August 17, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Larissa MacFarquhar at The New Yorker is to be congratulated for this fine article on the child protective and foster care systems in New York (New Yorker, 8/7/17). The piece is long and covers most, but not all of the bases. What’s most powerful about it is that it takes time to hear from most of the players in the child protective and foster care systems. It shows the situation from many points of view, it brings home the hopelessness of a governmental entity trying to make decisions about children’s care that, often enough, it’s incompetent to make.
Most importantly, MacFarquhar makes sure her readers, along with the parents, lawyers, caseworkers and judges, walk that fine – sometimes almost indistinguishable – line between poverty and child neglect. After all, again as the article makes clear, the great majority of cases seen by child protective caseworkers are about neglect, not abuse. And what is neglect and what is poverty? My guess is that few people tasked with figuring that out in any given case would do so well. Multiply that single case by the number of cases actually handled at a single time by a caseworker and you have a prescription for getting matters wrong.
MacFarquhar begins and ends with the case of “Mercedes,” a woman who grew up in a broken family, a father who was abusive and often not around. That led, as it so often does, to her becoming pregnant as a teenager. And, as abused children often do, she found abusive boyfriends with whom to have more children. Mercedes seems to never have had a place to live or a job, dragging her kids to a relative’s house, a friend’s, a shelter. And, again as so often happens, this purposeless person found purpose in her kids.
And yet, her aimless life of poverty is no way to raise those kids, however much she may love and need them. Child protection should be about children and it’s hard to read Mercedes’ story and not wonder if her children wouldn’t be better off in foster care. Keep in mind that I say this as a person who strongly advocates for parental rights and the parental care of children.
But Mercedes’ kids were placed with foster parents and, again as so often happens, things didn’t go well. A range of dysfunctional behaviors arose including psychological disorders in one child that led to him being hospitalized for long periods of time and medicated with a smorgasbord of psychotropic drugs.
Everyone in this sorry story – the judges, caseworkers, lawyers, everyone - is overworked and underpaid. That too MacFarquhar makes clear to her readers. Even if everyone could, about a single case, come to clarity and agree on what needs to be done, there are simply too many cases, too many instances of behavior that could be viewed as risky to the kids or, depending on your point of view, not so risky.
Reading the whole of her article, one comes away feeling that the governmental effort to protect children from harm is a mess, one that is very likely impossible to clean up. Seemingly the most benign of motivations can, in that dysfunctional system, turn bad for families. MacFarquhar tells of one judge in the juvenile system who worked on behalf of children and parents for decades and has been on the bench for nine years. Judge Sheldon is the very picture of a hands-on judge. She doesn’t just move her docket, she looks at every case individually, reads every report, sharply questions the claims of caseworkers. In short, she moves heaven and earth to do the best job she can for kids and families. But. what that often means is that Judge Sheldon is forever ordering services for families. What could be wrong with that? After all, what many parents, particularly poor ones, need most is someone to help them do what they can’t always do alone. But to be constantly told to go to this parenting class or that drug class or that anger management group, eventually comes to look like – and be – overwhelming interference by the government in family life. And many of the parents resent it.
Then there’s the fact that child endangerment, child neglect, child abuse tend strongly to be generational phenomena. The behavior is passed down from parent to child and, when the child grows up, to his/her children. Unsurprisingly, the poor come into this world and live much of their lives being told by one governmental agency or another what to do. So when it comes to CPS doing the same thing, a lot of people simply don’t listen, don’t care. And when parents don’t care, they tend to ignore the consequences of not doing CPS’s bidding. And that of course increases the chances of losing their kids.
MacFarquhar doesn’t cover everything, though. She mentions the Adoption and Safe Families Act and how it’s reduced the number of kids in foster care. But she fails to emphasize how it does so, i.e. by offering states hefty cash incentives to complete adoptions, often running roughshod over parents in the process.
Nor does she give sufficient time to the one person in her article who understands that the twin systems of CPS and foster care are at war with parents, that they wield terrifying power that can intimidate virtually anyone, much less uneducated parents without the money to hire competent counsel.
The reckless destruction of American families in pursuit of the goal of protecting children is as serious a problem as the failure to protect children,” Martin Guggenheim, Sherman’s former colleague, says. “We need to understand that destroying the parent-child relationship is among the highest forms of state violence. It should be cabined and guarded like a nuclear weapon. You use it when you must.”
That’s true, but it’s also all MacFarquhar has to say on the subject. And that’s not nearly enough.
While she effectively conveys the trauma inflicted on kids of being taken from their parents, MacFarquhar nowhere delves into the consequences of that trauma and of being raised in foster care. On average, foster care is worse for kids than parental care. That should have been a big part of her article.
Those shortcomings aside, MacFarquhar’s piece is a fine one. She puts her readers squarely in the mess we’ve made of the government’s attempt to protect kids who may or may not be at risk. It’s a frustrating read, as it should be. After all, the child protective system offers no easy answers.
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