doing too little to protect the children involved, or of being too invasive, at best another mindless bureaucrat and at worst a power-happy sadist that got off on telling others how to raise their kids. In truth, both are often correct. I’ve seen them personally. And it’s a problem. Most workers, however, fall somewhere along the wide spectrum in between, and where they fall will be influenced more by their local inter-and-intra-agency culture than any statute.

Yep. I’ve often warned that CPS caseworkers have one of the most difficult jobs in the world and they’re asked to do it often with too little training and experience, too little pay and too many cases to do it in. Inevitably, those workers get wrong some of the trickiest and most emotionally fraught situations anyone will ever encounter. Just as inevitably, they’ll be second-guessed; they’ll be perceived (depending on who’s doing the perceiving) as either arrogant thugs wielding arbitrary power, or lazy, incompetents. And of course, when they do make the wrong call, you can bet it’ll be front-page news. Such is the job.

But to her great credit, the former CPS worker doesn’t hesitate to see those agencies the way they’re seen from the outside, and she makes no excuses. She takes two examples. The first is the well-known woman who took her kid to a playground, deposited her there and went to work at McDonalds. The mother didn’t have money for daycare and figured the little girl would be safe in the park. She was, but that didn’t stop a stranger from calling the police.

[W]hat I read is this: a 9-year-old girl was left with a cellular phone at a playground near her mother’s workplace with adequate shade and access to water. Upon learning that her mother was not present, an adult called the police. So far, I vilify neither the caller for calling nor the police for responding. It is what happens next that I strongly question. 

Apparently, the best answer to this case was to remove the child from her mother’s custody, put her in foster care, and arrest the mother. I’ll be blunt: this is insane.

I agree that an investigation to ensure the child is being cared for adequately isn’t an entirely bad idea, and I would even agree that other arrangements for the daughter’s care while mom is at work would be better…

Yet even when an investigation is opened, if a parent says that they have no access to childcare while they are at work, guess who can help? Children’s Services. Or did we forget that they are, in fact, services? That workers are Social Service Workers, not mini-cops or pseudo-judges. It’s a lot of power, to be able to remove a child from their home and family, to prohibit or require supervision of contact between family members, to legally terminate a parent’s right to their child. 

That’s telling it like it is. As others have pointed out, the idea that a mother who did what that mother did should have her child taken from her and be arrested is, exactly as the writer says, “insane.” A child who was not harmed in any way, now is. A mother who acted as responsibly as she could now has a criminal record. By all means explain to me how the behavior of the police and CPS helped anyone in any way.

And, as the Atlantic writer says, there’s the salient point that Children’s Services ought to be exactly that – services. They have information about how the mother might have done better by her daughter that they can impart to her. Maybe they can help her find low-cost childcare or some other alternative. But no, they took the most destructive approach imaginable, injuring the only two people involved.

Nor is the writer unaware of just how awesome the power of CPS is. She didn’t stop with her simple “it’s a lot of power” statement.

CPS workers and their supervisors have a staggering breadth of power, power that must be wielded with the utmost care, judiciousness, and perhaps most importantly, humility. My old boss, a man wiser than his chronological mid-thirties, laid it out for me the first week on the job. He told me that removing a child from their home is the juvenile justice system’s equivalent of the death penalty, the most extreme thing a worker can do. It’s true. There is no higher sanction in family law.

Just so. Too bad more CPS caseworkers aren’t given that precise message early on. But let’s not forget that the mother who left her daughter at the playground might have been hesitant to inform CPS that she didn’t have access to childcare while she was at work for that very reason. Face it, if you’re a single parent and you tell CPS you have no plan to oversee your kid while you’re at work every day, you’ve just issued them an open invitation to take that child from you. I’d bet good money that mother knew exactly that.

And so does the Atlantic writer. Her second example is the recent water cut-off by the City of Detroit to thousands of residents too poor to pay their bills. If you’re a CPS worker, imbued with the culture of “take first and ask questions later,” that too is an open invitation. I know this to a virtual certainty.

Remember the case in Houston I’ve written about? Three years ago a family of four fell temporarily on hard times. They ended up living in a mini-warehouse, which sounds at first blush like a terrible situation. But in fact, the warehouse was 10,000 square feet, each kid had a room replete with internet service. They had a kitchen and the whole thing was climate-controlled – cool in summer, warm in winter. What they didn’t have – like all those Detroit residents – was running water. Of course they had access to water out of a tap just across the driveway of the warehouse complex and sanitary facilities were that close as well.

Houston CPS took the kids into foster care because of the water situation despite the fact that neither of the children had been harmed in any way. As I pointed out at the time, it was only about 75 years ago that the absence of running water and indoor plumbing was the rule in the United States, not the exception. And of course that’s the way it had been for all of human history prior to that. So where did this CPS worker get the idea that lack of running water indoors by itself placed children at risk of harm? She made it plain that her decision to take the kids out of the home was strictly a CYA move. Her supervisor wouldn’t have approved of leaving them in the mini-warehouse, so…

This is why it was so personally disturbing to read about the Detroit water shut-off crisis affecting upwards of 100,000 lower income residents with past-due bills. As tragic as it is, the point that hit home for me was that so many don’t mention their problems or ask for help because they are afraid their children will be removed from their home for lack of water. Superficially this sounds, well, sound. You need water for living. But think about it more deeply and you see the ridiculousness of this policy.

I come from a rural area of Ohio where there are lots of Amish folk. The Amish, as human beings tend to do, procreate. And they live with those children in homes without any running water. I guess if they lived in Detroit their children would all be subject to removal and placement into foster care. And that would be just plain stupid. Yes, it is Detroit. There are no wells or water pumps in the front yards. But there are neighbors. Friends. Extended family with access to water. If all else fails I bet the local Target or Wal-Mart sells jugs and jugs of fresh, pure spring water just ready for the drinking, or heating and washing up in, or to use for cooking.

Of course the same was true in Houston, but CPS didn’t care. No water? It’s off to live with strangers for the children and who knows what kind of torment for the parents. And, as the writer understands, that’s exactly why those Detroit parents will never admit to CPS that their water has been cut off. Not in a million years.

Finally, the former CPS just gets it.

You see, ideal and adequate are worlds away, and one of them is a culturally propagated myth that no parent, that includes you and me, lives up to. I think it’s time we take stock of that and stop persecuting other parents because we feel inadequate, or want to assert our way of parenting as the only correct way, or just want a new scapegoat towards which to point our existential rage…

Frankly, when it comes to parenting a child other than your own, your opinions don’t matter. That is a lesson the public, parents, police and CPS workers all need to take to heart…

Child removal law, policy, and execution are there to provide for the best possible protection of children when the parent cannot or will not. But it cannot become the standard answer to every questionable situation or expected to prevent every instance of child harm. No law can do that, even one this powerful. And that power must be countered by defending and maintaining a parent’s right to raise their child in the manner they see fit. I might not like it. You may not like it, but ultimately it’s not our call. And it shouldn’t be.

And that, my friends, should be required reading for every single CPS worker in the country. In fact, they should memorize it.


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