When the State Takes Kids Away From Parents: Three Perspectives — The Atlantic

It seems there is always some sort of story in the media regarding one form of child abuse or neglect or another. Recently, I came across two such stories, one about a working mother who allowed her 9-year-old daughter to play unsupervised at a playground near her work and was subsequently arrested and her daughter put into foster care; and another, actually, about the mass shut-off of water services in an underprivileged Detroit neighborhood which brought up the fact that many don’t complain about the issue due to fears of having their children immediately removed from their homes as lack of water service is, allegedly, grounds for this in the city. These stories always hit home for me. Besides being a parent, I previously worked for Children’s Protective Services in Ohio.
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.

Thinking of the mother of the 9-year-old, I realize I am not privy to the details of the case. I understand there is a lot I don’t know. Things like, does this mom have a history of abusing or neglecting this child or other children? Did the child have any special needs that made her especially vulnerable to being unsupervised? Did the child have any other signs of abuse like severe bruising or physical injuries, or of neglect such as obvious malnutrition or chronic head lice, or any other incalculable number of things? These would no doubt make a huge impact on my opinion of the situation, but as it stands what 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. This, however, can be accomplished without removing the child from her home and certainly without arresting the mother (which, honestly, just seems asinine to me). In fact, depending on whether any other signs of abuse or neglect were present, it might not be strictly necessary to carry out a full investigation. CPS (dependent on that specific state’s statutes) may have been able to warn the mother and offer her help in finding affordable or even subsidized childcare. CPS workers generally have some latitude. Depending on the state, however, this is not always an option.

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.

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.

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. There are also community centers, schools, and friends’ and neighbors’ homes just chock full o’showers. Heck, you can use the gas station’s toilet if you need. (Just not to shower in, please.) And no, it is not ideal. It is not what we would all wish for our children. But I’ll tell you what, it’s better than being torn out of your home and away from everyone and everything you know and love. 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. Whatever.

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.

It’s something no law can fully address. Perhaps all laws are unevenly and haphazardly applied, but I can’t help but think that we really need to get this one right. The gaps in both opinion and execution of child removal laws that I see between states, counties within states, and even between a single county’s law enforcement, prosecutor’s office, and CPS workers is not only unacceptable, it’s hurting families. It’s hurting children. It’s hurting parents. It’s hurting taxpayers, foster families, and CPS workers as well. (You think it’s easy to take a screaming child away from their sobbing mother, even when it is warranted? Try it.)

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.


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